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Changing the World? How the Church can be a Force for Good

by David Barclay

Posted: 14 Sep 2016

To put it mildly, the Church of England is not always famous for turning good intentions into practical outcomes. And yet, under the leadership of former derivatives trader Justin Welby, that reputation may just be starting to change. For on his most famous public intervention so far, his 'War on Wonga' comments in the summer of 2013, the Church has seen an impressive return on its efforts. Payday lending has been capped, with complaints to Citizens Advice Bureaux down 45% as a resultand credit union membership across the UK is steadily growing. How has this happened, and what does it mean for the future of Christian engagement in public life?

Two events at St Paul's hold a key part of the answer. The first was a 'clergy learning day' in November of 2014. Clergy learning days are designed to help Church leaders in London and the surrounding area get to grips with key issues of public significance, and to learn practical tools to help their congregations engage. On this occasion the topic was money, with a particular focus on the Archbishop's initiative on responsible credit and savings. The session was packed, showing that the Archbishop's high-profile comments has touched a real nerve and sparked genuine interest in the Church. The day's materials ranged from theological reflection to opportunities for campaigning to intensely practical ways to start congregations talking about experiences of money and debt. Much of it was provided by the Centre for Theology & Community, a charity that helps churches engage with issues in the local area and who were running a pilot called the Church Credit Champions Network to help congregations support ethical finance providers like credit unions.

Almost two years later, in the summer of 2016, St Paul's again played host to an event celebrating the results on this pilot project, this time with leaders of the credit union movement and local churches present. In the intervening time, the Credit Champions Network has spread across London and Liverpool and had achieved impressive results - working with over 300 churches, training over 300 people as 'Credit Champions' and helping over 3000 sign up to their local credit union. Many of the churches involved had also played key roles in the Just Money campaign led by Citizens UK, which had successfully called for a limit to the interest that payday lenders could charge and had forced lenders like Speedy Cash to advertise more responsibly.

So why is it that on this issue of credit and debt the Church of England has been able to achieve tangible change at both a local and national level, when so often it seems capably only of well-meaning words of small acts of charity?

The answer lies in the Church's unique institutional range, from the office of the Archbishop all the way down to the local parish. Very few organisations have both a presence in every community as well as the ability to have the ear of senior politicians and the chance to make national headlines, and it is this combination which allows the Church to speak and act authentically on issues of social justice.

But of course the Church in its diversity doesn't always seem to be speaking with one voice or even pulling in the same direction, and that is where the crucial role of intermediary organisations within the Church's structure come in. Cathedrals like St Paul's play a vital part, convening local leaders and equipping them with high-quality tools and the latest thinking from across the Church. Charities like the Centre for Theology & Community also have an important role to play, animating churches at a grass roots level and amplifying their voice so that there is genuine two-way engagement between local experiences and national pronouncements.

When it all pulls together it is both remarkable and refreshing to see the Church in action, belying secularist assertions of its reactionary nature and dwindling relevance. In an age of both national and global instability and uncertainty, the unique ecosystem of the Church has an important role in anchoring our public life in the common good, and when its Cathedrals, charities, congregations and leaders all play their constituent parts there is good reason to be optimistic that this can be a powerful force for positive change.

The Bishop of Stepney with campaigners outside the headquarters of Wonga on the first day of the cap on the cost of credit.

About this author

David Barclay is a partner at the Good Faith Partnership, a consultancy seeking to foster strategic relationships between business, politics, charity and faith; and an Associate of St Paul's Institute.

Freda O - Posted: 20 Sep 2016

It is really good to see the Church taking action in this way. It will be useful to build further support among responsible lenders, and potentially put some of its own money into affordable credit, in order to give people a real alternative choice.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.