Friday, 5 January 2007

Losing Interest: why the Church was right and we are wrong about usury

It is a commonplace observation that Anglicans today accept many practices which were the cause of controversy to earlier generations. Artificial contraception, for example, was the subject of heated debates even quite recently, yet is almost entirely accepted by Anglicans now.

Another often-quoted example of a formerly controverted practice is that of usury — the lending of money at interest. The received understanding is that the Church once opposed this, but that increasing economic pressures forced a change of heart, as a result of which European economies were released from medieval restraint and enabled to become the prosperous societies we see today. Thus, we are told, the Church was shown to be as hopeless on the economic front as it was on the scientific. The persecution of Galileo and the handicapping of Western economics belong in the same, unenlightened, boat.

Yet we see around us now a world of individuals and societies crippled with debts incurring the constant repayment of interest. And in the theology of the Middle Ages we find opposition to usury rooted not in a wooden adherence to the letter of Scripture, but in a deep concern for social justice. It is therefore, I would suggest, time for us to think again about the ‘wisdom’ of our denomination’s current stance.

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