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Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Jesus, Zacchaeus and Wonga

When I started this blog a few years ago my boss was a bit unclear about what he actually wanted me to write about.  The one thing he did specify, however, was to keep off religion and to stay away from politics.  Five years down the line, and I have tried, I really have, to stick to this one caveat, but boy, is it hard.

I don’t want to offend or alienate anyone, God knows (whoops, probably shouldn’t have said that) but sometimes a story crops up that is just too good to resist.  Last week, for example, newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was all over the British news for having a go at the PayDay loans companies, notably Wonga.

Now Mr Welby is not your average Archbishop: with a career history including eleven years in the oil industry and a spell serving on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he is possibly better-qualified than most people to comment on ‘sharp’ lending practices. Financial and business ethics have been a long-term interest for him; he has written extensively on the subject, including Explorations in Financial Ethicsand Can Companies Sin?
His Grace Justin Welby, Archbiiishop of Canterbury

In his role as Commissioner he gained a reputation for being tough on bankers, famously remarking that the banks served ‘no socially useful purpose'.  He also suggested that senior bank executives were guilty of deliberately avoiding investigating information on shady dealings within their organisations so they could plead ignorance about them later, when the brown stuff finally hit the fan. To be fair, he did temper this by warning against the temptation to act like a lynch mob by naming and shaming individual bankers.

‘WongaGate’ first came to my attention when I heard the Archbishop announcing his intention to ‘compete it out of existence’ by creating the Church of England’s own credit union companies as an alternative source of lending for poor people.  ‘Great idea’ I thought, ‘I must use this for a blog posting, it will make a great story’.

As if this wasn’t material enough for a financial blogger, the story exploded into a media frenzy the following day when it was revealed that the Church of England was itself an investor in Wonga! Mr Welby then endured the ordeal of being grilled by John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today program, admitting that he was ‘very embarrassed’ by the revelation.  A rich vein of material indeed!  Blogger's golddust!

I have to hand it to the Archbishop, he has the guts to get off the fence, stand up and speak out for what he believes is right.  He genuinely wants to provide an ethical and affordable lending service for hard-up, ordinary, struggling people currently at risk of getting into appalling financial difficulties.  OK, maybe he made a bit of a boob in not checking out the Church’s investment portfolio before criticising the Payday loan industry, but that does not make him a hypocrite; it, just means he was somewhat under-prepared.

I am reminded of the story of Jesus overturning the moneylenders’ tables in the temple:
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.    (Matthew 21:12–13).

And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.   (Jn 2:13–16)

So far His Grace the Archbishop has refrained from giving Wonga a whipping; in fact he has been rather polite about them.  Speaking on Radio 4’s  Today programme he said:
 Funnily enough, I never took on Wonga in particular. The context was talking about the entire payday lender movement. Wonga is actually a very professionally managed company. Errol Damelin, the chief executive, is a very clever man, runs it extremely well.

Jesus Talking to Zacchaeus

Let us not forget another iconic Bible story, concerning a social outcast, Zacchaeus the tax-collector.  Zacchaeus wanted to hear Jesus speak, and being of short stature, climbed up a tree to get a good view above the crowd. Jesus made a point of singling him out and inviting himself to his house for lunch.  Subsequently, Zacchaeus repented of his evil, usurious ways, vowing to repay four-fold all those he had cheated, and to give half his wealth to the poor.

It just goes to show that, though it may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is certainly not impossible.  After all, Justin Welby is an Old Etonian and former oil executive, and now he is Archbishop of Canterbury. That concludes my sermon for today.  God Bless you all for reading. Sorry boss, it did contain religion and politics.

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