Why I am worried about the C of E’S 8.2% return

Last night something strange happened: the investment activity and remuneration policy of the Church Commissioners was discussed at a P.C.C. meeting I chair.

It was a slightly uncomfortable situation for me in that until nine years ago the majority of my career was in the fund management industry. In early 2007 I left the city and embarked on a journey that led to ordination. So there I was discussing ethical investing, portfolio construction and, fund manager remuneration with my P.C.C.

The makeup of the P.C.C. is varied but it is fair to say that the majority of its membership either currently work in, or are retired from, what might be referred to as vocational jobs: teachers, nurses and so forth. And, they are not impressed with the church, or at least it’s commissioners. They are angry about the holding in Alphabet / Google and, about the level of remuneration awarded to Mr. Joy (£255,000 base salary and £208,000 performance related pay). Are they being unreasonable? Is the P.C.C. a group of militant anti capitalist Marxists?

I don’t think so. They all  live in a small market town in mid to north Buckinghamshire!

We spent a few minutes discussing the complexities of portfolio construction and asset allocation. I suggested that we don’t know the extent to which the Church Commissioners actively engage, as a shareholder, in seeking to improve the tax policy of companies in which they invest (we should – there is no reason why the Church Commissioners can’t detail their level of activity.)

We also discussed remuneration in the city and I made the point, somewhat squeamishly,  that the fund management industry is incredibly highly paid, and that Mr. Joy (for the returns he seems to have generated) is almost certainly paid below the level of his ‘competitors.’

The P.C.C. I think accepted the point (or at least the facts of the matter) but continued to hold the view that the level of pay awarded to Mr. Joy is utterly excessive. The P.C.C. regard the C of E as a ‘vocational employer’and feel that this should always be reflected in the remuneration packages it offers. To their mind the level of total pay awarded to the likes of Mr. Joy means they have failed  the ‘vocations test.’

The P.C.C. is also worried about what sort of message stories like this send out to the congregation at large. Why should our loyal congregants keep giving, how can we ask them to up their giving, when the Church seems awash with money? These are legitimate questions.

As I began to brood last night further questions arose in my mind:

How should we feel about a total return of 8.2% achieved in 2015?

The Church Commissioners blurb celebrates the return as a significant achievement but, should we actually be concerned? 

How are the likes of Mr. Joy remunerated; should we be concerned that he is being encouraged or motivated to take significant and excessive risks in order to generate extra-ordinary returns, which in turn allow him to ‘max out’ on bonuses?

Starting with the investment return: The Church Commissioners first stated investment objective is to achieve a return of 5% in excess of inflation over the long-term. What did inflation average over the course of 2015? Well, certainly nowhere near 3.2% . In fact inflation on the first January 2015 was zero per cent. It then rose modestly during the year and has recently begun to fall.

The Church Commissioners have a further stated investment objective: to outperform the relevant stock market indices on the equity portion of the portfolio. The U.K. equity performance can therefore be measured against say the FTSE All Share Index. So how did U.K. equities perform in 2015 at the aggregate level? Well, the FTSE All Share Index produced a total return (capital growth plus dividends) of 1% (the figure for 2014 was 1.2%).

So how on earth did the Church Commissioners manage to achieve an investment return of 8.2%? It is a super normal return; eight times the return on inflation and the stock market average (not withstanding the fact that the property, in which the portfolio invests, performed extremely well, as did ‘private equity.’).

It,the return, could be all down to fund manager skill, with the fund managers selecting only ‘winning stocks’ and avoiding all ‘losing’ stocks, but I suggest this is unlikely.

It could be down to random luck, with excessive returns being generated by being on the right side of each and every piece of corporate activity. Again unlikely.

Or it could be because there is excessive risk in the portfolio; in my view probable, or at least highly possible.

Does this matter?

Well, yes because often when portfolios dramatically outperform their bench marks in a low return environment the worry is that such excessive risk (volatility) will become even more obvious – painfully obvious – when the portfolio begins to under-perform its benchmarks. If this happens the pain will be acute. I have been there and it hurts (but not those who have already banked their bonuses).

In the meantime Mr. Joy is being rewarded for the ‘skill’ he has shown, even though the returns are so out of kilter with what could ordinarily be expected from a well-managed, diversified portfolio.

We should be worried.

So what would I like to see from the Church Commissioners?

