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Building a fairer money system

07 December 2012

Churches can continue the campaign for financial justice, say David Barclay and Tim Bissett

Campaigning: a religious groups from London Citizens outside RBS HQ

Campaigning: a religious groups from London Citizens outside RBS HQ

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 23 November).

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 direction. 

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 hard times.

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 result. 

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 change. 

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 presented us. 

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).

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