Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Christianity and capitalism: Investing in the Lord

It's in St Mark's Gospel that we're told that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Bible also tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil, yet the seemingly sin-ridden worlds of investments and big banking are cohabiting quite happily with Christianity.

St Margaret Lothbury is one of the oldest churches in London. It's the parish church of the Bank of England and other financial institutions in the square mile, but unlike other Church of England churches, it has no services on a Sunday.

Weekdays however are a completely different matter. At a recent service I watched hundreds of expensively dressed City workers dance and sing and pray along with a Christian band who were providing the music for the worshippers.

The Reverend Jeremy Crossley has been the vicar at St Margaret's for more than 11 years. 

He thinks there's no conflict between Christianity and making money.

"As long as you're being honest about what you do, it's not a sin to make money," he says. "God rewards industriousness, and that's what most of the people who come here are. Good, hard-working honest people who want to make money. No sin there." 

The latest annual report from the Church of England (CofE) shows that despite global uncertainty about the future of the economy, its investment fund rose by more than 15% to £5.3bn last year.

The fund, which goes to help the CofE mission and to pay out the thousands of pensions for retired clergy, operates under a strict policy of socially responsible investment.
Ethical investments

For the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian Brothers Investment Service (CBIS) does the same kind of investing, managing about $4bn (£6.6bn) worth of assets for thousands of various institutions across the world.

The Methodist Church in England also has a similar investment vehicle, with a fund of about £1bn to invest in what it considers ethical areas.

Bill Seddon is the chief executive of the Central Finance Board (CFB) for the Methodist Church. He explains how its investment policy works.

"We have a team of professional fund managers whose approach integrates the work of searching for companies with good financial characteristics with those that also meet our ethical criteria," he says.

"There is also a committee who's job it is to ensure that any suggested investment adheres to the principles of Methodism, and that the faith and beliefs are never compromised."

The role of the CBIS for the Roman Catholic Church, the Church Commissioners for The Church of England and the Central Finance Board for Methodism has changed over the years.

They're a lot more proactive now in trying to engage with big companies in order to try to get them to operate in a more socially responsible way and to spread the ministry of the church. 

It's about engagement.

For years the Methodist Church's CFB refused to invest in BSkyB, citing its involvement and ownership of several porn channels.

Mr Seddon explains: "Methodism is very clear on pornography. It's not something we believe we should as a society be investing in.

"That's why we have actively been engaging with BSkyB over their ownership of pornographic television channels, an engagement that has led to the TV provider deciding to let go of their interests in these channels. This means we can look again at investing with them."

The CFB annual report for 2011 also shows that there has been dialogue with numerous other companies - including BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Nestle and Unilever - over decisions they have made in the past and might make in the future in regards to their operating policy, something the CFB argues is changing attitudes in boardrooms. 

Mr Seddon says: "We find that most companies are willing to enter into dialogue on ethical issues as they find it helpful to know our views, as long-term investors, on social justice issues. The long-term nature of our interest means that mutual trust can be established and we can follow through on issues over a long period of time. This is very much in keeping with the idea of Methodism and spreading the word."

Conflict of interest?
All the major religions argue they need money to move forward with their teachings.

The upkeep of existing churches and the administering of their beliefs, not to mention the thousands of pensions doesn't come cheap, but what about philosophically?

Can a religion really exist along with capitalism? 

Surely there has to be a conflict of interest?

Eve Poole is a theologian who teaches ethics on the master of business administration (MBA) course at Ashridge Business School.

She's also the author of The Church and Capitalism.

She thinks healthy engagement in money is good for Christianity.

"The parable of the talents in the Bible shows us the reward of investing," says Ms Poole.
"Two servants are given money by their master when he goes away. One invests and makes money for his master whilst the other buries it making nothing. It's the shrewd investor who gets rewarded."

So the Bible encourages risk for the benefit of future profit.

This is something Mr Seddon also believes is true.

"We live in a capitalist world. This however doesn't automatically mean it's bad," he says.
"It's up to each individual to decide in what capacity they're going to engage with it. Making money isn't inherently wrong… as long as it's used for the greater good."

Back at St Margaret Lothbury, as the music fades and the myriad of City workers leave the church to return to their desks, no doubt in order to make more and more money for their companies, one can't help but wonder what God would really make of it all.