Comment: Churches have role to play as investors

Peter Ranscombe. Picture: TSPLPeter Ranscombe. Picture: TSPL
Peter Ranscombe. Picture: TSPL
A WEEK before he was crucified and rose from the dead, Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple at Jerusalem, warning that the house of God had been turned into a “hideout for thieves” that ripped off the faithful.

Taking such direct action against fraud and skulduggery would be a welcome intervention – and could be one of the motivating factors behind the Church of England joining a consortium that is bidding for Royal Bank of Scotland’s 316 “project rainbow” branches.

Talk that Anglicans may spend millions of pounds for a stake in the branches – which the European Commission is forcing RBS to sell after its £45.5 billion taxpayer bailout in 2008 – will raise some eyebrows but the church is a long-standing investor. With the need to pay the pensions of thousands of retired ministers and maintain crumbling buildings, faith groups buy stakes in listed and unlisted firms like any other large bodies as part of efforts to swell their coffers.

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The Church of England has also been an activist investor, holding directors to account.

In 2010, it sold its £3.8 million stake in FTSE 100 miner Vedanta Resources following concerns about the mining giant’s human rights record in India. More recently, representatives held meetings with the board of Barclays – in which the church also holds a stake – to express their anger at the lender’s involvement in the Libor-rigging scandal. After all, the easiest way to change an organisation’s culture is from within.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, may also have the ear of more figures in the City than his predecessors. Welby gave up a six-figure salary as group treasurer at Enterprise Oil to train for the priesthood and, when the leader of the world’s 85 million Anglicans comes knocking on your door with his crook, it may well pay to sit up and take notice.

While he was still Bishop of Durham, Welby sat on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which suggested ministers should consider breaking up RBS. Lambeth Palace may have held its cards close to its chest yesterday over its involvement with the consortium – which also includes Edinburgh-based Standard Life Investments and Centrebridge, Corsair Capital and Lord Rothschild’s RIT Capital – but victory is far from assured.

The consortium, led by former trade minister Lord Davies, faces competition from a rival group of two dozen institutional investors that includes Foreign & Colonial, Schroders and Threadneedle Investments, while private equity players AnaCap and Blackstone are also pairing up to eye the Williams & Glyn’s business.

No matter what the outcome of the bidding war for the RBS branches, churches of any flavour would do well to consider whether their material wealth on Earth could be put to better use serving the poor. Some of Jesus’ other words about money should ring in their ears: “Pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.”

More renewable energy funds expected to float

THE Renewables Infrastructure Group (Trig) yesterday became the latest “green” energy investment fund to tap the public markets.

After SSE’s backing for London-listed Greencoat UK Wind in February, I would expect to see other funds planning to float, with the promise of regular dividends in return for cash to build more wind farms and eventually wave and tidal devices.