SIX months after the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he
wanted to "compete Wonga out of existence", the Church of England's
plans to boost credit unions are taking shape.
On Thursday of last week, a former head of the Financial
Services Authority (FSA), Sir Hector Sants, was named as the
chairman of the Archbishop's task group on credit unions and the
Meanwhile, research by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) released this
week suggested that the Church's vocal backing for credit unions
was having an impact in congregations. The survey, conducted in
November and December last year, found that churchgoers were twice
as likely as others to support credit unions.
Sir Hector, who was previously the chief executive of the FSA
and then Barclays' head of compliance and regulatory affairs, has
accepted an invitation from Archbishop Welby to chair his
committee, tasked with developing the Church's support for credit
The group also includes the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd
Adrian Newman, who worked as an economist before joining the
clergy. Representatives from the credit union industry and banking
sector are also on the panel.
The leader of the credit-union initiative is the Church's
Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown.
He said on Monday that much of the groundwork had been put in place
since Archbishop Welby hit the headlines last year (News, 26 July).
"One of our aims was to get the Churches' Mutual Credit Union
off the ground," he said. "We have drawn in some more capital and
joined with the Church of Scotland. We are looking to launch it at
General Synod in July."
Dr Brown said that a large part of the challenge was to convince
churchgoers that credit unions were not just charity for poor
people, but something that the well-off should also become involved
in. "We are trying to get the conversations going about what is
possible," he said.
"A lot of these conversations have begun, but turning them into
facts on the ground? I wouldn't expect that at this stage. Justin
Welby has been talking about a ten-year plan."
The national debate sparked by the Church's support of credit
unions was a vital first step in ex- panding community finance, Dr
Brown said. "There are parts of the country where you cannot
physically get to a bank or a free ATM," he said.
"Credit unions have a tremendous role in those areas. But the
paradox is that the best way to help the hard-pressed poor areas is
to get buy-in across the social classes. It's only by becoming
normal that we will get the credit unions which can reach those
areas where the banks have walked away."
Dr Brown said that, because of the culture of volunteering in
the C of E, asking parishioners to back credit unions was "pushing
at an open door". "A lot of credit unions have volunteers already
working with them who are also members of their church. We want to
expand on that existing linkage," he said.
The CUF research found that almost half of those surveyed -
which included non-Christians - backed the idea of churches raising
awareness of credit unions and allowing them to use church
premises. The survey also suggested that four in five people
believed that payday lenders exploited those who did not have
access to cheaper forms of credit.
More and more people are reported to be struggling with personal
debt. The charity Christians Against Poverty, which runs 239
debt-counselling centres in churches around the UK, said that more
people contacted them in the first week of 2014 than ever before in
a single week.
Another strand of Archbishop Welby's vision was to push the
broader financial sector towards supporting community finance
initiatives, such as credit unions. Dr Brown said that the
appointment of Sir Hector would help progress this.
"The task group is going to capitalise on the Church's moral
authority," he said. "The Archbishop is . . . not coming from
within the sector but he can help mobilise the resources of the
Dr Brown also said that Sir Hector was one of hundreds of people
from the financial industry who had contacted the Church to offer
their support in promoting sustainable finance.
Archbishop Welby's intervention last year was undermined by the
revelation that the Church Commissioners had invested in Accel
Partners, a private-equity firm that helped to launch the payday
lender Wonga (News, 26
July). In a statement, the Church Commissioners Assets
Committee said that they were still investigating how to dispose of
"Due to the challenges involved, the timing of this disposal is
uncertain and may take place some time in the future," the
statement said. "The shares in Wonga are held in a venture capital
fund. We cannot sell the shares without having to sell the majority
of our total venture capital exposure, which is difficult because
of the long-term nature of venture capital investment."
The committee said that they needed to have more flexibility in
removing particular investments from their portfolio in the future.
They said that they were conducting a review to ensure that the
Church's National Investing Bodies "adhere to the highest ethical
standards in selecting and managing assets".
NEW research has found that while churchgoers largely
back the Church of England's support for credit unions, the vast
majority are neither members of one nor intend to join
A study by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) - Money
Speaks Louder Than Words - which was released on Tuesday,
found that of the 385 churchgoers surveyed, only five per cent were
a member of a credit union. But churchgoers - of all denominations
- were twice as likely as non-Christians to be a
Although nine in ten churchgoers had heard of credit
unions, only 22 per cent felt that they knew much about their
workings. One of the main recommendations of the CUF report was for
a renewed effort to communicate the benefits and need for credit
unions, especially to those on middle or higher
Many of the Christians surveyed said that they had not
joined a credit union because they did not see any need to do so.
Some 44 per cent of those who attend church at least once a month
said that they had no need to use a credit union, and only 25 per
cent said that they would even consider the idea.
The authors of the study, which drawing on evidence from
a number of focus groups which followed the survey, suggested that
this was because most believed credit unions were only for the very
The report also says, however, that almost half of
churchgoers agreed that churches should raise awareness of credit
unions, allow them to use their premises, and encourage their
congregations to volunteer. One participant was quoted in the
report saying: "I'd also love to just say how excited I was when I
heard what the Archbishop said, because I thought that is
Credit unions as an ethical alternative to mainstream
banks also seemed to appeal to most Christians, the CUF report