Whatever your theology, we can probably all agree that this week has not seen the Church of England covering itself in media glory. So it is ironic that on Wednesday evening a Newsnight report proved that the Church is at the cutting edge of an increasingly visible issue – exploitative lending.
On Wednesday the Office for Fair Trading released a report slamming Wonga and other payday loan companies for “aggressive” and “misleading” practices in collecting their debts. This was picked up by several newspapers and followed by a special report describing payday loan rates as “exorbitant” and “often agony to repay”.
The Contextual Theology Centre is working with London Citizens on a campaign called ‘Just Money’ which is seeking to help ordinary people take back control over money. We’ve produced an essay collection called ‘Crunch Time’ which gives a theological grounding for the campaign. And with a new series of ‘Money Talks’ opening up discussions about people’s experiences of money, momentum is gathering at exactly the right time. Money Talks are beginning to happen across east London.
The stories coming out of the Money Talks are powerful and depressing in equal measure. One woman explained how she’d taken out a loan for £1,000 in 1999 which she continues to pay off to this day. Another had to bail out her granddaughter for £3,000-worth of debts racked up with Wonga. “I won’t be allowing her no more Wonga-ing” she declared valiantly.
Church of England Priest Revd William Taylor explained why he’d felt it was important to get involved:
“Many of our parishioners are poor yet resourceful. They manage on low incomes, juggling jobs and family commitments. Yet there are patterns of struggle. In particular a number of them get into severe debt problems through being unable to meet interest repayments on short term loans. It is terrifying to see how quickly their lives can become chaotic and out of control.
Parishioners like ours are organising themselves to take more control over their lives. An important first step is talking to each other and bringing the pain and fear and the particular problems into the light.”
From these Money Talks a palpable anger and appetite to see change happen is emerging. Soon the Churches who have pioneered the Money Talks will join forces and take part in a ‘Money Walk’ of their local high street to assess the situation on the ground. If it’s anything like my local high street – Bethnal Green Road – they will be shocked by what they find. One credit union is up against five pawn shops and four payday lenders in the battle to offer much-needed credit as times get hard.
Where the campaign goes from here is up to the people involved. One thing is for certain though – if I was a payday lender charging 4000% interest or a Government minister claiming that we can’t cap the cost of credit, I’d be getting pretty worried. When the local church really gets its teeth into an issue that its members are passionate about, it can be a powerful force for positive change.
Please email David at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the Just Money Campaign and how you and your organisation could get involved.