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2/6/19: an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Dr Welby,

Can I introduce myself as a lifelong member of the Anglican Church, brought up in a clergy home and, with two brief periods away, a communicant member of Anglican churches throughout adult life.

Over the years I've kept an eye on press coverage concerning you and your predecessors.  Have to say, being the Archbishop of Canterbury must be one of the toughest jobs in the world.  Whatever you do, at least 2/3 of your members will disagree, whilst non-members will consider you irrelevant, out of touch, or even evil.  In this post I pondered some of the opportunities and challenges presented by being an adherent to a 2000 year old faith, exercising a senior leadership role in an ancient faith organisation, so far removed in time and space from its origins, must be perplexing in extreme, managing a huge established organisation whilst trying to be true to the principles set out so long ago.

Within this, I'm delighted that you are looking to offer moral leadership on a number of issues.  Trying to keep church and state completely separate seems to me to be untenable.  Within the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, there is a concern for the poor and vulnerable, Jesus chased the moneylenders out of the temple, Paul offered advice to employers and employees.  Looking at things from the opposite view, when politicians consider topics such as health care, social security, and many others, is it not reasonable that Christians will have views strongly influenced by their faith?  And when the political process goes horribly wrong - I'm thinking particularly of the Nazi regime in Germany - we can take comfort in the fact that Christians at the time, both covertly and overtly, mounted opposition and help to those effected, the Ten Boom family in the Netherlands hiding Jews being a wonderful example.  One might wonder why the Christian community at the time did not do more.

Having said all this, there are three areas on which you have spoken out - payday loans, zero hour contracts and huge differences between the lowest and highest paid workers - in which I think the stance you have taken has been problematic.  I'm not sure that, working from publicly available information, the reasons why these things exist is fully understood, with contradictions also arising between what you have been saying and the church's internal workings.  Also, when these contradictions have come to light, I feel that more can - and should - be done to be working within Christian principles.  I give more detail below..


Make sure you understand what you are speaking out against
This may sound like a very obvious point, but I am not happy, basing my views on publicly available information, that the stances taken have been fully informed, particularly, the case in favour of the status quo does not seem to be fully understood.

Let me start with payday loans.  The premise here is that people on low incomes or on social security benefits can easily find themselves in the situation of having run out of money sometime before the next payment is due.  Payday loans are for small amounts for small periods of time until the money arrives.  On the face of it, payday loans provide a service to people in considerable need.

And can I suggest further that there are very good reasons why, on the face of it, the annualised percentage interest rate is extortionate.  Because the sums of money are small compared to the amount it costs to employ someone, and the timescales are so short, the administrative costs are huge compared to the amount of the loan - astronomically more than, for example, administering a mortgage.  Also, it is the nature of exponential growth that a small increase over a short period of time gives rise to huge increases over long periods.  Interest rates of 5 000% per year look appalling, but put all things together, are not as unreasonable as they look at first sight.  It also needs to be taken into account that the people taking out such loans will often, but by no means always, be deemed to be bad credit risks, money therefore needs to be set aside for debt collection and the writing off of bad debts.  When payday loans were in the news a few months ago, a journalist explained how, in the early days of his career, he was having difficult making ends meet, did some sums and came to the conclusion that paying for a payday loan was cheaper than paying the fee for an unauthorised bank overdraft and other such penalties.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not for a moment suggesting that payday loans are without problems.  For the payday loan model to work for people, there needs to be good reason to believe that the problem which has arisen this month in making ends meet will not recur next month.  To pay a payday loan fee on a regular basis represents a huge additional burden, and to default on payments altogether means that, at the interest rates being charged, people can get into huge trouble very quickly.  Taking out payday loans without getting financial advice, and the marketing of payday loans as an all purpose solution, is highly inappropriate.

So, I agree with you that these issues are better resolved within a credit union, particularly with the need for help and advice rather than simply the handing out of money which can easily make a bad problem much worse.  But I would observe that the Churches' Mutual Credit Union offers a range of services but none coming close to a payday loan, with a minimum loan amount of £250 and period of 6 months.  I was horrified when I heard that you were considering buying a stake in a payday loan company, that that gone ahead then, as far as I could see, that would either mean the Church having to find huge sums of money to make the system work, or would end up facing accusations of hypocrisy and double standards.
 

You have also spoken out against zero hour contracts, describing them as the 'reincarnation of an ancient evil' according to the Guardian Newspaper.  But is it really that simple?  Let me make a case in favour.

Zero hour contracts are, as I understand them, contracts without any fixed hours of work, which means that an employer can call upon a potential employee when needed to do work as it becomes available.  In effect, I was on a zero-hour contract two years ago when I was doing day-to-day supply teaching when between jobs.  Also, I know students who have zero-hour contracts with a football stadium, where the system works brilliantly - the stadium is able to summon up a huge workforce for the small number of hours it needs it for each match day, the students are able to get work on an ad hoc basis around their studies, with no expectation that they should agree to any given offer.  Everybody is a winner!

