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Archbishop Justin's speech to the Credit Union Foundation

Wednesday 11th June 2014

Remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Credit Union Foundation reception, Westminster, 10 June 2014

This last year has been one of great change. It doesn’t feel like a year, because so much has been achieved; and I hope that the general mood of the credit union movement is upbeat and positive and hopeful for the future. We’ve seen positive steps from the government to help increase access to affordable and alternative sources of credit; the start of the credit union expansion project; and, in the Church, the launch of a task group on responsible credit and savings, which came out of the response to some comments I made last July.

Although it’s helpful for us to look back and say, well that’s been a good year, I think most of all we need to thank all those in the credit union movement, for whom this has long been a labour of love. People have borne the heat of the day when there’s been no attention given to credit unions, and they’ve done it with hard work and dedication for many, many years. I hope they feel that it’s not that the rest of us are just Johnny-come-latelies, but are actually those who recognize the value of what’s been going on for so long.

We are beginning to see real change. But we need to be realistic that what we’re trying to do is not a quick flash in the pan, but an effort to build a whole new financial sector that for many years has not been in existence in this country, excluding some of the poorest in our society from the basic necessity of effective financial services. If people don’t have that, there’s lots of other things they can’t do about job creation and work and training and all kinds of other things.

From a Christian point of view, within the context of the church, this drive that we feel to engage 16,000 parish churches and 8,500 full-time stipendiary clergy in this springs from our sense of our faith. There’s a story that Jesus tells of two debtors, one who owes a huge sum of money, one who owes a little. The one who owes a huge sum of money is summoned by his creditor, who says, 'You’re going to pay or you’re going to prison.’ The guy begs for forgiveness and gets it, and goes away and beats up the guy who owes him a little sum of money in order to get repaid, and Jesus points out the injustice of that.

There are a lot of meanings to that parable, but one of them is that debt is a form of slavery - and debt to a bad lender is a particularly unendurable form of slavery. The credit unions are trying to be the merciful lender, the one who has a clear system of values and ethics, and builds what they do around a value of the common good.

We’ve seen a huge increase in people’s knowledge about the existence of credit unions. In the past there have been three significant areas of challenge. First of all, as you know the regulatory system was virtually impossible for a credit union to make any money in  in other words to pay its cost of capital and therefore to survive. They all needed subsidy – that can’t work, it’s not sustainable. Secondly, credit unions needed a lot of help and support in some of their systems and the way they worked. And thirdly, they weren’t known.

Lord McFall is here this evening, with Roy [Lord Kennedy of Southwark] and others. With a lot of heavy lifting in the House, there’s been a big change in the regulatory system. It’s not complete yet, but it’s changed dramatically. That happened last year, and it’s made things, I hope, for you a little bit easier. But we need to know what more needs doing.

Secondly, banks like Lloyds and others are beginning to see the importance of working in partnership with credit unions. That’s really valuable, and we’re grateful to them. I keep challenging them, say to your high flyers, if they really want to get to the top, their CV has to show two years secondment in a credit union serving the community and learning what real banking is at the base level. It’s like being a curate. [laughter]

Thirdly, we need to get the word out there. As credit unions become better and stronger and more efficient there is a need for people to know about them. The church is doing its best. First of all, we’ve started one ourselves, for church employees.  We’ve tried to put our money where our mouth is. One in three of our bishops are now members of their local credit union; the other two will get there [laughter]. . . And the church is trying to put its weight behind it because we see the importance – because of our people on the ground in every community – of why this matters so much.

Three things we’re doing at the moment. The first is the Credit Champions Network, which Hector Sants launched a fortnight ago at St Martin in the Fields, that will seek to identify and develop grass-roots leaders within church communities; which is a lot of people. Everyone knows the church has a slightly mature demographic, and it’s something that in most cases we’re trying to balance out, but it’s very useful when it comes to this: we’ve got lots of people who are very skilled, very experienced and for whom doing this will be something that they will do out of love.

Someone said to me the other day, whenever love is offered at sufficient cost, because it’s always a sacrifice, it has an explosive power to change lives. And that’s what this movement is trying to do. So that network of credit champions is initially going to work in London and Liverpool to increase the number of churches engaged, train credit champions, and support them in leading church actions. The target is to train 300 people and to see 3000 members of credit unions as a result of the network, and to do that in the first three years. I think there’s going to be a lot of take up on that.

Secondly, we educate nearly a million children.One in four primary schools is run by the Church of England. We will be working on financial education for primary school children, to have a positive impact on the attitude of young people towards money and the culture of saving.

And lastly, we want to continue our response to the payday lending industry. I welcome what the government did at the latter stages of the Banking Reform Act last year, but we need to make sure that’s followed through and delivered on. Credit unions are not a direct substitute for payday lenders; ultimately they are giving different products. But as the name of the Task Group suggests, responsible credit and saving are real alternatives to the services currently provided by payday lenders.

This is a really exciting time for the credit unions. But we have to recognize that this is the long haul. It’s a marathon not a sprint, and therefore we need to keep going at a measured pace, developing so everyone knows about credit unions, and people pick it up. In 10 to 15 years it should be the norm, not the exception.

I’m hugely privileged to be involved in this, and hugely grateful to meet the people who are here. Thank you very much.


Read Hector Sants speech at launch of Church Credit Unions Network (27 May 2014)


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