In this guest blog, Professor Fred Robinson explores the difficult balance between Christian principles and worldly pragmatism when it comes to the source of the money that churches steward.   

How should churches respond to the problem of ‘tainted money’? What should churches do about historic endowments linked to exploitation? Does it matter where churches invest their money or who they bank with? Is it OK to get funding from the National Lottery to mend the church roof or support a church’s community projects?

Supporters of JustMoney Movement will have thought about these questions, but a lot of churches don’t think about them enough. In my experience, too often we make sure we use fair-traded tea and coffee, but don’t ask many questions about our church’s money and wealth. It’s time we did.

I’ve been looking at how different church denominations deal with money. Talking to church members and leaders, I’ve heard a lot about being pragmatic and realistic, and not much about principles and Christian teaching about money.

It’s uncomfortable talking about money.

I started by looking at historic benefactions – money and property given to churches sometimes long ago. The provenance of that wealth can be difficult to unravel. But I think it’s worth the effort for the sake of honesty and openness – besides, others might reveal the truth about our horrible histories. The Church Commissioners have done a good job researching the origins of a substantial part of their wealth as the proceeds of slavery – and the Church of England has begun to respond to that with a reparations fund. But there’s a lot more to uncover, at local and national level; there’s much to do to face up to the legacies of slavery and exploitation.

What about the money that churches receive today? When it comes to fund-raising most churches seem to aim to get whatever they can from wherever they can. I’m not in the business of blaming them for that. But I think they should at least think about what they are doing. I don’t much care for the Lottery and I suspect many church members don’t like it either – but most churches are nowadays happy enough to seek Lottery funding. While we talk about poverty and perhaps even host meetings of Gamblers Anonymous, maybe we need to think again? Or perhaps we have to just accept that doing good may mean compromise?

It has been gratifying to find that every church denomination has policies about investing their money in ethical funds, although exactly what that means in practice varies. Remarkably, there are still churches investing in fossil fuel companies. And the approach is almost always cautious and conventional. Surely there’s tremendous scope for churches to invest in companies and sectors that will help solve our economic, environmental and social problems – rather than exacerbate them? 

And then there’s everyday banking. Do most of us know who our churches bank with? Do we care enough? It is deeply disappointing to find that a great many churches are still with banks such as Barclays that, amongst other things, is heavily invested in fossil fuel companies.

These aren’t easy issues to deal with. It seems fair enough to say that all money is tainted – and maybe even claim that good works cleanse tainted money. But I think churches ought to do better than that. Where your treasure is, there also is your heart? (Matt. 6.21).

Professor Fred Robinson is a Professorial Fellow at St Chad’s College, Durham University. Fred was awarded a Fellowship by the William Leech Foundation to look at churches and money in North East England. In January 2023 he published a report of this research which can be downloaded here.

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