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Synod: Credit unions

18 July 2014

THE proposed new Churches Mutual Credit Union (CMCU) was the subject of a presentation by Canon Antony MacRow-Wood, Team Rector of the Poole North Ecumenical Team, who chairs the credit union's board; and Hilary Sams, the chief executive designate of the new organisation.

"I first had conversations about a clergy credit union in 1995 . . . and as a result leafleted all clergy in Bristol diocese, about 200. I only had ten replies, half of which said they had no interest in joining a trade union," Canon MacRow-Wood said. "Clearly, the time was not right."

Work on the Anglican Mutual Credit Union began in 2012. The name was changed in 2013, after a conversation between Archbishop Welby and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Revd Albert Bogle, "which led to this becoming a joint venture. . . In recognition of our covenant with the Methodists, they were invited to join, and there is every intention of including other denominations in due course."

Canon MacRow-Wood explained that the CMCU would initially serve clergy and office-holders on the Churches' payrolls; and would be opened up to "all active church members" five years after its launch. The CMCU would "offer a number of products with competitive rates both for savers and borrowers", Ms Sams said. "The money one vicar invests in the credit union will enable a vicar in another parish to drive around in a new car. The interest they pay on that loan will enable the credit union to add to the first person's retirement pot, and so the money goes round."

The CMCU was continuing to work towards achieving formal authorisation. This included "having raised sufficient opening capital, demonstrating you have sufficient skills and expertise to run the credit union, that you have a business plan that stacks up, and the systems and controls in place to ensure smooth operation, coupled with appropriately qualified staff, Canon MacRow-Wood said.

A question-and-answer session followed.

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) asked whether there was a rating system for credit unions, and, if so, where the CMCU would fit into it.

The Revd Dr Meg Gilley (Durham) was concerned about the im-pact of this new credit union competing with existing credit unions in poor areas, such as her parish.

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) asked what part the CMCU would play in financial education, beyond simply encouragement to save, and awareness of credit unions.

Canon MacRow-Wood answered that he was not aware of a rating system for credit unions. "Building societies are not excluded from the work of the taskforce." It was on the agenda, but was not a priority. The school curriculum was being altered already to include budgeting, and credit unions could reinforce that with a practical example for children, he said. The vision for ten to 15 years was for credit unions to be an established part of the financial sector, using their advantage of not having to pay external shareholders.

Ms Sams said that, when she ran a credit union, about 80 per cent of her members were in work, and had good savings. "Everyone can benefit from having savings, affordable credit, and financial education."

The Ven. Christine Hardman (Southwark) asked: "How is the Church, through the CMCU, going to help put pressure on the banks to make the whole thing viable?"

Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) asked how credit unions could help those who would normally go to payday lenders; they often had chaotic lives, and would rarely be members of a credit union.

Cllr Robin Lunn (Worcester) asked whether the CMCU had reached out to financial advisers to help them change the culture of lending and borrowing.

Canon MacRow-Wood answered that the Archbishop of Canterbury's task force was already actively engaging with the financial sector, which was not really a CMCU issue. Ms Sams said that it was difficult to make credit unions offer exactly the same service as payday lenders. Credit unions could not compete in giving small loans, but could train people not to need short-term loans by anticipating their expenditure.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, asked whether the Union was working with other organisations addressing debt, particularly Christians Against Poverty (CAP).

Penny Allen (Lichfield) sought an explanation about the relationship between the Credit Union and the Williams and Glyn's Bank.

The Dean of Southwark, the Very RevdAndrew Nunn (Southwark), wanted to know how the Union would be "future-proofed", so that it would not go the way of the demutualised building societies.

Canon MacRow-Wood said that the Union was not actively in partnership with CAP, but was "trying to set up a flagship credit union that raises the profile of credit unions, and demonstrates that they are for everybody". Nobody could guarantee against demutualisation, but it was a matter of "sticking to your values and keeping your members involved in those values."

Sue Myatt (Deaf Church Conference) asked what would be done to ensure that the Union was acceptable to those with disabilities.

The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, sought reassurance that credit unions would not encourage debt.

The Revd George Newton (Guildford) was in the process of starting a branch of a credit union. He would love it to have been a church credit union: "Is there any way of expanding further so we can serve our parishioners rather than be served?"

Responding to questions,Ms Samssaid that the union would do everything possible to be "accessible to everyone from all walks of life".

Canon MacRow-Wood suggested that clergy and church employees formed a "natural mutual society". The Union offered a way of "managing the peaks and troughs of expenditure", and a means of "tax-efficient saving". The plan was eventually to open the union to all church members.

Ms Sams said that credit unions offered the "best-case scenario for borrowing money, and taking responsibility for their finances".

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