Interview with Loretta Minghella, the new First Church Estates Commissioner

by
23 March 2018

Loretta Minghella tells Paul Handley how the Church Commissioners are flexing their muscle

Stefano Cagnoni/Church Times

Loretta Minghella before portraits of earlier First Estates Commissioners

Loretta Minghella before portraits of earlier First Estates Commissioners

I COULD be wrong, in fact I hope I am, but I don’t recall any senior male dignitaries talking about the influence of their daughter.

The appointment a fortnight ago of Dr Eve Poole as Third Church Estates Commissioner (News, 9 March) means that the Church Commissioners, who manage the C of E’s central assets, are now headed up by three women. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, in charge of formal links with Parliament, is Dame Caroline Spelman MP.

The daughter, Olivia, belongs to Loretta Minghella, who has completed four months as First Church Estates Commissioner — arguably the most senior laywoman in the Church of England after the Queen and the Prime Minister. Olivia is certainly worth a mention in this story, having acted as evangelist and careers adviser to her mother.

Ms Minghella, brought up in an Italian Roman Catholic family on the Isle of Wight, drifted away from faith in her late teens. As she tells it, she spent the next 20 years “in the wilderness”: “Periodically, I allowed myself to be aware of the fact that something was missing for me, and I didn’t quite know what it was.”

When her daughter was eight, she had a friend to stay. The following morning, the girl’s parents asked if she could be dropped off at their church, St Barnabas’s, Dulwich, in south London.

“And my daughter said to me: ‘Mum, shall we stay and see what it’s like, then?’ And I said: ‘OK.’ And that was it: it was the most unexpected, unlikely, overwhelming moment. And I’ve been going ever since. . .

“I’d spent these 20 years not practising anything much, and it wasn’t a Catholic church; so the family didn’t really understand it. I was married to an atheist. So, altogether, it was quite a disruption, but it was also a fantastic one.

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Ms Minghella was working as a financial-services lawyer at the time. Seen through the light of her newly discovered faith, it did not seem to be all that she wanted to be doing. There was a twist in the tail of that period in her life, however.

Having spent six years as head of enforcement, law and policy, and international co-operation at the Financial Services Authority, in 2004 she became chief executive of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). “People say banks don’t fall over; so when you take a job like that it feels like you might be going into a first chief-executive job that is quite a quiet one, all manageable.”

But then came the 2008 crash. “I got a call on Saturday 27 September 2008, telling me that Bradford & Bingley had gone bust, and I was going to need to be bailing out the customers.

“I had to go and negotiate a £14-billion loan on a Saturday night, which was quite a tall order.”

The episode had a lasting effect on Ms Minghella. First, she says, it taught her that she was capable of more than she thought.

Second, it made her question the priorities in her work. “We can find £14 billion on a Saturday night to bail out a bank; but what about the really, really terrible things that are going on in the world, where we say we haven’t got enough money to do things about them? That didn’t feel quite right to me.”

Two years later, she spotted that Christian Aid was looking for a new chief executive. Cue Olivia: “I said to my daughter, who was a little bit older by this stage, ‘I wonder who gets a job like that? Because that is the job that I would really love.’

“And she said: ‘Mum, you bang on about transferable skills and all of these things. If you don’t apply, you’ll never know if it could be you.’ So I did, and that worked out.”

Ms Minghella was at Christian Aid for seven-and-a-half years. It was an “amazing privilege”, she says, but very demanding. “You put that on the back of five years at the FSCS, including during the financial crisis, I felt like I’d given my executive career what I could give it.”

As a consequence, she started looking for non-executive opportunities. The post of First Church Estates Commissioner is a non-executive one, supposedly taking two days a week. The team in charge of replacing Sir Andreas Whittam Smith asked her to apply.

“I thought actually this job would never go to someone like me. But . . . she [Olivia] did say to me, about this: ‘If you put yourself into the process, be who you are, pray through the process.’ So it seems really strange, but, for me, it doesn’t feel as strange as it may look from the outside.”

 

THERE is nothing calculating about the way Ms Minghella mentions Olivia. Coincidentally, though, it contributes to the impression of openness, which, she believes, she was appointed to bring to the Commissioners.

“I think the Commissioners — is it fair to say this? — some people see the Commissioners as a bit remote, and a little bit grand. I think we have a bit of that reputation. People who know me well know that I’m not remote or grand.

“I’m very keen that the Commissioners should be as open as possible about what we’re doing, what we’re taking into account, how we’re spending the money, how we’re investing it.

“The Church is about relationships: we’re part of the structures of the national Church, of course we should be out there engaging. I’m hoping that this is going to be a useful thing that I can do, to support the Commissioners by being as out there and connected as possible.”

 

THE job of First Commissioner involves chairing the assets committee, the team responsible for investing £8 billion in assets. She also represents the Commissioners on the Archbishops’ Council and the General Synod, among other things.

Ms Minghella spent several years on the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, and the story of the Commissioners’ ethical activity is one that she is keen to tell.