  • Evidence of their level of engagement with Alphabet / Google (a company by the way that refuses to pay a dividend even though it could easily do so)
  • Some published statistical data showing the level of risk in the portfolio
  • Details of the mechanism by which fund manager bonuses are calculated and,
  • A remuneration package which acknowledges the vocational nature of working in and for the Church of England

One final thought: last night I heard myself explaining that Mr. Joy works in a highly competitive industry, which has (post big bang) paid its executives super normal salaries and bonuses, and that whatever ‘we’ think of the level of his pay many of his ‘competitors’ will be paid substantially more.

However the nub of the issue is this:  The Church Commissioners doesn’t have competitors. It doesn’t compete for external funds and its own portfolio of £7 billion is pretty much ring fenced. So does it need to pay a competitive market salary when it’s not really competing in the market place? I don’t think so. The Church Commissioners need to model pay restraint and promote the notion of vocational employment; me thinks.

In summary, over and above the ethics of investing in companies with a poor track record of paying tax in the countries where revenues are generated, my other big concerns are the level of risk in the portfolio and the thought that the Church may have ceased to regard itself as a vocational employer.

Thank you P.C.C. for bringing this issue to the table.

 

 

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Speaking of inclusivity

The other day in an online ‘discussion,’ on matters sexual (there’s a surprise)  I was asked: ‘what does it mean to be inclusive.’

It is a fair question in that ‘inclusive’ seems to be a word, phrase, or motif that many across the breadth of the church seek to own. I suspect that part of the reason is that few want to either regard themselves, or be regarded by others, as ‘exclusive.’

Sometimes it is useful to be forensic about a particular word or phrase. When I was a young undergraduate one of the comments that frequently appeared in red ink, in the margins of my essays was ‘state your terms.’

So maybe when we use words (motifs) like inclusive and inclusivity it is  right and proper that we’ state our terms,’ at least that way we might understand where our various conversation partners are coming from. I also think it is important that we do not allow words and phrases to mean whatever someone want them to mean; although I would also argue that some words and phrases defy precise meaning. Language is both complex and political.

The early to mid twentieth century Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren was obsessed with the idea of motifs. For Nygen a fundamental motif was an idea, word or concept that is granted ‘a special position,’ and is of ‘fundamental importance.’ (Nygren believed that agape, radical self giving love, is Christianity’s only fundamental motif, although he was also pretty much taken with Eros, hence his book Agape and Eros). Nygren said the following on the subject of motifs, and motif research:

‘As distinct from historical-genetic research, motif research is concerned less with the historical connections and origins of motifs than with their characteristic content and typical manifestations.’ 

Now I have little doubt that some will be extremely uncomfortable with the idea of dispensing with ‘historical-genetic research;’ so be it.

But, what I would like to do is give some thought to the idea that if ‘inclusivity’ is to be afforded the status of a ‘fundamental motif,’ (which I believe it should), what could be its internal characteristics and external manifestations. Clearly there is a direct relationship between the two dynamics. Beliefs (orthodoxy) are made visible through actions (orthopraxis).

I have used the word could as opposed to would because this is an initial thought piece, not a fully worked through thesis, (Nygren took 741 pages to analyses agape – it is a very dense read!)

I would want to argue that plurality, diversity and structural ambiguity are core to the genetic make up of inclusivity. An inclusive community must actively accommodate and promote a variety of views. It must respect the legitimacy of different views. However, it must go further, moving from the cognitive to the real, or physical. It must also, demonstrably, go beyond weak form  (political and pragmatic) toleration of certain views, and more importantly, people.

An inclusive community doesn’t just make an intellectual assent to pluralism, it must also be inhabited by a set of diverse and different characters. Inclusivity has both an intellectual and a tangible and physical dimension. Inclusivity is a lived experience.

Plurality and diversity lead into ‘structural ambiguity,’ at least at the level of traditional descriptors. For someone observing an inclusive community it may well be the case that the only word left to really describe the community and its essence is…….’inclusive!’

Yes, a particular inclusive community may worship in a distinctive way. It may be high church or low church, liturgical or experiential, but, these for an inclusive church may be regarded as secondary markers, for the ‘fundamental motif’ is inclusivity.

The external manifestations of an inclusive church would, I think, be evidenced in two ways:

First, the style of leadership (and into this category I would subsume teaching). It is of course important that leaders of inclusive churches should have their own views, or theologies, but it is also possibly the case that these are not of primary importance.

The leadership of an inclusive church, if plurality and diversity are characteristic of inclusivity, should be happy with a range of well thought through views. Teaching would encourage reflection and allow for the potential for ‘good disagreement.’  Leaders and teachers would be ‘happy’ with the reality that some, maybe even many, might disagree with their theologies on a given (important) subject. The role of the leader / teacher is to accompany the people of God on their journey, without having a fixed pastoral or doctrinal outcome as the goal. The leader / teacher may also wish to work with the community in deciding on where the (perhaps porous) boundaries of inclusivity may be set. Inclusivity doesn’t mean collapsing into absolute relativism and, unrestricted hospitality (the Rule of Benedict, for instance, stresses this point.)

