Welby, Wonga and the moral dilemma of financial investments

Welby, Wonga and the moral dilemma of financial investments
The Guardian, by Andrew Brown

The archbishop had to admit that the Church of England’s investment policy inevitably runs up against sinful actions

The person with the greatest cause to be angry about the discovery that the Church of England had profited from an investment in Wonga at the same time as the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was denouncing the firm, is the man responsible for the investment, Andreas Whittam Smith, and the Church Commissioners.

The essential point here is that the commissioners did nothing that could reasonably be called wrong. They invested in a venture capital company which in turn invested in Wonga – but that was something neither party could have predicted when the investment was made. Nor was it a large one by their standards.

Yet the archbishop has been doing some wonderful grandstanding to imply that this would never have happened on his watch. You can’t blame Welby for this. He has played a weak hand with considerable skill and clearly established in the public mind that loan sharking is a social evil which Christians, and the Church of England in particular, should try to destroy, and not just denounce. Since one point easily overlooked about his policy is that the church itself won’t put up any money, he is entirely right to keep attention directed elsewhere. I’m not being sarcastic. The amount of money required to run a credit union is immense, and the Church of England does not have it.

The commissioners’ ethical investment policy will always have inconsistencies and absurdities. It treats "human embryonic cloning" as an evil on a par with gambling and usury, for example. But it represents a serious effort to use the pension fund as a force for good, and to avoid opportunities for strengthening evil. You might argue with their definition of evil – pornography is so wicked that a company may only make 3% of its profits from there, whereas it is permissible to make 10% of the profits from the sale of arms and 25% from tobacco, gambling, alcoholic drinks or high-interest-rate lending.

But all these positions are defensible, and were reached after open debate and discussion. If the commissioners were to be abolished tomorrow, the clergy would still need their pensions paying, and whatever pension fund was chosen to do this would face the same ethical dilemmas and get many or most of them wrong.

You don’t even solve the problem by being dependent entirely on charity, as the long history of loathsome donors to the Roman Catholic clergy has made clear. You could, I suppose, solve it by euthanising the clergy and their spouses on retirement, but there would be complaints in General Synod.

Besides, why stop at the clergy? It sounds reasonable to say that all moral people, whatever their theological beliefs, are surely responsible for the ethics of their own investments. But as soon as you look at this proposition in any detail, it collapses into absurdity. I have no idea what my pension is invested in: I have only the complete confidence that it is utterly inadequate. If I take a state pension, I am benefiting from the genuinely iniquitous cuts to other people’s welfare payments. If I leave money in the bank I am empowering bankers to do all sorts of wicked things.

The only really surprising aspect of this affair is that Welby did not take the chance to point out that the inability even for good or well-meaning people to behave in an entirely moral way is one of the things that Christians mean by "sin". And it is far more visible when you think about money than about sex.