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Exploitative finance: the next steps

06 December 2013

Angus Ritchie assesses progress on payday loans, and looks to Christians' future action


Campaign: the Citizens UK Living Wage Assembly in Methodist Central Hall

Campaign: the Citizens UK Living Wage Assembly in Methodist Central Hall

WHEN church leaders speak out on political issues, they face a range of challenges. They need to avoid becoming pawns in the Westminster game; but they also need to do justice to the legitimate range of Christian views on politics and economics. It is useful, too, to try to avoid seeming like well-meaning windbags - full of pious aspirations, but without the power to make anything happen.

The continuing economic crisis is a case in point. At times (most notably during the Occupy camp outside St Paul's Cathedral), it has seemed as if the Church was caught in the headlights - stuck in introspection and infighting at the very moment when the wider society was turning to it for some guidance.

What was frustrating for many Christians was that the debate about the camp obscured the work that was going on in our inner cities. The reality of local engagement - of churches' working with people of other faiths and none on precisely these issues - was at odds with the public image.

Last week, we saw the public image brought a little closer to reality. As George Osborne announced a cap on payday lending, it emerged that the Archbishop of Canterbury had played a crucial part in persuading the Government into this change of heart (News, 29 November).

The achievement of this cap has shown Christian public action at its best. Like the Living Wage campaign, it began with patient work at the local level. Indeed, it came four years to the day after churches, mosques, and synagogues in Citizens UK presented their demand for a cap on loan costs to the Treasury spokespeople of each of the main parties. 

AS ANDREW BROWN observed in a Guardian blog, earlier this year, the Church of England continues to have a unique capacity to bring these grassroots perspectives into the national debate: "Bishops with experience as parish priests will almost all have worked among the poor and homeless, and many will have lived in parts of the city where there are no other middle-class professionals. With Westminster so dominated by a small range of professions and perspectives, Archbishops Welby and Sentamu have helped some very different voices to be heard."

Politicians of all stripes continue to claim that reducing inequality is a priority. As David Cameron argued in 2009: "We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it."

For the Church to speak out is not to become a pawn in the political debate. It is to hold politicians to their own words, and (more importantly) to the words of the Gospels.

ALL too often in our tired political discourse, state action and free-market economics are held up as the only alternatives. Locally and nationally, the Church provides an alternative vision. This is beginning to capture the imagination of people far beyond its walls.

Great work is being done by many churches in this field. Examples of this are given in a new report, God and the Moneylenders, which also offers some pointers to further action. It argues that a cap on interest rates is only part of the solution, and there are other areas on which churches and individual Christians are also taking a lead.

These include:

addressing the underlying gap between what many households need to live with dignity and the income they receive: the Living Wage Campaign is an obvious way to ease the pressure here, but changes in the benefits system also need to be closely monitored.

Too often, the national political debate floats free of the impact of such changes on households. Because of its local reach and national voice, the Church of England is in a unique position to bring these two closer together.

Providing money-management courses to those in debt - and beginning early: Citizens UK's "Money Mentors" programme is an example of local residents taking responsibility for teaching their young people about finance. Through organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, many churches are now offering much-needed financial coaching, counselling, and education.

Supporting credit unions, to place face-to-face relationships, and habits of saving as well as borrowing, at the heart of our financial systems. Different credit unions are at different stages of development; so it is important for Christians to get to know the one in their area, in order to work out how best to support it.

The Contextual Theology Centre is working with a number of dioceses to pilot a Churches' Credit Champions Network, which will help local churches to discern the most effective responses.

Establishing new forms of social enterprise: "out-competing Wonga" will require loans to payday borrowers whom the credit-union movement is not yet able to reach.

Work is already under way to establish not-for-profit Christian social enterprises, which can compete with high-street lenders on accessibility and speed - but which also offer directions for lower-income adults towards long-term solutions to credit dependency. Such solutions include active membership in the credit-union sector (as it expands), and financial coaching, counselling, and education. 

SUCH proposals cut across the usual political dividing lines between those who always want state action, and those whose response to every problem is individualistic. They embody the unique perspective that faith brings into public life - of human beings called to both personal and social transformation in Jesus Christ.

Most excitingly of all, they are not just proposals. Congregations and individual Christians are already taking action on all four fronts. They remind us that there is much more that we can do, especially to build on the successes of the past two weeks - and to make a lasting impact on the scourge of exploitative lending. 

Canon Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre, east London. God and the Moneylenders is online at theology-centre.org/sharing/research.

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