With personal debt spiralling out of control for many people, who end up turning to payday loan companies with extortionate interest rates, a new scheme to help tackle debt is being piloted by the Church of England.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has famously criticised payday lenders such as Wonga, and vowed to put them out of business (later a source of some embarrassment when it was revealed that the Church of England had a stake in the company which launched Wonga).
Nevertheless, the will to provide alternatives to high interest payday lenders remains and Welby's Task Group on Responsible Credit and Savings endorsed a new scheme – the Church Credit Champions Network, launched yesterday.
The scheme, being piloted in Southwark, Liverpool and London, will promote credit unions over payday lenders. A network of 'credit champions' who will bridge the gaps which currently exist between churches, communities and credit unions will be created.
At its launch, Sir Hector Sants, former Chief Executive of the Financial Services Authority, who convenes the Archbishop's Task Group, pointed out that the debt of the average UK household, excluding mortgages, is now almost £13,000. He added that £1million in payday loans are taken out each month.
"The Church of England is the best branch network in the country," he said. "A major high street bank has at most 3000 branches, but the Church of England has 16,000! The purpose of the Champions Network is to harness that unparalleled presence in the community. The goal is both to help those afflicted by financial problems and equip us all to save and borrow in a responsible way."
The vision is for a country-wide network of 'centres of excellence' staffed by credit champions. These people will be trained to support local community finance organisations, and help people in financial distress to access services and debt advice.
"This...is a grass roots initiative that will only succeed with the enthusiasm and engagement of the local church," Sants added. "I hope that [the scheme] will demonstrate to you the impact success in this area would have, not only on the mission of the Church, but also, crucially, on individual lives."
The Church Credit Champions Network is a joint project of the Contextual Theology Centre and the Church Urban Fund.