THE Synod received a presentation from the Church Commissioners on their annual report on Tuesday morning.
The First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, said that she was grateful for the opportunity to address the Synod. She said that the Third Commissioner would take the difficult questions, and that she would take the easy ones. She thanked her predecessor, Andreas Whittam Smith, for his work. She said that the investment slowdown has now come, and was particularly due to geopolitical factors.
“There isn’t a great crash, but there is a new norm of more mute returns in the market, and more volatility,” Ms Minghella said. She was pleased, however, despite the Church Commissioners’ not meeting their investment targets, as the target was deliberately difficult.
She said that the Commissioners would have done better if their investments were less diversified, but that diversification was the right approach. It meant that they were ahead of their targets for five, ten, 20, and 30 years. They would continue to be “unfashionable” by not following the herd. She discussed their approach of engagement with companies, which had been debated on Sunday, and was working. Disinvestment remained a tool.
“Investment returns are only a means to an end to us,” Ms Minghella said. “I’m excited about the strategic development funding that was granted to the Archbishops’ Council’s strategic fund,” she said. Fresh Expressions in market towns, resource churches, and pioneer churches on estates were all examples of the grants working, she explained.
She wanted to manage expectations of funding requests with two sobering thoughts. She said that, if the Commissioners alone funded the Church, it would take four years for their fund to be completely exhausted; and the Church had only a 55-per-cent chance of meeting funding distribution targets in the future. She said that she was determined not to make the mistakes of the past, on her watch, or new mistakes. “I do not want to short-change tomorrow’s Church . . . but I also do not want to short-change today’s Church,” Mrs Minghella argued.
The first stages of simplification were just being felt across the country. She discussed the future of closed church buildings, saying that there were religious, commercial, residential, or community uses for these. The Commissioners had launched a cathedrals sustainability fund, in response to certain cathedrals’ financial difficulties, she said. The Third Commissioner was preparing for the outcome of the cathedrals report, and the Second Commissioner was working “incredibly hard” as the Church’s conduit in Parliament. “There is a great opportunity there for faith to contribute to the common good, and she is taking it.”
Diversification of the Commissioners was important, beyond the three women who were now the three Church Estates Commissioners. Her ambitions were: to make good returns, well earned; to be part of the mission of the Church; to be part of the wider movement of what was flourishing; to invest in the future of the Church; and engaging with all of Synod and the Church.
Jay Greene (Winchester) thanked Ms Minghella. She spoke about the investments in commercial timber, and asked how the Commissioners could ensure best environmental practice.
The Revd Peter Breckwoldt (Salisbury) asked whether the Commissioners were prepared for a financial crash.
Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) wondered whether there was any consideration of using the capital to unlock affordable housing.
In response, Ms Minghella said that she had learnt a lot about trees, and had recently visited a forest with the Bishop of Dudley. She said that the Commissioners were managing their timber in the very best way. She said that she had lived through financial crashes before, and the portfolio was highly diversified to cope with any future shocks to the financial system, including Brexit. She told Synod about the strategic land portfolio for bringing land forward for property development, and said that the Commissioners always tried to maximise the potential for affordable housing.
Canon Sue Booys (Oxford) thanked the Commissioners for the report. She asked a question about impact investment: what plans did the Commissioners have to increase impact investment?
The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Martin Gorick (Oxford), asked about impact investment, after the distance that the Commissioners had come on the environment. He asked whether there was any way in which the impact investments could come into contact with the whole.
Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) said he was following up on Canon Goddard’s question about affordable housing. Was it possible to force affordable housing into existence through holding on to housing stock?
Ms Minghella said that the Commissioners had plans to increase impact investments, for example in forestry. They were recruiting more help to find areas where impact investments could be made. There could be more joined-up thinking with the whole Church, and the Commissioners were committed to the best possible allocation of affordable housing.
The Revd Dr Patrick Richmond (Norwich) asked about actuarial predictions for clergy retirements. “How are we set to cope with the burden put on the Commissioners by pensions?”
Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) asked whether there could be more investment in sheltered housing for the elderly, to keep them in the community.
Penny Allen (Lichfield) asked about climate-change strategy.
Ms Minghella said that the Commissioners had part of the portfolio provisioned for clergy retirements, for those who began their service before 1978, which amounted to up to £2 billion. The Commissioners did already invest in senior living conditions. TPI was about climate-change strategy, and they tried to make sure that every investment bore climate risk in mind.
Read a report of every General Synod presentation and debate from York 2018, here