21 January 2009

Churches tackle credit crisis issues

Christian thinkers came together at Methodist Church House in London yesterday to talk about how the Churches could lead the way through the economic crisis.

The speakers at the conference organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland examined the root causes of the current crisis from a faith perspective and gave their thoughts on what the churches' role in addressing the global financial meltdown should be.

John Ellis, Secretary for Team Operations for the Methodist Church Connexional Team and Treasurer of the United Reformed Church who previously worked at the Bank of England, made the connection between HSBC's relatively safe riding of the economic storm and its chairman's Christian faith.

"It is fairly safe to assert that HSBC has been the most robust during the recent economic troubles," he said. "It is also safe to assert that the chairman of HSBC is an Anglican priest. Is that a coincidence?"

John also pointed out the growth of credit unions in recent years and the possibility of a return to basic banking.

Ann Pettifor, former head of Jubilee 2000 Debt Relief Campaign and Campaign Director of Operation Noah, blamed the sin of usury and easy credit for the crisis and examined the role high interest rates had played in the bursting of the credit bubble. "Six per cent interest is an incredibly high and, I would say, usurious rate," she said. "Usury is the exalting of money values over human and environmental values. Capital and globalisation is based on the principal that there are no boundaries. But the problem is law needs boundaries." Ann emphasised that usury was looked down upon in Islam.

Bob Goudzwaard, Professor Emeritus of Economics and Social Philosophy at the Free University in Amsterdam, said he hoped churches would be willing to take part in a discussion on changing economic structures.

Paula Clifford, Head of Theology at Christian Aid, told the conference she thought the view that the economic crisis served a higher purpose was deeply offensive to poorer people who are now experiencing cuts in aid. Niall Cooper, from the Get Fair Campaign against poverty, said the Church should not be afraid to take sides, get political and stand up for the poor.

Alison Gelder, Chief Executive of Housing Justice, posed the question: "To what extent should we share the responsibility of looking around the community and saying, 'Who is it who needs housing?'"

John Reynolds, an investment banker and Chairman of the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group, laid out a five point agenda in which churches would have a stronger voice. "Ethical pressure must be applied both on companies and stake holders at the same time," he said.

Following a panel discussion, Michael Bartlet, Parliamentary Liaison Officer for Quaker Peace and Social Witness, summed up the discussion. "We face today a choice between a political economy based on greed and consumption and a way of life which is based on sustainable and just relationships with our neighbour," he said. "This conference is an example of the practical kind of way we can work together in the future towards building a more sustainable economy."

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