Following the recent support of credit unions by the Church of England, we must be careful not to reinforce the idea that credit unions are in the same categories as food banks.
Credit unions are not just for the disadvantaged in society. At a recent meeting in Westminster, the all-party parliamentary group on credit unions was discussing this new-found belief in the sector.
As a participant, I made this point clear after I had been contacted by several church groups that wanted to create, or introduce, a credit union alongside a recently started food bank.
Food banks are hopefully not here to stay, but credit unions are – and unless the wider community, and congregations, join existing credit unions and participate themselves, credit unions will not be able to fulfil the ambitious wishes of the church community.
At the Westminster meeting, we heard from Sir Hector Sants, the representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on responsible credit and savings. He explained how his group has broadened its focus from just credit unions, recognising that the sector is only part of the solution to problem debt and low levels of saving.
Sir Hector talked about out the sheer scale of the problem of financial distress and how the task group has set itself the mission of coming up with practical solutions and interventions that the church can make, rather than deliberating on moral questions around credit and debt which are being addressed by a parallel theological group.
It’s clear that the message from high within the Church of England, and other denominations, is getting through to parishes throughout the country. A message that churches can once again be a direct enabler of the use and success of credit unions.
The history of credit union development throughout the world is directly linked to support from Christians of all denominations. Credit unions in Jamaica began during the 1940s. Father John P Sullivan, a Jesuit priest, believed credit unions could help working people cope better with wartime conditions.
In Ireland, the first credit union was founded in 1958, thanks to catholic schoolteacher Nora Herlihy and colleagues in the Dublin Central Co-operative Society, which she helped to found. The first credit union in the United States was chartered in 1909 by the parishioners of St. Mary’s Church in New Hampshire.
In the early 1940s, the concept of credit unions was formally introduced into the Caribbean by missionaries from Canada and the USA. The idea of credit unions was accepted and credit unions were organised in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1940s and in Dominica in 1951. The Roseau Co-operative Credit Union Limited was formed on 30 May 1951, under the stewardship of Sister Alicia de Tremmerie, a Belgian Catholic nun. The harsh economic situation at the time inspired the idea of establishing the credit union movement in Dominica.
The list of world-wide Christian connections and supports is endless.
I applaud the support for credit unions and the renewed interest from the Christian community here in the UK – but I also appeal to Christians to not see credit unions as something for the ‘poor of the parish’.
Credit unions will only ever thrive if the mix of members is broad enough to sustain a profitable business. Sadly, I hear too many voices from new Christian supporters stating that they wish to provide for the very poor in our society and that the credit union is panacea for poverty.
Credit unions survive for a variety of reasons and the common bond can never be made up entirely of people that society has left behind. There is no common bond in poverty. Credit unions will continue to take their share of helping the disadvantaged in our society and are proud to do so, but the best thing parishioners can do is to actually join their local credit union and borrow some money.