The historic investments of the Church of England are managed by the Church Commissioners, who are formally independent of Church leadership though report to General Synod. They hit the headlines in the 1980s when they lost a staggering £800 million, largely through unwise property speculation, and though there have been glitches since then, the financial performance of what is now one of the largest and most influential institutional investment portfolios has been impressive. (The poor return in the pension scheme is due to the number of retired clergy to support, rather than poor performance of the investment fund.)
But recently, the Commissioners have more hit the headlines because of a disconnect between investment decisions and church policy. The most recent was the fiasco about the housing for Peter Hancock, the new bishop of Bath and Wells, where the Church Commissioner’s decision was overturned, and last year involvement with Wonga embarrassed Justin Welby.
Following on from this, the latest report from the Ethical Investment Advisor Group, defends continue investment in Wonga in quite a bizarre way. There are some positives; in his introduction, the Chair of the group, James Featherby (pictured), announces that:
we are in the process of tightening our recommendations regarding investment restrictions, both in terms of the maximum percentage of restricted activities that may take place within permitted investments and our rules around pooled funds…
But the justification for what anyone would consider poor ethical investments is very odd:
Elsewhere, it is no more realistic to desire that they invest only in morally perfect companies than it is to desire that any of us should relate only to morally perfect individuals. In any event, such an objective would rather miss the point of the Gospel. It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. When engaging with companies the investing bodies seek positive momentum not perfection. We usually only recommend divestment where we see no genuine desire for change.
This statement makes some very strange assumptions. First is the idea that those calling for clearer ethical policy believe there are ‘morally perfect companies.’ There are not—but there are companies which many would consider unethical and should not be invested in. This includes armaments manufacturers, the tobacco industry, and (for many) the alcohol industry. Given the fact that pay-day lenders are part of a system which traps people in poverty, and that Wonga is currently under consideration for criminal investigation, the pay-day lending industry looks very much like one to avoid.
Secondly, the redeployment of Jesus’ saying (Mark 2.17, Matt 9.12, Luke 5.31) seems odd. Is this suggesting the Church should invest in the most evil and unethical companies, with a view to getting them to become less unethical? This turns on its head the purpose of ethical investment; it is about getting a good return without ethical compromise, rather than using investment as a primary tool for influence. Surely influence comes in other ways?
Thirdly, the comment about momentum is curious. Since much investment is done through intermediary, pooled funds (as with Wonga), who is it that the Church should be influencing—the end company, or the intermediary doing the pooling? And is there any evidence that Church investment decisions really influence the choice of companies that pooled funds buy into? Wonga certainly appear to be impervious to criticism.
What is clear is that compromise in this area seriously undermines the Church’s teaching ministry. Though he is chair of a group which advises the Commissioners on ethics, Featherby is styled in popular reports as a ‘church leader.’ And the message which this sends out, loud and clear, is that the Church is hypocritical, and its leaders cannot agree.
I am also slightly puzzled by the use of the parable of the weeds from Matt 13.24–30. This forms part of Matthew’s third block of teaching by Jesus, and is one of the kingdom parables unique to Matthew (along with the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price). Like Matthew’s parable of the talents and parable of the sheep and the goats, it is widely misread. Following Augustine, most people read this as depicting the mixed nature of the church, arguing against the pursuit of a ‘pure’ church. In fact, Jesus gives his interpretation of it later in the chapter, in Matt 13.36–43. This clarifies two key points:
- The field in the parable is not ‘the church’, but the world. The question the parable addresses is not ‘Why is the church mixed?’ but ‘If the kingdom has come, why are the wicked still living?’
- The focus of the parable, the mixed nature of the field, hardly features in the explanation at all. Instead, the focus is the eschatological judgement exacted by God. So the invitation in the whole piece is less on putting up with compromise and more on being patient because of the certainty of judgement that is to come.
Jesus certainly talks elsewhere in Matthew of the mixed nature of the church, but this parable seems unrelated to it. To conclude from this that good and evil are hard to tell apart, and that we must put up with ethical compromise, is a long way from the parable’s original context and meaning. It also makes nonsense of the parable itself; the wheat and weeds (darnel) in the story are genuinely hard to tell apart; but this is not the problem faced by decisions on ethical investment. And there are many other places in the NT where, though we live alongside ‘the world’, we are implored to be ethically distinct from it.
I hope that response to this report might be a greater pressure for the Church’s investment policy to be more ethical, and for that ethical framework to be more clearly theologically grounded. If it is, it could be a significant support to the mission of the Church, rather than the embarrassment it often appears to be at the moment.