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Interview: Alan Smith, First Church Estates Commissioner

27 May 2022

‘I’d choose to be locked in a church with an ancestor who’d have been abducted from Africa as a slave’

Church Commissioners

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Alan Smith

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Alan Smith

I’m a Christian, an accountant, and a banker. According to a recent survey, these are three of the most boring things anyone can be. I hope I’m the exception that disproves the rule.

My family were teachers and lawyers, and I’d planned to go to law school, but a scene from the movie Kramer v. Kramer turned me off lawyers. I got a summer job with an accountancy firm and was captivated.

Finance allows you to understand the human condition. Money has a binary quality — it can do good and it can do evil. In many ways, it shapes life. For better and for worse, money does make the world go around.

Goethe described double-entry book-keeping as among the finest inventions of the human mind. It was developed by monks as a way to account for their stewardship to God. And when we say we’re “professionals”, that’s not just letters after your name: it expresses core beliefs and values. So I don’t feel so bad about my career choice.

I was at HSBC for 27 years before becoming First Church Estates Commissioner. There’s zero difference between the two — except that HSBC is a 150-year-old complex organisation and the Church of England is a 1500-year-old one.

The Church of England is amazing. It’s not perfect, but its history and evolution make it unique in its ability to shape people’s lives now and for generations to come.

Values always drive value — or at least they should, in the City. People deviate from that principle at great cost and peril. The global financial crisis in 2008 highlighted the extent to which unethical behaviour had seeped into financial markets. We’re now in the second decade of having to address the fallout.

Maintaining standards and values in the financial markets is easier than people imagine. Doing the right thing is always right, and it’s empowering. You need courage and resilience to ensure you and the institution you work for maintain high standards. What goes for the City also goes for the Church.

But working in the City can be a contact sport on occasion, and the evidence is that when you stand up for what’s right, it won’t always be easy. You must make decisions in ambiguous areas and on moral issues, and you’ll always make mistakes. We’re not perfect human beings. The ability to learn from our mistakes arguably is more important than our successes.

If values drive value, good business is good business. I believe the Church’s — and my — commitment to sustainable and responsible investing is a source of great value and opportunity. The excellent performance of the Church Commissioners’ executive team in achieving strong sustainable returns which help fund the mission and ministry of the Church over long periods is testament to this.

The Commissioners want a net-zero world, not just a net-zero investment portfolio. The net-zero transition must be just, especially for vulnerable people. Engagement versus divestment must be principled and driven by the data. The decision to do one or the other must be based on evidence that the firms in which we invest and which we engage with are genuinely committed to, and resourced for, the transition, and are acting with intent towards achieving net zero.

Coming from the Caribbean, I realise that, for many communities, net zero isn’t a 2050 issue; for many communities, the issue of climate change is real, now, and existential. “It’s 1.5 to stay alive.” Divestment must never be a gesture, and engagement can be messy and complex. Having and acting with a sense of urgency to achieve a net-zero world is paramount.

It’s definitely feasible for the Church to address its own energy footprint. It’ll be a top priority in the next triennium of 2023-25 to ensure anyone who needs support is provided with the capability and tools to enable us to reach our target.

Our property-team colleagues are leaders at what they do, and they’ve been excellent stewards in ensuring that our property portfolio is developed responsibly. It’s imperative that we invest wisely to maximise the funds to support the Church’s mission. There are few needs as great as increasing social and genuinely affordable housing, especially for the most vulnerable, as the Coming Home report showed. We’re working closely with the Church of England’s housing executive to help make this happen.

The first review noted that Strategic Development Funding (SDF) enabled many people to be brought to faith. It’s a challenge to develop a perfect measure of success, as that would require us to make windows into men’s and women’s souls. But we’ve listened to feedback from people in local parishes and dioceses about what funding they need to deliver their mission, and we work with the Archbishops’ Council to ensure that the distributions we have approved for them are managed responsibly.

Healthy parishes are the lifeblood of the Church England; so ensuring parishes are properly equipped and resourced at a local level is central to what we do in the next triennium. We’re aware of the challenges they’ve had because of Covid, and we’ve just announced a 30-per-cent increase in our funding for the next triennium, planning to distribute £1.2 billion across the Church with very distinct focus on lower-income areas.

The Church Commissioners’ endowment fund doesn’t exist for itself: it’s there to enable the mission and ministry of the Church to impact the lives of millions of souls in this generation and the next. As an “in perpetuity” endowment fund, the money has to last “until the day before God returns”. If that day is tomorrow, we can start spending like there’s no tomorrow, but, without that insight, the responsible decision is to maintain appropriate reserves. What represents having too much or too little is one we constantly have to challenge ourselves about.

I was born in the Bahamas, where my parents were living and working, but they returned to Barbados after a few months. I did a degree in Jamaica, and came to the UK to do a Master’s degree. That period where the Caribbean countries were becoming independent sovereign states was a fascinating period to observe, especially where it happened relatively peacefully. In 2015, I co-wrote Dreaming a Nation with my uncle, who was involved in the Barbados independence movement. That allowed me to call myself a writer — which is much more respectable than banker.

I now live in north London with Penny, my wife, and Ziko, our son. Penny runs her own social enterprise, and I’m her part-time assistant, adviser, and Zoom operator. Ziko and I love cricket. We spend time together at Lord’s, and coaching locally. It’s one of the ways you can keep close to your community and learn a lot. The cricket team here is like the United Nations, and it’s really exciting to see this in local churches, too. A church resource-planting initiative, Mosaic, sprang up in Harrow, and it’s just amazing to see the kaleidoscope of nationalities and social class and languages, and see for myself how Church Commissioners funds are being used.

The Anglican Church is at its most Anglican in the Caribbean, and I was baptised as an Anglican. One of my ancestors was a slave who got his freedom, and restored Anglican churches in Barbados. He has a gravestone, probably because he used to work with the Anglican Church — just one of five people out of the 387,000 people taken out of Africa to Barbados whose lives are memorialised as human beings. Two hundred years on, it seems my life has come full circle with his.

My conscious decision to be a Christian was on my own, in my room, in my hall of residence in Jamaica, almost 40 years ago. That experience has deepened and widened in ways I could never have imagined. There’s no playbook for God. It’s been a quite a journey, like what you read of actors turning up to movie sets and being given their script just minutes before going on. It’s exciting, a bit scary on occasion, but always worth it.

I love reading, going to the theatre and cinema, and watching and coaching cricket. I’d like to write a few more books.

Injustice of all sorts and people who create fear in others make me angry.

I love the sound of tropical rain on corrugated roof tops. That, and any Bob Marley music.

Life itself gives me hope. John Donne says: “It is an astonishment to be alive, and it behoves you to be astonished.” We live in astonishing times of great change, and to be alive in them gives me hope.

I pray that God’s Kingdom comes here on earth, and that I, my family, friends and colleagues will help make it happen.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with an ancestor who’d have been abducted from Africa as a slave, endured the passage across the Atlantic, and become a chattel on a plantation. That he or she chose to live so that I am here today makes them the most remarkable of people. I’d like to understand how they did it, to thank them, and cry with them — because of what they suffered, and the reality of hope that they represent. I and so many are here because of them. If there’d been a Church of England priest on that ship, as some were, he might have some explaining to do.


Alan Smith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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