CTC Fellow David Barclay – who co-ordinated our work on responsible finance – blogs on our new report with Durham University on churches, money and debt.
“Any time we talk about money it’s, you know, ‘you should be giving’, and that’s it. Not how should you be living your life, what should you be valuing, where do you put your treasure.”
So said a participant at one of 35 ‘Money Talks’ events held as part of a joint research project between the Centre for Theology and Community and the University of Durham which published its final report this week. This comment was symptomatic of the many church-goers for whom the topic of money and debt is rarely mentioned as part of their Christian experience except in the context of giving to the Church.
The Church’s reticence to talk about the wider aspects of money and debt in our society is deeply problematic, because the influence of these issues pervades all of our lives. Although participants in the Money Talks weren’t asked to share personal stories, more than 30 chose to, suggesting a huge reservoir of experience (often painful) lurking under the surface. These stories helped people to break down some of the myths and stigma associated with debt – particularly the idea that it is primarily caused by overspending and individual fecklessness. In fact statistics show that the greatest causes of problem debt are unforeseen changes in personal circumstances such as the loss of a job, a health problem or a bereavement. The complexity of debt was reflected in the fact that over 50 different causal factors were identified by the groups that took part in the Money Talks.
If the churches involved in the Money Talks were varied in their discussions about the causes of debt, they were united on one thing – the lack of theological reflection on the issue. One of the most fascinating elements of conducting Money Talks was the transition between the first section discussing the causes and effects of debt and the second section discussing how their Christian faith affected the way people thought about these issues. Whilst the first question evoked a rapid and diverse range of responses, the second was usually followed by a lengthy and awkward silence, suggesting a transition from fairly comfortable territory to a much more difficult area.
Of course the great irony is that even though Christians might not have much to say about money, the Bible is absolutely full of material on it. When asked to identify a Bible passage relating to money or debt, Money Talk participants across the project shared more than 50 different verses or stories. Where things became more complicated was when they were then challenged to explain how they applied these verses to their own lives and society. What became clear was that people had rarely explored these passages in any depth before – one participant recalled that the topic of money had been preached on just once during their 22 years attending their previous church!
These discussions are made all the more urgent by the excellent work done by many churches and Christian organisations tackling money and debt issues in the community. Whether through Christians Against Poverty, Community Money Advice, Quaker Social Action, the Just Finance Foundation, the Trussell Trust or just on their own, churches are having a huge impact on the lives of some of the most marginalised people in the UK. And as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s famous comments about Wonga in 2013 showed, when the Church speaks out on issues of debt there is a ready audience in the wider society.
The time has come for churches to break the British taboos around money and debt. As a contribution towards this, the ‘Money Talks’ project created a simple and free guide for churches on how to hold their own Money Talk and which organisations to go to for help on taking practical action.