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Synod: Church Commissioners

18 July 2014

THE Synod received a presentation on the Church Commissioners' annual report.

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, said that he had "never felt so confident as I feel today", after 12 years in post. During that time, the Commissioners had moved from maintenance to growth. He said that this had included the creation of the joint body of Church Commissioners and the Archbishops' Council focusing on mission initiatives, the funding of a study of factors influencing church growth, and the "famous four task groups", which would pose questions "about the way in which we make our funds available".

He also spoke of the recent criticisms of the conduct of big businesses. "I think it has always been like that, but we didn't know a lot."

He praised the engagement work of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) as having "a strong influence".

On the Commissioners' financial results,he described 2013 as "an extremely good year". The assets had exceeded £6 billion for the first time, and 2014 "isn't turning out too badly".

Responding to a question from Penny Allen (Lichfield), he said that plans for the new Williams and Glyn's bank were progressing. The Commissioners were the largest shareholder, and their ethics adviser was being seconded to the bank for one day a week. "As part of the good bank principles, Williams and Glyn's will be sensitive to its community duties," he said. It was "perfectly possible" that local credit unions might be given floor space in the branches, and could also be included in parts of the bank's literature.

The vice-chairman of the House of Laity, Tim Hind (Bath & Wells), asked about consultation with local communities when land was used for "lots of development work", as was happening in parts of Somerset.

Mr Whittam Smith said that the Commissioners had "lots of land all over the country, some of which is on the edge of growing settlements and may be put forward for housing developments". The procedures for getting permission for converting farmland into housing land involved extensive engagement with local authorities.

The bonus paid to the Commissioners' investment director was raised by Pamela Bishop (Southwell & Nottingham), who asked whether paying such large amounts to one person was contrary to the common good, and risked reputational damage to the Church. She said that the investment director received a bonus of £94,000, which took his total salary to £345,000 for the year.

"I can do nothing more than accept that it is a very high sum of money," Mr Whittam Smith said, It was "essential to have the very best that we could find". The investment director "has brought enormous benefit, and I have to say that I don't regret a penny of what he receives."

Timothy Allen (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) spoke about apparent contradictions in the recent disposal of the Commissioners' investment in the payday lender Wonga. Mr Whittam Smith said that he was unable to go into details, but said that it was very difficult to disentangle Wonga from the pooled investment; but that "in the end, it suited the pool that we should exit, and we were provided with a route [to] get out."

Welcoming the support of the Revd Ian Bishop (Chester) for the Commissioners' support for church growth in deprived areas, Mr Whittam Smith said it was "one of the best things that we and the Archbishops' Council had done". He had discovered that "contrary to what I thought, no area was too difficult," and that "churchmanship didn't seem to matter as far as success or failure are concerned."

Mr Whittam Smith told Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) that he wanted to wait until the EIAG had completed "two or three different pieces of work" before he commented on issues of fracking and climate change.

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