Money and Mouths

For a few months there has been a story bubbling away concerning Papisse Cisse the Senegalese striker who was refusing to wear his club Newcastle's strip with the name of its sponsor Wonga emblazoned on it because of his Muslim beliefs, which strictly forbid the charging of interest. Not all Muslims take such a strict approach, and indeed Cisse's Muslim team-mates Cheick Tiote, Moussa Sissoko, Massaido Haidara and Hatem Ben Arfa didn't seem to have a problem with wearing the shirt (although early reports did suggest that Tiote had some reservations). Cisse received a lot of unsavoury abuse for his stand... although many suggested that it was more to do with engineering a lucrative transfer away from Tyneside than any religious scruples. This seemed even more the case when photographs appeared of Cisse gambling in a casino (also against strict Islamic law), and in the wake of the exposure of such seeming hypocrisy, it was predictable that he came to an agreement with Newcastle regarding the wearing of the kit. However, it remains to be said who leaked the photographs of Cisse in the casino and whether they profited from that leak...

Then, just as the Cisse story was coming to it's almost inevitable conclusion of money trumping morals, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby entered the arena. First sensationalist headlines suggested that he was declaring war on Wonga threatening to put them out of business, like some Anglican Godfather. Read the articles however and you discover that the truth of it was that he was reporting on an open dialogue with the Wonga CEO Errol Damelin where he stated his desire to compete Wonga and their ilk out of existence, by offering premises and expertise to Credit Unions the length and breath of the country, especially in socially deprived areas where pay-day loans companies are at their most pernicious (due to the lack of predictable pay days!) But within twenty four hours the AoC's "casino moment" came with the revelation that the church of England had invested £75,000 in Wonga via a venture capital company (though when you think about it £75,000 is actually only about £1500 for a year at Wonga's eye-watering top rates of interest). This resulted in a very funny cartoon by Dave Walker on Cartoon Church showing an Archbishop reversing a high horse... and mixed reports about Justin Welby being "furious" and "praising" Wonga... I half expected the next move to be him photographed with a Wonga monogrammed mitre...

Truth be told he probably was furious, but in the interview on Radio 4 he simply said he was "irritated" and "embarrassed" but also said that in the complex world of modern investment and finance things can get messy. As to "praising" Wonga, from what I heard he simply said it was professionally run, that Mr. Damelin was "very clever" and that they weren't the worst out there... Yes, they don't come round your house with a baseball bat! Today they published their 10 Commitments (see what they did there) which clarifies their position and gently mocks the AoC's campaign against them... I wonder how much money they threw at a marketing company to come up with that? Certainly more than a credit Union could afford or would be morally responsible for the church to spend. Business Secretary Vince Cable has been critical of the high profile of Wonga through various TV (and sports) deals which gives them a financial clout which will stifle the competition they claim to welcome... and indeed they have been referred to the Competition Commission for that reason.

The briefings including Wonga's "Ten Commitments" all referred to the church facing accusations of hypocrisy (it worked with Cisse - why shouldn't it work with Welby). I had a huge admiration for Welby's predecessor given his capacity for profound thought and his compassionate nature, but he was often wrong-footed by media that was hungry for soundbites... But Rowan Williams was not a soundbite theologian. Welby, however whilst being intelligent and compassionate is also media savvy. When the news broke concerning the CoE's investment in Wonga, he didn't try to spin his way out or dodge the media, but nor did he back off. This was an intelligent, moral, nuanced and practical approach to a difficult problem... The sort of thing we might expect given Welby's intelligence and background in business. Indeed whilst earlier in the year he was critical of recent banking practices, suggesting various ways in which the system might be modified for the better, at the beginning of last week he suggested that the "naming and shaming" of bankers was "lynch mobbish".

We are not good at dealing with the moral murk that money stirs up. We like things black and white. Especially in the church. But when it affects our personal or institutional finances there is all kinds of casuistry employed.

Take our own church's stance regarding the lottery. Last year the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Ireland made a decision, by a very narrow majority to allow Methodist Missions and other social outreaches to apply for lottery funding to resource programmes that help others... Not approving of the Lottery as a means of raising money... not allowing for the upkeep of buildings or funding internal church programmes, but as a means of helping the people from whom (in many cases) the lottery money was taken in the first place. This prompted a lot of soul searching, letter writing and heal dragging regarding guidelines regarding the exact terms under which a church might apply for such money. Then this year that decision was reversed. In following up the decision it was suggested that the Missions might want to distribute gift aid envelopes to encourage conference members to put their money where their mouths were - no good to smaller church outreaches that were not represented at conference or had gone out of business in the intervening year, but at least it was a start. Someone also suggested that we might put a levy on the annual assessment (the "income tax" on congregations which resources the central church for those not aware of Methodist polity)... This was universally rejected... It is all very well taking a moral stand, but don't expect us to pay for it with actual money... Nor was there any real analysis done of the church's investments. Are we investing in companies like Wonga? But actually the contemporary stock market is no longer predominantly about investing in companies, but is often an educated gamble on the movement of stocks and shares, with no investment staying in one place for a prolonged period. How consistent is that with our overall, purist, stance on gambling?

The modern financial world is not the same as it was in the days of Moses and his sabbath economics, or Wesley and his approach to moneymaking, saving and giving... it is vastly more complicated. The Archbishop publicly recognised that, but equally he is pursuing an approach that seeks to apply Biblical principles to the contemporary world, primarily looking out for the poorer and more vulnerable in society rather than our own interests, be they the financial interests of the church or its moral purity... or maximising the economic growth of the nation by baptising capitalist greed.

I hope he continues on this track. He certainly has widespread support despite the much vaunted accusations of hypocrisy. Apparently there is even support around the cabinet table. Not just Vince Cable either. One of the stories I linked above even suggested that George Osborne supports his approach... which is slightly worrying, although given the state of the national finances he might be looking for a loan from a Credit Union soon.

Shalom

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