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Welby and Wonga, Act Three

Welby and Wonga, Act Three

Paul Bickley examines the ongoing and complex challenges faced by faith groups wishing to make economic interventions. 20/09/2018

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Matthew’s gospel records that Jesus taught his disciples that they should pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. The language is primarily metaphorical, the debt moral rather than financial. After all, what is the financial debt that we are supposed to owe to God? Nonetheless, it says something that Matthew reaches for the language of debt and debt forgiveness to describe restored relationships with God and our neighbours. It points both to the horizontal and vertical dimensions of human sin and brokenness (see also Matthew 18:21–35).  

No doubt these verses will be reverberating in the minds of the Church Commissioners as they consider their response to Frank Field MP’s request that the Church of England organise a buyout of defunct payday lender Wonga’s £400m (est.) loan book. Or should I say, consider their excuses – because there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that they’ll do it. It’s true, there would be something deeply poetic (perhaps even redemptive) about the Church of England ‘investing’ for a second time in Wonga, but this time to end its predatory practices rather than to profit from them. More than that, buying up all that debt, albeit at a knockdown price, would be a dramatic public re–presentation of the Christian gospel like no other I can think of. Of course, to complete the performance the Church of England would have to write the debt off. 

Oh, me of little faith – but that could never happen. The Church Commissioners – the body in charge of the Church of England’s £8 billion plus of investments – have fiduciary duties. They would never entertain such a costly act of public grace. If the sacred route is not an option, then the secular one is also fraught with difficulties. Getting directly involved in a Wonga loan book buyout would mean that the good ol’ CofE would somehow have to go round collecting on loans made on conditions that it had previously excoriated. Of course, the Church would just have to commission someone else to collect the debt, and while there are some ethical debt recovery agencies, the whole initiative would only ever be one sad story away from a public relations disaster. As Polonius counselled Laertes in Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loses both itself and friend”. 

There is a recurring pattern to the Church of England’s various Wonga interventions. The first thing is an ambitious and plausible sounding aspiration (e.g., Welby’s original gambit on competing Wonga out of business). Then ecclesial institutions try to come up with some kind of strategy to achieve the bold and excellent sounding objective. Then realism sets in, and the difficulties are found to be insurmountable. Then the Church resorts to tried and tested, sensible and realistic efforts to do what it can to tackle the problem. In other words, when it comes to innovation the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  

It is harder for established (religious) institutions and traditions to take risks and experiment with the means through which they achieve social change. They have reputations (and pension funds) to protect. Can’t they see the need? Yes to that, but if the Church of England took the admirable if foolhardy course of trying to help Wonga’s former customers, they’d need more than rhetorical flourish and moral opprobrium.  

In Doing God Better: The Case for Faith–Based Social Innovation, we argued that religious social innovation is characterised by taking a different approach in three areas: institutions, funding, and leadership.  

First, institutions. In his original Wonga intervention, Justin Welby suggested that he wanted to compete Wonga out of business using credit unions. Credit unions are important for financial inclusion, but they are no more capable of competing with well–financed online payday lenders than parish churches are capable of acting as debt collection agencies. For instance, they usually operate on a ‘common bond’ – serving people who live in a particular town, or work for a particular industry. 

If the Church of England had wanted to compete with Wonga, the Church of England would either have to invent or collaborate with others to invent an institution capable of operating on the same field as Wonga, but attracting more customers by, for example, offering considerably lower interest rates. In the event, the Church of England did some very useful and important work through the Just Finance Foundation, and Welby’s intervention added real weight to growing public concern about the practices of payday loan companies. But the Church of England didn’t kill Wonga with competition. Regulation – and through its awful business practices, Wonga itself – killed Wonga. 

Second, funding. Frank Field made the suggestion because he knows the Church has more than moral heft. It also has significant resources in the form of its £8 billion of investments. This makes it a significant institutional investor and one which, by and large, has been an important ethical investor (though in this author’s view, it risks the whole Church’s moral authority when it fails to put its money where its mouth is). There is a difference, however, between responsible/ethical investment (don’t profit from companies that avoid tax or have degrading employment practices, ahem) and impact investment (invest in companies which, as part of their own mission, actively seek to promote the public good). So far, the Church of England has mainly been in the former category. The actual mission of the Church is largely left to the humble parish. As we are seeing with the GRACE project, local churches are regularly engaged in transformative public action, but I suspect that the Church of England as a whole is missing a trick by not also thinking more creatively about what it can do with its money. 

Of course, if you adopt this course you have to be very clear that a) you will achieve the desired impact and b) you are confident of a return on investment. See above. 

Third, leadership. During the research for the Doing Good Better report, an interviewee perceptively observed that early on in the life of the early church the apostles devoted themselves to ‘spiritual’ concerns and lined up others to organise provision for the poor (ironically, one of the first of such ‘deacons’ – Stephen – was also the first martyr of the church, but that’s another story). This has sometimes been seen as the demotion of the church’s caring ministry. In truth it should be seen as its endorsement. The caring ministry of the church merited a different order of leadership from people with a set of skills appropriate to the task. Just so with the Wonga loan book. The Church may be rich to the tune of £8 billion of investment, but that is nothing compared to the value that resides in the gifts, skills and talents of the people within its ranks. Amongst their number, I can almost guarantee that there’s someone who could help design a solution to the problem of keeping Wonga’s loan book out of the hands of unscrupulous usurers – but are they being asked the question? 

There is no shortage of people queueing up to advise the Church of England what to do or not do with its time, people and money. Far be it from me to join them. The real issue is how do faith communities that have an ever–growing appetite for social change respond in imaginative ways to challenges that are ever more complex. In the future, churches and other faith communities will have to be increasingly imaginative and bold. They will also need to be humble and realistic.  

Image by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Flickr

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Director of Political Programme at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. @mrbickley

Posted 20 September 2018

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