Until a few years ago, ethical investment simply meant avoiding certain companies: those involved in armaments, tobacco, and (for shame) the media: what Ms Minghella calls “the sin stocks”.

“I think we’ve then gone into a new phase with things like the climate-change policy and the extractives policy, where we’ve said ‘Look, there are red lines,’ and so we did, for example, divest out of some climate-affecting companies.

“But, actually, with most companies, what we need to do is engage with them around these issues, and look for improvements in their behaviour along these lines. And we can do that very well as an investor; and, if we do that, we can have more positive influence. And, if they won’t change, then we have got the backstop of divestment.”

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The Church Commissioners are not alone in this shift towards using their investment muscle to improve the behaviour of companies. Last year, they were part of a consortium of investors, worth $2 trillion, who launched the Transition Pathway Initiative to assess how effectively companies are addressing climate change (News, 13 January 2017). Others have since joined, bringing the total assets to $5 trillion.

Ms Minghella’s experience at Christian Aid has made this a personal issue. She visited the Philippines shortly after the country had been devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

“I met on the frontline people who’d lost everything, who’d lost all their possessions, who’d lost relations, who’d lost children. [But] people don’t have to have seen that to realise — and the Church fully realises — that climate change is an urgent problem.

“We’ve actually set out what we’re looking for: we’ve set out a framework; we’ve been very transparent about what they needed to do.

“And then we’re monitoring their performance. We’re regularly producing these documents that say, ‘We’ve assessed you: this is where you are; this is where you need to improve.’ So they’re under no illusion about what we’re expecting of them, if they want our continued investment.”

This is the reason that the Commissioners are resisting pressure to disinvest from oil and other extractive industries. “I think we have to take it one step at a time. I think it’s quite difficult; if you set up something like this — and the logic of it is, I think, really compelling — then you can’t run out of patience with it.”

She refers to the run-in with ExxonMobil. “You couldn’t help but be worried about Exxon before December, because, for us to have to go the extent of rallying around 60 per cent of shareholders in order for them to engage seriously with it, it was, as I came into the role, something that I was obviously quite concerned about. But they seem to have got the message now, and started to disclose.

“I am hoping that companies mean what they say, when they want to be part of a future which is compatible with the survival of the planet and the survival of creation. I think we have to take it one step at a time.”

 

THE Commissioners have had their own brush with an extractive industry, after re-registering subterranean rights on land that they own. Ms Minghella says that this has led to a basic misunderstanding. “We’ve had to register our own interests, but it’s not for us to make money out of extracting from our own land. The rights to take the gas out don’t belong to the Commissioners. . . We have no plans to make money out of fracking anywhere in the country, as far as I’m aware.”

The Commissioners are also putting their weight behind attempts to change the culture of male-heavy boards who award their executives inflated salaries. They have signalled that they are prepared to vote against unreasonable salary packages; and will vote against nomination-committee chairs when there are fewer than 30 per cent of women on a board — and the whole nomination committee, if the figure is less than 25 per cent.

Ethical activity can come at a cost, however, and there is a potential conflict with the duty of the Commissioners, as a charity, to produce the best returns for their beneficiary: the Church of England. Ms Minghella plays this down. “Sometimes, there is a cost to investing ethically, and we just have to wear that. But, actually, it’s not always a negative, either: sometimes companies that are behaving more ethically do rather better.”

 

THE Commissioners’ ethical policy is not the reason for the warning that they issued recently: that the 2017 returns would not be as stellar as the previous years, she says, which had more to do with a volatile market (News, 2 March).

“One of the things that I’m hoping we’ll be able to do more of in the future is what I call win-win investments; we do some of those already. They might be investments in renewables, waste-water projects . . . where we’re not sacrificing financial return, but we are addressing particular social need. So I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do more of that.”

Not all of Ms Minghella’s work centres on making money. She also likes to spend it. As well as the usual disbursement (historic clergy pensions, regular commitments to funding bishops’ expenses and some cathedral staff, and contributions to hard-up dioceses), there is now the extraordinary funding for the Renewal and Reform programme.

Ms Minghella serves on the Strategic Investment Board, which considers requests for funding from diocesan and parish schemes designed to promote church growth. She is committed to ensuring a fair spread: “I’m very determined that it will support all kinds of all church tradition; that it won’t be focused just on young people; that it won’t be just focused on urban; that we’ll remember that great opportunity we have to be alongside everyone.”

The picture that she paints of the Commissioners is, perhaps, not one that everyone will recognise. “The great temptation”, she says, “is just to meet every request for funding something to do with the Church with open arms. . .

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“I’m very struck by how much they do take it so seriously, and do care about it so much. We do want to see the Church flourish. That’s why we’re here: that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”

Ms Minghella’s daughter is 23, and no longer lives at home; but would she be pleased with the way in which her advice is working out?

“I think she’s OK with it,” Ms Minghella says, laughing. “She’s happy when I actually do what I really believe in. I think she would say that it seems to be working all right.”

Listen to an extended version of the interview on this week’s Church Times Podcast

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