Simon Reevell: If the Church wants to curb capitalism, then it should practise what it preaches

Religion and politics can mix. Every morning that the House of Commons is sitting the day’s proceedings begin with prayers – Church of England prayers, said by a bishop.

Not something referred to very much by those who protest about the demise of Christian values, but a daily occurrence none-the-less. Likewise why shouldn’t religious leaders be entitled to speak out about the various issues of the day; often they provide an insight that illuminates a debate otherwise dominated by politicians.

It was in that context that I read with interest the comments of the Archbishop of York as set out in this newspaper, and the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London – along similar lines and set out elsewhere.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I suspect that those of my constituents who are campaigning to preserve the green belt in Chidswell also read the comments of those three distinguished gentlemen with interest but also just a little incredulity.

The land at Chidswell includes the little bit of green belt that survives in the area between Dewsbury, Batley and Wakefield. New owners purchased it in August and they are now anxious to see it included in Kirklees’s development plan where they would like it to accommodate 500 new houses and 35 hectares of industrial buildings. They will make a fortune the moment it goes into the plan and more when they get planning permission. No wonder they snapped it up in the summer.

Local people don’t want the development. More than a decade ago, they fought and stopped plans for an opencast mine on the same site. This time nearly 600 people braved the rain to attend a meeting at the local rugby club and because they numbered more than the room could hold they sat outside in the stands on a cold night as the meeting was held in the open. Almost every house seems to have a poster in a window or in the garden – seldom have I seen such widespread and determined opposition and all organised spontaneously by local people. Last Saturday even more attended a march and rally.

So who are these new owners who appear utterly indifferent to the effects of the proposed development on local people and who are looking to make millions on the back of this project? They are the Church Commissioners. Who are the Church Commissioners? Well, two of them are the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and a third is the Bishop of London. At first blush, you may think that this could be good news.

When the Commissioners realise that this isn’t just another brown field site and recognise the strength of feeling within the affected communities – not least amongst the local clergy – they will halt their plans. Erm well, not exactly.

The people who work for the Church Commissioners have said that there is “nothing” that local people can do to stop them promoting their plan. The reason for this? They want to “maximise the income from their investment portfolio”. They say that they have to do this because it is their “legal duty”.

That would be the same “legal duty” that obliges FT100 companies to maximise profits for their shareholders but whose behaviour prompted the Archbishop of York to warn that such behaviour can “weaken community life” and “make societies less cohesive”.

I realise that the Church Commissioners have a job to do and that they don’t just raise money for palaces and pensions. In fact, their website makes it clear that they also raise money to “settle the future of churches closed for public worship”, but I suspect my constituents in Chidswell will struggle to reconcile an attitude of profit before communities with the Archbishop of York’s invitation to strive for a “change of ethics to the accumulation of wealth”.

Of course, it may be that the Commissioners were unaware of what’s being done in their name at Chidswell.

After all its hardly consistent with the Bishop of London complimenting the St Paul’s protesters for identifying “urgent larger issues” and the Archbishop of Canterbury praising the same group for “triggering awareness”.

Perhaps those employed by the Commissioners and charged with raising money for the church have gone feral and abandoned a policy of responsible capitalism for an approach that ignores the damage that may be caused to communities in the pursuit of profit.

Well, if the Commissioners themselves were unaware of the ruthless extent that profit is being pursued in their name, their awareness has now also been triggered.

Our Church leaders are perfectly entitled to argue that the worst excesses of capitalism should be curbed. Pursuing profit before anything else takes us back to the worst excess of a by-gone age and senior members of the clergy may well want to speak out against it.

But shouldn’t they start a little closer to home? As far as the land at Chidswell is concerned, all three of the Church Commissioners that I have referred to are in a remarkably strong position should they wish to practise what they preach.

Simon Reevell is Conservative MP for Dewsbury