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Official opening of the Waltham Forest Credit Union

Tuesday 4th May 2004

An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the opening of the Waltham Forest Credit Union.

Thank you very much indeed for the chance to be here for this wonderful occasion. I thought that to begin with I'd simply tell you a little bit about why I became enthusiastic about credit unions.

It started in Wales when I was working there, probably about six or seven years ago. A lot of us in Wales at that time in the churches were getting very enthused about campaigning for the reduction of international debt. Many of us got involved with the Jubilee 2000 campaign, about debt cancellation. But it was at a church meeting to do with this that somebody said "debt isn't just a problem about other places – it's on our doorstep."

And so we set up a little working party in Wales called 'Debt on our Doorstep' to look at what was actually happening, what the crises were, what the challenges were, and set ourselves to finding out about the huge serious need, as a Church in Wales.

Over two years we produced a sort of information pack for parishes in Wales, and – I'm still amazed at this – we persuaded the money managers of the Welsh church to give money for a development worker, over a period of three years, around Wales in collaboration with the Co-Operative Society, to work towards credit unions in different areas.

As I left Wales, a couple of years ago, I was beginning to see in the area where I lived two or three projects coming towards this kind of stage, that we're celebrating this afternoon. And interestingly exactly the same challenges were faced, about what sort of area, what breadth of area is best for this; how much variety do we need in an area, social and economic, in order to make something like this work. And it was very frustrating to be leaving Newport at just the point when a North Newport credit union area was beginning to emerge - and it's still going strong.

Why do we value this, though? Why does it seem to make sense?

Obviously many of the communities with which I worked at the time were communities that had suffered tremendous economic blows over the years, and where again and again people were coming up against difficulties caused by unregulated loans. That's why I want to say something very energetically this afternoon – it is that one of the great social problems we face, still, is unregulated loan practices. It's a continuing scandal and a continuing bane to the welfare of communities.

We saw the effects on family life and community life of sustained debt. We saw all the ways in which it is possible for people to get entangled in impossible burdens of repayments. We saw each of the slightly unconventional modes of debt collection that prevailed in some areas, which I expect might be familiar to some of you as well, and became aware of, again, just as we've been hearing about, the way in which people don't know where to look for help.

They become enmeshed in a prison of debt, because of course that is what debt is, and a downward spiral.

The credit union promises at least three things – there have to be three things in a sermon so here they are. Three things which are not just about crisis management – they'll deal with crisis, but there's more to it than that.

These three things are, first of all, the building of trust in communities. That is, communities where people know where to go for help and know they can rely on a particular network to be alongside them when there are crises, when there are difficulties. And that building up of what is now fashionable to call social capital, that is a massively important task in any community these days – one which government and local government are more and more looking at as a priority.

If you build trust, you build stability. Communities can't grow and flourish unless there are regular expectations, relying on an environment that's basically there to help people to support each other. You're not reinventing the wheel all the time; you're not left in mid air. You have a stable and trustworthy environment to live in.

The third thing is skill. A credit union is something which draws out of people skills which will carry over to a wide range of activity. It helps people not only to take responsibility for their own lives, management of their own circumstances, but gives them the skills to help others. And therefore it builds the potential of ordinary people – which again is something crucial to the welfare and flourishing of any community.

Trust, stability, skill – those are the three things the credit union movement offers.

I'm very glad that this particular credit union, like some of the ones we worked with in Wales, has a close connection with religious communities. Because those three things are actually very much part of a healthy religious perspective of human beings around the world.

Religious communities believe in trust, faith – faith in God, faith in trustworthy people.

They believe in stability – dependability of the promises of God, spilling over into dependability with each other; stability within an environment.

They believe in people's potential being drawn out richly and fully in people's skills.

So it's a very appropriate thing that faith communities should be fully involved in this work, and one of the joys of what we got involved in in Wales was seeing how the volunteer resources, resources of prayer and skill, imagination and commitment, in religious groups were drawn into this world. So it's a particular joy to celebrate with you this afternoon.

Trust, stability, skill.

I mentioned social capital a few minutes ago. And when we're faced with all the things that are seeking to fragment and threaten our communities we do have to put in a bit of energy in, a bit of work, a bit of imagination, to make our communities work properly. And credit unions are one of the greatest vehicles we have for this.

As has been said already this afternoon there are parts of the world where they are so much part of the social fabric that they have in some areas been the main form of banking – places like Ireland, also in Canada where again there are areas where this really is the central form of credit for most people. And it is so, not because of any commitment to some hair-brained eccentric scheme, just because this is the way in which communities manage themselves creatively and responsibly.

We've heard, again, about the importance of loan redemption as part of the credit union vision – heard about how people can find themselves almost unbelievably better off in the terms of what's offered by credit unions and how that's not just, as I said earlier, not just a matter of crisis management, but it's a matter of the whole economic life of the person

So my hope is that an event like this helps to raise the profile of credit unions here, and will do something to push the whole movement forward nationally. We need to go national, as I'm sure you would agree. We need to see this movement getting its proper place, its proper priority as part of the regeneration of communities. Not only in money terms but in spirit and hope terms, and imagination and confidence terms – there is a great deal to be given

I think it's wonderful what you have done here, and I want this afternoon to give you my full support, my enthusiastic congratulations, prayers and my blessing for all that you have done here.

Thank you very much indeed.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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