Click here to watch Church Credit Champions, a video about the Church of England's war on payday loans.
by Jim Melchiorre
David Barclay can walk down almost any commercial street in the U.K. and see his surname on the windows or doors of one of the world’s giant banks.
“My ancestors were involved in setting up Barclays Bank,” he said. “They were Quakers, and they would never own property that had slaves working on it. That was one of their moral convictions that they built the business around.”
Now Barclay, 26, laments what he sees as widespread abdication of ethics in the financial system. When my Trinity Wall Street colleague Bob Scott and I caught up with him in November 2014, Barclay was leading marchers in a street protest against what he considers predatory lending that targets poor and working-class British citizens.
Over-indebtedness in Britain, as elsewhere, helped create the 2008 world financial crisis and was exacerbated by it. Mainstream banks tightened their lending practices, effectively shutting off credit to lower-income citizens. “Access to financial services is a huge part of the discussion about economic inequality. If people don’t have access to credit, then a whole set of things that maybe more middle-class people might take for granted just aren’t possible,” Barclay said.
“Whether that’s home improvements, or a car, or surviving life’s shocks and not going into that spiral of debt—what we find is that debt is a trap, it keeps people enslaved, and it stops people from realizing their potential.”
Promoting Credit Unions
We went to Hackney, a working-class community of Greater London, to see how economic inequality reveals itself in credit markets. We got the idea from the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 2013, Welby challenged parishes of the Church of England to provide competition to “payday” lenders, which deliver money within 15 minutes to credit-strapped borrowers—at interest rates as high as 5,000 percent per year. Such payday loan companies have flourished since the Great Recession. Welby’s vision called for parishes to recruit people to join local credit unions as an alternative.
David Barclay is an enthusiastic foot soldier in the Welby-inspired campaign to strengthen credit unions.
“We think they provide a much better alternative for people in need,” Barclay said.
“This isn’t just a poor man’s bank. As a more middle-class person, [if you] need to take out a loan for whatever purpose, then you can see that as an opportunity to take an ethical consumer choice, as you might do with fair-trade shopping.”
Barclay has teamed up with the Rev. Rosemia Brown, Vicar of St. James the Great, in an ongoing project called Church Credit Champions Network. With marchers representing 10 congregations, Brown and Barclay walked along the busy commercial section of Hackney that Britons generically call high street, stopping in front of payday loan stores and betting shops, speaking with passersby about the merits of local credit unions, and delivering 132 applications they had gathered requesting membership in the London Community Credit Union.
“We deliberately designed this process to be one that is about helping churches reflect and think and listen to God and listen to their neighbors,” Barclay said.
“This is very high profile in the UK, but things will move on and there’ll be another kind of sexy thing for churches to do, and we wanted to make sure this was really in the bloodstream of churches.”
Barclay, a native of Glasgow, graduated from Oxford University in 2010 with a degree in modern history. While a student, he honed his skills in community activism as president of the Oxford University Student Union.
Barclay now serves as Faith in Public Life Officer at the Centre for Theology & Community (CTC), which has offices in the crypt of St. George-in-the-East in the Shadwell neighborhood of London’s East End.
“The Center for Theology & Community exists to help churches engage with their communities,” Barclay explained.
The work includes community organizing, theological reflection, and prayer. Through the CTC, Barclay has worked with the Living Wage Campaign and Citizens UK.
“Often, theology is seen as a kind of abstract, academic exercise that’s not connected to the real world,” Barclay said. “Actually, theology is intensely practical.”
When Barclay recruits congregations for the Church Credit Champions Network, he says he asks three questions: “The first one is, what are the problems that people face in terms of money and financial services? The second one is, what practical changes would make a positive difference on those issues? And the third one is, what’s the role of your church in being part of making those changes happen?”
David Barclay embraces his personal status as the descendant of a celebrated banking family now working with those critical of the British banking and financial system, recalling his ancestors had a “very strong moral framework that the business was held within.”
“It seems like some of those moral convictions, not just in Barclays, but in most of the mainstream banks, have kind of eroded, and what we saw in the crash was the unraveling of that on a huge scale,” Barclay said.
He sees his activism as a return to his famous family’s roots. “I feel a sense of calling to be reviving some of the spirit of my ancestors, to say there is a different way of viewing money,” Barclay said.
“We can actually use it for the common good.”