The Archbishop, loansharks, and the media
For the last 20 years or more the Anglican Churches have mainly been in the news because of sex. If it’s not the sex of its bishops, it’s the sex of one’s spouse. But this week, thanks to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, all that has changed. If you Google “Church of England news” a brief glance at the headlines will show that, this week at least, it’s not all about sex, it’s about socialism and loansharks. Here are some of the typical headlines:
- Church of England’s ethical lending could be a healthy alternative to regulation – Telegraph
- The Church of England should invest in a wave of new lenders – FT.com
- Payday Lending Doubles in 3 Years Despite Intense Criticism | Calculator.co.uk
What caused the change?
The Business Secretary Vince Cable has backed a plan by the Archbishop of Canterbury to force the online lender Wonga out of business – by competing against it.
The Most Rev Justin Welby told Wonga boss Errol Damelin the Church would do this by expanding credit unions.
These would act as an alternative to payday lenders.
It was rather surprising that the Telegraph, a paper of the right, should welcome it, but the media response was not all positive. The Independent got quite tetchy about it.
While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which his organisation has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither Archbishop Welby’s motivations nor his capabilities; as a former oil executive and a member of the mettlesome Commission on Banking Standards, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.
For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities – many of which were on display in yesterday’s gracious, candid response to the Wonga embarrassment – Archbishop Welby is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make the Church relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.
This is no swipe at religion, but such matters are a private affair, and spiritual leaders – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics. That bishops still sit in the House of Lords is an anachronism that makes a mockery of British democracy. If Archbishop Welby wishes the Church of England to support credit unions, it is his prerogative to act accordingly, but there his legitimacy ends.
Hat-tip to Bishop Nick Baines, who comments: “It is rare that a national newspaper editorial exposes its prejudices so clearly.”
The Independent editorial reminds me of the kinds of things that B.J. Vorster and the Nationalist press used to say when church leaders criticised the apartheid policy 40-50 years ago. It is indeed an indication of how far to the right British society has moved since then,
As one of the commenters on Bishop Nick’s blog has said:
Since when was the editor of The Independent elected by anyone?
And if it comes to representativeness, what business does the head of a newspaper with a tiny circulation (73,060 June 2013 – that’s right, seventy-three thousand) have telling the head of the Church of England (usual weekly attendance 1,100,000 – that’s right – one million, one hundred thousand) what to do?
The Independent’s circulation is one-fifth of what it was a decade’s ago. Church of England attendance has held up remarkably well by comparison.
Why does this concern me, blogging in South Africa?
While it may seem far away, on the other side of the world, globalisation means it is directly relevant to people in South Africa. Wonga operates here too, and advertises frequently on TV.
Archbishop Welby speaks of “credit unions”, which is an unfamiliar term in South Africa, but traditionally many of the functions of credit unions have been performed by stokvels, which are a similar form of civil society socialism. And it is the stokvels which outfits like Wonga are trying to put out of business.
So far I haven’t heard any South African church leaders speaking publicly about this, and perhaps even if they did the news media might play it down or squash it altogether — after all, they don’t get their advertising revenue from stokvels but rather from companies like Wonga.
Or perhaps South African church leaders have internalised the advice of the Independent to keep out of political matters, and prefer to leave such things to politicians like Julius Malema — it is an economic freedom issue, after all.
And even in the bad old days of National Party rule we had more instances of private enterprise socialism than we do today. There were building societies, which, suitably transformed, could have done a great deal to mitigate the housing shortage, but back in 1987 the managements of most of them conned their members into voting to convert them into commercial mortgage loan companies, which functioned as branches of banks which, no longer facing competition from the building societies, raised their banking fees sky high, and made saving impossible for all but the very rich.
Ten years later it was the turn of the mutual insurance societies, which likewise went commercial, yet the “Old Mutual” continues to call itself that — an outright lie, since there is no longer anything mutual about it, and it really ought to be called the “New Commercial”.
But while all this was going on, it seems that most Christian denominations in South Africa were mainly preoccupied with tinkering with their own internal organisational structures, or arranging splits or mergers with other groups.
If anyone gave advice to the Church of England to “Get real”, Archbishop Welby seems to have taken it to heart.