It does mean, however, providing the language whereby different communities can describe what inclusivity means, and how it will be experienced or inhabited, in their context. For each parish to be able to do requires an institutional architecture that allows for plurality and diversity. Institutional inclusivity must precede contextual inclusivity.

The implication of this is that the denomination must itself be inclusive allowing some parishes to define inclusivity by providing everyone with access to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, whilst other parishes may, additionally, chose to  offer pastoral prayers for same sex couples, or rites of affirmation.

Inclusivity at the denominational level can only be operational in a system characterized by a commitment to subsidiarity. Subsidiarity suggests the importance of liberal and conservative alike ceasing to frame contentious subjects in the rhetoric of ‘winner takes all.’ Subsidiarity allows communities (and individuals in positions of authority) to hold a particular position but, also demands that such a position should not be imposed on other communities (or individuals).

Subsidiarity and inclusivity go hand in glove. Subsidiarity doesn’t throw away all institutional norms, but it thinks very carefully (and I would argue pragmatically) about their scope. Subsidiarity values ‘good disagreement,’ but, insists that ‘good disagreement,’ implies institutionally approved differences in practice. Subsidiarity moves disagreement beyond the cognitive and appreciative and into praxis.

The second way in which the ‘typical manifestation’ of inclusivity is , therefore demonstrated is through the range of rites and practices offered by a particular community. I would want to argue that rites and practices are the epistemology of the church in action. If we claim to be inclusive then we have to have concrete actions that validate the claim. Otherwise to paraphrase St. James our ‘words are dead;’ meaningless, maybe even political.

Is my Church inclusive? Well, only up to a point. (the point being access to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist).   I hope the C of E is  moving towards adopting different ways of expressing a commitment to  inclusivity, but because the Church seems to prize ‘structural certainty,’ over ‘structural ambiguity,’ it can’t at present be fully inclusive. That is the reality within which we operate.

Does this matter?

Only, if inclusivity should be regarded as a ‘fundamental motif.’ 

 

 

‘In Christ,’ absolutely; but…

I have been following with interest the recent on-line conversations on the subject of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’

Although it is not a phrase I use I do in many ways sympathize with some of the sentiments I hope it may be trying to express. We should ‘hate’ or deplore sin, just as Jesus did. So the argument comes down to these questions : What is sin? And, what theological data can we use to codify and define sin? I think I would want to start, and even possibly finish, with the 10 Commandments and Jesus’ summation of the law. I accept that for some this is too narrow.

I hope that all Christians hate murder in all its manifestations and whatever its motivations, for to murder is always an expression of hatred of the other. I hope that we would all deplore acts of theft, irrespective of whether they be deemed ‘petty,’ serious or, the consequences of institutional corruption. All forms of sexual crime are to be deplored. Anything that ‘trespasses’ against the rights of others is wrong. Rights should always be used responsibly, less we ‘trespass’ against others. Rights aren’t always necessarily ‘goods’ in and of themselves; they are opportunities and privileges to be used judiciously.

But, one of the problems with the phrase is, I suspect, that it is seldom used self-referentially. We need to ‘hate’ that bit of us that creates false Gods, covets our neighbours assets, undermines our neighbours relationships and, refuses to esteem our parents. The phrase shouldn’t be used solely to judge externalities.

That no-body should be cut off from the love of God is of course one of Christianity’s foremost hopes, that we should love our neighbour is, again of course, central to the practice of our faith. And, ‘who is our neighbour?’

Well according to Kierkegaard (with apologies for the highly gendered language), ‘your neighbour is every man, for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbour, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men. He is your neighbour on the basis of equality with you before God; but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.’ 

So it would seem obvious that we should love our neighbour, on the basis that the twin dynamics that describe ‘neighbourliness’ are human, or temporal difference and, equality before God.

Good neighbourliness celebrates difference and diversity, for as H. Richard Niebuhr reflected (again, please forgive the gender specific language): ‘Love is reverence; it keeps its distance even as it draws near; it does not seek to absorb the self or want to be absorbed by it; it rejoices in the otherness of the other; it desires the beloved to be what he is and does not seek to refashion him into a replica of the self or to make him a means of the self’s advancement.’  

And, when we talk about difference and diversity, what we are really talking about is identity; the you or me that was knit together in the mother’s womb and known before we were even born (to draw on Psalm 139). Diversity, difference and identity, I would want to argue are hugely important. They form the very stuff that is located ‘in Christ.’  

