Magazine article The Spectator

Both God and Mammon

Magazine article The Spectator

Both God and Mammon

Article excerpt


by Terry Lovell

HarperCollins, L15.99, pp. 256

A year or so ago the editor of the Spectator was kind enough to publish a letter of mine about the role of the Church Commissioners in the financial scandals of the early 1990s. I asked the question, who were the main beneficiaries of the Church Commissioners' annual distributions, and was there a significant overlap between these persons and the body of Commissioners who were responsible for the pay-outs? If so - and it clearly was so - then surely they should acknowledge a conflict of interest by resigning, not because they had performed so lamentably as non-executive directors of an organisation in deep trouble but because their own income, expenses, palace upkeep, pension, way of life were (and still are) chargeable to what was left of the Church Commissioners' surpluses. Non-executive directors, we have come to learn, earn their place on company boards by assisting in fixing the salaries of the chief executives and by some sort of guarantee of financial probity. But these people were simply ring-fencing their own standard of living. This still unresolved question is deeply unimportant but will not go quietly away.

The Church Commissioners were revealed in the Financial Times of 11th July 1992 to have lost L800 million pounds. The chairman of the Commissioners was only one of many said to have learnt of this fiasco performed by the body over which he presided when the article was drawn to his attention. How, when and where, and why this huge sum (now notionally halved but still considerable) came to be lost is past history. But the history is riveting stuff, well covered by Number One, Millbank, and well worth a trip to the library for those who enjoy financial disaster stories. It is narrated in uncontentious and by the end somewhat pietistic terms by Terry Lovell -- what happened, who did what, what were the consequences and what the world said. The immediate consequences were the report by 'the Lambeth Group'; the Turnbull report, and drastic amendments thereto; the launching of the 'Archbishops' Council' on an unwilling General Synod; a new First Estates Commissioner and an improved property investment portfolio. From these and other consequences emerged one inescapable fact: the goalposts may have changed, the scenery shifted, and reshifted: but most of the cast were and are still in place. Only one person emerges with real credibility and he, very properly, is now high in government Frank Field MP.

I have been thinking about it in terms of management theory generally, and how, specifically, non-executive (amateur, episcopal) directors can effectively control professional money-men charged with the maximisation of income -- in their case to pay clergy stipends, pensions and expenses out of historic accruals much of which were already earmarked for the poorer clergy.

The story involves three strands of management. At the cutting edge were the property and investment consultants (one knighted in the 1997 New Year honours), on whose activities Lovell provides solid information, especially Ashford Great Park (chapter 6). In the middle were the apparatchiks of Millbank, three of whom were seriously losing control. …

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