IT HAS been a varied ride in recent weeks for those
who think that the Church plays an important part in public life.
Jubilation over the positive reception for the Bishop of Durham,
the Rt Revd Justin Welby, as the next Archbishop of Canterbury
turned to dismay at the media carnage that followed the General
Synod's vote against the women-bishops Measure (News, Media, 16 and
But now Bishop Welby's decisive intervention in the
House of Lords on capping the inordinate interest rates charged by
payday-loan companies has put the Church back in the spotlight as
a relevant voice on the economy (News,
30 November). Rather than resting on our laurels, though, it is
time now more than ever for local churches to respond, and to build
a movement that speaks powerfully to a society desperate for new
Almost all the media commentators seem to agree
that it was Bishop Welby's support that swayed the amendment on
capping payday loans:The Daily Telegraphcorrectly predicted before
the debate that "the amendment - with the backing of Bishop Welby
and other senior bishops who sit in the Lords - has every chance of
succeeding," and The Guardian afterwards gave prominent
place to the Archbishop-designate's speech.
AFTER this well-done job, it is tempting to think
that the battle is over, and the Church can quietly get on
with other business. This would be a huge mistake. What the Lords
have won is nothing more than the power for the new regulator, the
Financial Conduct Authority, to cap the cost of credit,should it
decide that this would be beneficial.
A study by researchers at the University of Bristol
is scheduled to be published in the next few weeks, will almost
certainly scare-monger about the dangers of a cap's driving people
to illegal loan sharks. This is despite the evidence from other
countries (such as Japan, and Florida in the United States, which
have already tried something similar) that such a problem is
highly unlikely if the cap is part of a wider package of reforms
which boosts sustainable alternatives such as credit unions.
Bishop Welby may have helped to open a space for
serious discussion about the lack of affordable credit in our
poorest communities, but the war against the exploitative
practices of Wonga and others is far from won. Such companies will
spare no expense to make interest rates of more than 4000 per cent
APR seem like a normal and necessary response to people falling on
In this struggle, the Church has the extraordinary
weapon of its rich tradition on the moral limits of the market, and
what it is and is not acceptable to do with money. Bishop Welby's
speech to the Lords drew on the scriptural theme of usury, arguing:
"It used to be said in the old days that you couldn't take away
people's beds and cloaks because they were essential for life. That
is the Hebrew scriptures. Today, there are equivalent things being
taken away as a result of these very high rates of interest."
He could just as easily have quoted from other
biblical passages, such as Nehemiah's story of a reckoning with
the Israelite élites, after they were found to have been exploiting
their kinsmen by charging excessive interest.
A NEW campaign, "Just Money", illustrates one way,
among others, of using this tradition at a grass-roots level. Run
by the Contextual Theology Centre, and Citizens UK - the
organisation behind the Living Wage (Comment, 16 November) - the
campaign has launched a series of "Money Talks" events in churches
and community organisations. These are designed to gather the
stories of everyday experiences of financial institutions, such as
banks, payday lenders, and credit unions.
These testimonies have already proved poignant. One
lady in Stoke Newington spoke of being forced to pay off
£3000-worth of Wonga debts accumulated by her granddaughter.
Another parishioner, from Hackney, said that his credit-card
company was being taken over. He had found in the small print
that his interest rate was being almost doubled as a
This listening exercise is being followed up by
"Money Walks" initiatives, when churches join together to check
for themselves on the state of financial provision in their area.
The first of these, in Bethnal Green, east London, found seven
betting shops, four pawnbrokers, and five payday lenders, before
they reached the solitary credit union in the area. The campaign
is hoping for more headlines, as the energy and anger from this
research are translated into action for constructive
To build support for these kinds of activities, the
Contextual Theology Centre and the Church Urban Fund have produced
a joint Lent course for 2013, which focuses on how a church can
respond to the economic situation in its com-munity.
Initiatives such as this, which can connect the great
resource of the parish system with the clear leadership coming from
the top of the Church of England, have to be replicated by similar
efforts across the wide range of issues that the country is facing
in these tough times. The alternative - a slow and painful decline
into irrelevance - is not worth contemplating. The Church must take
up the challenge with which Bishop Welby's bold actions have
David Barclay is the Faith in Public Life Officer
at the Contextual Theology Centre. Tim Bissett is the CEO of the
Church Urban Fund.
The two organisations have pro-duced tools for
theological reflection and action on the economy (www.theology-centre.org; www.cuf.org.uk).