So, I worry that ‘in Christ,’ is a phrase open to misuse, and worst still political abuse.

In the comments on social media following the publication of the blogs, the idea was expressed that since our identity is ‘in Christ,’ it isn’t necessary to retain other identity markers. Justin Welby was, rightfully, commended for affirming, following the publication of his family history,  that his primary identity was ‘in Christ.’ I too, would want to affirm this. My hope is that not only my identity, but my ultimate destiny is ‘in Christ.’

However this, at least for this Christian, doesn’t mean throwing away all other, maybe temporal, identity markers and, it doesn’t mean encouraging others to do so. What it means, I think, is locating them, even affirming them,  ‘in Christ.’

‘In Christ’ is the chalice that holds my history, my destiny and, my reality. I don’t want to throw away my reality and I don’t want to make others conform to it, for if I do, according to Kierkegaard and Niebuhr, I will have ceased to making any movement towards becoming a loving neighbour.

I would like to finish with one story from my own family:

I have a disabled daughter, she is very bright and studying theology at Oxford. (I have asked her permission to refer to her story). Her ‘disability’ is physical. She has been told in Christian circles that she doesn’t need to identify as ‘disabled.’ So here is the question:

‘Do you think that it is able-bodied or disabled bodied Christians who make this observation?’ I don’t really need to answer, do I?

In a conversation about how her disability could be managed in a particular environment a Christian remarked (in my presence) that ‘we are all a little bit brain-damaged since the fall.’  He was trying to be pastoral and reassuring. His motives were good, his theology wasn’t.

The Christian who made this comment is a friend of mine, but he shows no obvious and empirical signs of ‘brain damage!’

My daughter is quite happy to accept that she has some brain damage – indeed brain scans prove it! She is also happy, yes happy, to self define as disabled and, she is happy for others to define her as disabled. But she isn’t happy if it is done with a whiff of superiority, or the suggestion that she should act as though able bodied. How could she, why should she? And if this applies to her, in terms of her identity, then why shouldn’t it apply to others in terms of their identity?

And of course many characteristics define our overall identity, some of them genetic and biological, some of them familial and relational, still others of them ontological. These differences are to be celebrated, not re-calibrated. Loving our neighbour means letting go of all desires to ‘refashion’ them into something that sits better with our own image of what it means to be authentically human.

This does not, of course, mean that anything goes. The 10 commandments and the requirement to love God and neighbour stand. In fact through the reverential respect for such diversity they may be strengthened?

Identity, ‘in Christ’ is multi-dimensional. If we are serious about our identity ‘in Christ,’ we need to identify with and be grounded in our reality and, our neighbour’s reality. If we don’t, or aren’t prepared to, how can we be a good neighbour?

One of the very real issues that the Church has to contend with is how to promote (not simply note or listen to)  the minority voice, and to do so reverentially, without patronizing it.

My daughter is comfortable with her body (although for sure, sometimes frustrated by it when it does unpredictable things!) But, her point is simply this: ‘that she was known in the womb, before she was even born.’ She is, who she is, and her identity matters to her. And if we accept the musings of Keierkegaard and Niehbuhr it should matter to others too. In fact it affords her opportunities (she is part of a disabled elite shooting squad). She doesn’t want to be the same as those who think she shouldn’t identify as disabled, and why should she?

My daughter, because of her disability, and the reaction to her disability by normally well-meaning folk, now takes the concept of ‘liberation’ very seriously and works alongside other ‘minority’ (the funny things is when the numbers of such minority groups are added up you get to an awfully big number!) on the ‘liberation council’ in the pursuit of justice and the removal of the ‘yoke’ that binds. Liberation is a hugely important theological motif.

Every single neighbour on the liberation council has some form of identity marker that needs to be visibly maintained, at least for the time being. Her colleagues – or should I say neighbours –  proudly represent the LGTBI community, various ethnic communities, the economically disadvantaged community and, so forth.

I am proud of her because I think, through her work, she is expressing real Gospel values. She can only stand in solidarity with others. It is her very distinctiveness that allows her to be a (good) neighbour.

We need to be extremely careful when we use the term ‘in Christ,’ less we cheapen it and, others.

When the phrase ‘in Christ, there is no……’ becomes a reality, then temporal identity markers will have lived beyond their sell by date. Then good neighbourliness and all that follows from it (difference in equality, peace through justice) will have become a lived reality.

Then there will be no need to self-identify in other ways. But until then, there is.

