THE management of Church House, Westminster, has been criticised after a boxing tournament sponsored by an online gambling firm was televised from its Assembly Hall and other rooms on its premises.
Two contests, broadcast on BT Sport on 28 November and 5 December, featured advertising for the Gibraltar-based gambling website 32Red.
A retired senior tax inspector, Ian Lane, asked: “Have our authorities no concern about the danger that such advertising poses to viewers — gambling addicts and potential addicts?
“Such events are an inappropriate use of the Church’s premises, and the promotion of gaming adds to the offensive nature of it all,” Mr Lane, aged 81, a regular worshipper at St Matthias’s, near his home in Torquay, Devon, said.
“Whatever possessed those responsible for Church House to accept a booking for two weeks of boxing matches? One suspects that acceptance of the booking was prompted by purely monetary considerations: filthy lucre seemingly overcame any principles.”
The broadcasts used the Assembly Hall, in which the General Synod recently hosted a virtual conference, two other large meeting rooms, and other rooms, which would normally generate revenue of about £10,000 a day.
Mr Lane’s objections were echoed by Brian Chappell, the founder of Justice for Punters, which campaigns for tighter regulation of off-shore gambling. He said: “I wish to emphasise the point of the C of E unwittingly becoming part of the normalisation of corporate gambling in society.
“One of the primary aims of the gambling industry is to promote gambling as being a central part of family life, i.e. the same as any other form of entertainment. Corporate gambling services, which are driven by profit, should never be treated as such, because they have and do cause harm to millions.
“Senior bishops of the C of E should be investigating how their HQ came to be used for a sporting event sponsored by 32Red.”
Lettings of Church House are managed by Church House Conference Centre Ltd, which trades under the name Church House Westminster. It is a trading subsidiary of the Corporation of Church House, which owns the premises. The National Church Institutions, including the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners, are tenants at Church House, and have no say on how the building is let.
All General Synod members are members of the Corporation ex officio.
Earlier this year, the Corporation updated its lettings policy. It followed a challenge in 2018 by the Suffragan Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick, then Archdeacon of Oxford, over the use of Church House for a conference on warfare (News, 10 August 2018). But, this week, the Bishop asked: “I do question how this booking is seen to be in line with the policy.
“I’ve seen lives destroyed by addiction to gambling. Why have we let an online gambling site advertise in prime time from the floor of Church House? Church House Westminster clearly needs to generate income for ongoing maintenance, and in order to contribute to the Church of England as it has done in recent years. In many ways I applaud their energy in generating that business and income, not least in this time of pandemic.
“However, every member of General Synod . . . bears a responsibility for the way it is run. As the ‘central office’ of the Church of England it needs to have a letting policy that aligns with its parent body.”
The policy blocks hirers who earn more than ten per cent of their revenues from sources such as weapons, tobacco, gambling, some forms of fossil-fuel extraction, high-interest loans, and recreational drugs. The policy also excludes hirers who are “indiscriminate and/or irresponsible” in seeking sponsorship from organisations in those barred categories.
“I’m not entirely sure what is meant by ‘indiscriminate and/or irresponsible’,” Bishop Gorick said. “However, the boxing ring in the Assembly Hall is emblazoned with the online-gambling company’s name. Gambling addiction is a real problem, and online gambling is an easy route to this. 32Red have been fined in the past for not protecting consumers from insupportable debt. The prominent sponsor for this booking does come from one ‘of the above categories’.”
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who has campaigned for tighter regulation of gambling (News, 20 November), said: “I have long argued that all gambling advertising should be banned from sporting events. Gambling adverts detract from the enjoyment of sport for its own sake, risk children seeing gambling adverts which can influence them, and put them and vulnerable adults at greater risk of gambling addiction. This is just one more example of a practice which I and others would like to see made illegal.”
A spokesman for the Archbishops’ Council said: “The Church of England is on record as sharing concern about the spread of gambling advertising. Last year, the General Synod approved a motion calling on the Government to take steps to reduce the quantity and pervasiveness of gambling advertising, and to introduce a mandatory levy on gambling firms to fund independently commissioned research, education, and a treatment programme.”
In a statement, Church House Westminster (Church House Conference Centre Ltd) said: “The impact of the pandemic on the events industry has been decimating. These particular live events have been an opportunity to enhance awareness of the importance of the industry by showing innovation and creativity, and how event venues can be adapted, transformed, and re-purposed, whilst following Covid-secure measures.”