Vicar's Blog ~ September 2018
It’s five years now since Archbishop Justin Welby declared what the press decided to call the ‘war on Wonga’. You probably remember – Wonga were in the habit of advertising short-term unsecured loans with their 2 little old people saying in their cartoony way that this was the solution to all their problems. Ironic that they were shortsighted, and if you had been to the opticians recently and peered closely at the small print at the bottom of the TV screen for the right fraction of a second you would have spotted that the interest was a mere 5900 per cent. I say ‘mere’, because it is still the case that an unauthorised bank overdraft from a High Street bank can cost even more. Which is not to say Wonga was cheap – far from it – but more importantly, it was enabling folk to get short-term loans which they had little chance of repaying. Wonga – and others like them were raking it in – a barely legal version of loan-sharking.
Archbishop Justin called them on it, and has subsequently written a book called Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace. In it he makes three claims or pleas:
- Firstly that the UK outside Europe must not be built to a design drawn up by Mammon – that is to say – materialism is not the solution to the challenges we face.
- Secondly, Mammon (the personification of the rule of society by financial power) – Mammon needs to be dethroned, because Mammon is a deceiver.
- And Thirdly, how we structure society in the future must be shaped by something other than Mammon.
A society that lives by money will die by it, to coin a phrase. Or as Archbishop Justin puts it: “The regeneration of our position in Europe, or elsewhere must be one that starts with the authority of Christ, not mere calculation of dubious material advantage.”
And we know he is basically right – we know that living your life simply in search of more dosh is pretty soul-destroying. For Mammon is a soul-destroyer – a drainer of life. Wonga have experienced downturns in profits every one of the last five years, and more folk are more aware of the thin ice that so many of us skate on. Half the population have less than £100 in savings and a third cannot cope if an unexpected £300 bill comes in. If this is incomprehensible to you, consider yourself lucky. Universal Credit is being rolled out, and whatever the politics of it are, it is going to cause all sorts of confusion and transitional difficulty as people’s financial circumstances change. No-one will be better off – and why should they be – but most people’s financial circumstances will change, and adapting will be awkward and painful, and an unfortunate consequence for some will be the necessity to go into debt. Others go into debt anyway – the new phenomenon of funeral poverty is rearing its head – a funeral is not an optional luxury – and of course comes at the worst possible time – that is when someone dies. With the average price of a funeral just over £4000 now – and note that in London it is double what it is elsewhere, which affects the average – given that half the population don’t have £100 to hand, so many people are turning to lenders to pay for a loved one’s funeral.
In Enfield, the average cost of a funeral is £6141. This, you are probably not amused to know, makes our Borough the second most expensive place to die in the country. It is a fantasy to simply assume that the estate pays for the funeral – that is only true if there is an estate. Thousands of people die every year bequeathing only debt. And of course, if there really is no-one to pick up the tab the Council will provide a no-frills low cost public health funeral, which means of course that as ratepayers we are paying.
Money – the food of Mammon – is not Manna. It doesn’t fall from the sky. And there simply isn’t enough of it, and what there is is not spread evenly or accessibly on the ground. The Wonga business reminds us that it is absolutely true that the poorer you are, the more expensive it is to borrow. Only rich people can access low interest rates. The former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis has written on this and points out the blindingly obvious fact that when hard times come, heavy-handed institutional and self-protective responses crush the poor.
Jesus had a heart for the poor – may we do so too.