It is in (and through) Christ that our histories are received, are reality is lodged, and our destiny secured. It is in Christ that are sins are forgiven and neighbourliness is expressed. It is in Christ that equality is affirmed and distinctions retained. 

‘In Christ’ does not mean throwing away, or seeking to deny, our God-given characteristics and pretending that the story of our lives is somehow unimportant. 

Religion, politics and polite society.

When I were a lad there two things that you weren’t supposed to discuss in polite society: religion and politics!

Now that I am a Parish Priest it is hard to avoid, with any integrity, discussing religion and, as for politics, well it refuses to be silenced!

A few days ago the question that I had been waiting for was finally asked  by a parishioner: ‘Andrew, how are you going to vote in the referendum?’ 

As a ‘good’ C of E of priest I avoided giving a straight answer!

But, I did suggest that, as a person of faith, my starting place needs to be, wait for it………my faith!

In other words my decision needs, above all else,to be informed and critiqued through the riches of the Christian tradition, using its motifs, concepts and, Scriptures.

So here are just a few of the thoughts that I have been chewing other, or pondering, since the question was popped:

First, of all it would seem really clear to me that ‘narrow’ self interest cannot, with theological integrity, be the starting point. ‘What’s in Britain’s best interests’ is an interesting politico-economic question but, not a distinctively Christian question.

In fact as Christians we are sometimes asked to make decisions which, in the short-term, might appear to be antagonistic to our own ‘narrow’ self-interest. St. Paul famously reminded the Christian community in Philippi that ‘everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others,’ (Philippians 2, 3-4). So, as we Christians make up our minds I do think it is important that we listen to the views of others, they are our neighbours after all.

Good neighbourliness must, if we are to take Jesus’ summation of the law seriously, be a guiding concept and being a good neighbour means weighing up the needs of others; by definition!

Being Christian, I would want to suggest, means fully accepting that others can rightfully make claims on us, being Christian also means the willingness to bear such claims, to the extent to which they support and uphold the common good.

So as we approach the referendum I think it is really important to ask ‘how can we best be a good neighbour to the people of Europe and around the world?’  The subsidiary question is, of course, ‘what structures and institutions best support the Christian ideal of good neighbourliness?’ 

Good neighbourliness brings into question the contentious issues of migration and border control. We need to think these issues through for Jesus ‘election manifesto’ made it clear that He came to break the yoke that binds the refugee, migrant and, outcast. For the Christian the question can never be if, only how, this might be achieved.

What combination of hospitality and charity should we offer, both of which I take to be manifestations of that distinctive self-sacrificial love called agape?

Mutuality might be a concept the faith community should regard as antecedent to prosperity. Jeremiah 29, gives some interesting insights into the relationship between the two. It is a great read!

In addressing questions raised by mutuality and prosperity we are, of course, entering into territory where theology and economics come into dialogue with each other. The European referendum has a definite ‘Theonomic’ dimension to it. Theology and economics cannot, however uncomfortable it might makes us feel, be kept in separate compartments, just think how frequently ‘money’ is mentioned in the gospels (and elsewhere in the canon.)

Justice and peace (where peace means not just the absence of violence but also the reality of right and righteous relationships) are important motifs, for as the monks of Taize like to chant: ‘the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ 

If we are serious about the Lord’s Prayer, and in particular our plea that God’s will be done ‘in earth as in heaven,’  we need to think very hard about whether we can best serve the interest of peace and justice from either inside or outside the European Union.

Finally, I would want to reflect through the lens of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the principle that ‘decisions should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness.’ Subsidiarity must, however, not be regarded as a straightforward rule that always insists that ‘local is best.’ Rather it suggests that ‘local can be best.’ But, subsidiarity does, rightfully, invite a level of healthy skepticism of large and powerful structures and institutions.

If subsidiarity (which derives from Catholic social teaching) is to be used as an epistemological lens with integrity ‘careful attention to the areas of life where we function best as a nation and other areas where people function best as members of something smaller and more local’ need to be carefully weighed up. (This quote is taken from the House of Bishop’s Pastoral Letter – ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The word ‘nation’ in the original refers to Britain, in my usage here ‘nation’ is used to donate Europe and ‘local’ Britain.)

So there you have it, the theological motifs and concepts that I will be using to inform my decision: giving some preference to the claims of others, good neighbourliness, the common good, mutuality and prosperity, justice, peace and, subsidiarity.

Two final thoughts: First, I really do hope that Christians raise theological questions both of themselves and of those campaigning one way or t’other, otherwise all we will be left with are spurious economic arguments and secondly, I am still not saying how I will be voting!

There really are some things that a vicar shouldn’t talk about in polite society!