The problem arises, as I understand it, is when companies use zero-hour contracts to employ people working on a more-or-less full time basis as a way of bypassing key aspects of employment law designed to protect employees' rights. This heart rending story, summarising a BBC film based closely on actual events, tells of a youngster thinking he was getting a job as a motorcycle courier, only to find he was actually on a zero-hour contract - of course he should have read the contract, but which excited 18 year old is going to do that?  So he was responsible for the purchase and maintenance of his vehicle, paying of any fines he incurred whilst working, and paid only when he was actually making a delivery, the frequency of which he had no control over, with long periods doing nothing between paying jobs.  In a good week he was barely earning enough to meet the costs of keeping his motorcycle on the road and repaying the loan he took out to buy it.  Things spiralled out of control and he ended up, tragically, taking his own life.

So absolutely there is a dark side to zero-hour contracts.  But surely it is the misuse of them, not their existence, which is the problem here?  It must be possible to devise legislation which enables zero-hour contracts to be used when appropriate and preventing their misuse.


As to people being paid large amounts of money, we need to live in the world in which we actually live, it seems to me.  There are a small number of people with the qualifications, experience, enthusiasm and that indefinable something - intuition, maybe? - to do jobs in the business and finance sectors in which 'success' can be measured very accurately in financial terms.  Such people are highly sought after across the world.  It seems extremely difficult to believe that If one company - or country - tries to limit their pay, such people will have much difficulty finding another highly paying job.  I understand where you're coming from here, but I'm wondering if this opposition is realistic in the modern world?


Make sure that your own house is in order
You spoke out against zero-hour contracts - then to find that a whole number of jobs in the Church of England were being offered on that basis, including at Cathedrals.  You spoke out against high salaries - for it then to be revealed that the Church Commissioners' own asset manager was being paid a massive bonus, receiving 23 times more than the lowest-earning staff member according to this newspaper report, quite contrary to your public pronouncements on this matter.

Serious as these mistakes are, the bigger issue for me is as follows.


When you mess up, apologise, regroup and try again
I have a soft spot for 3 key characters in the Bible - David, Jonah and Peter.  What they have in common is that they each messed up really spectacularly, David in committing adultery with Bathsheba and then ordering the death of her husband, Jonah in heading to Tarshish, exactly the opposite direction of Nineveh where God had told him to go, and Peter in denying that he knew Jesus 3 times in the run up to Jesus' crucifixion. In each case, after an act of painful repentance, they were restored to the position they held before, with Peter being given considerable leadership responsibilities in the early church.

The keyword here, I would suggest, is repentance.  Each of the three of them had to face up to what they had, suffer the painful consequences - David lost his baby son, Jonah spent three days in the whale which must have been frightening in the extreme, and Peter had to endure a difficult interview with Jesus Christ.  Forgiveness and restitution followed repentance.

So, my biggest beef about the story about how much people get paid is not the mismatch between your words and the pay structure of the Church Commissioners.  It's the slick, corporate response they - the Church Commissioners - came up with when the mismatch came to light.  Quoting from the Times: "The Commissioners said that salaries were designed to reflect the market for investment specialists.  'The Church Commissioners are a large and sophisticated institutional investor.... as such seek to attract and retain high calibre investment professionals....  Despite a challenging market environment, the commissioners produced a positive return and our tenth year of positive returns."

All of which is perfectly reasonable in isolation.  But totally at odds with what you had been saying.  So please, either you need publicly to revisit your own views to accommodate what is happening in your own backyard.  Or you need to order a comprehensive review of how the Church Commissioners operate in order to bring their practices in line with your public pronouncements.  Similarly, you need either to sent directives (in so far as you're able tell Deans of Cathedrals what to do!) telling them to review their employment practices to eliminate zero-hour contracts, or take another look at the whole concept.  Sweeping the issue under the carpet would seem to me to be an inversion of Jesus's command to be in the world but not of it.  Let us take a stance not just by what we say but also what we do.


Conclusion
As I said about the beginning, I'm delighted that you are looking to take a moral lead to the country.  But that lead needs to come with a thorough understanding of the context, a commitment to lead by actions as well as by words, and a commitment to clarity, honesty and humility beyond what can be seen in the outside world.  I respectfully suggest that, based on the three issues I’ve considered here – payday loans, zero-hour contracts and high rates of pay for the few – there is work still to do as we look to present a coherent and radically different voice to public debates reflecting our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.


My thanks for your attention and very best wishes,

 

 

Geoff Tennant

 


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