In the early 1990s, the Church of England lost hundreds of millions of pounds in reckless property speculation by the Church Commissioners, who controlled the church's investments. This book was marketed as being primarily about that subject, which may have made sense at the time but which now leaves the unfortunate impression at it is just an out-of-date current affairs volume.
That is a shame, as Lovell has actually written a useful history of the Church Commissioners, exploring in some detail how the Commissoners relate to the rest of the Church of England and to the state establishment (Frank Field MP plays a significant role in the later chapters, scrutinizing plans for reform with a sceptical eye). We learn how the Church Commissioners were extablished from a merger of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and a charity called Queen Anne's Bounty, and how after the war its property speculation brought substantial gain; this is also part of the story of the post-war development of London. However, we also see how the lure of high-end property development led to the neglect and displacement of poorer tenants, to the dismay and embarrassment of local parish priests. The financial details of this book are at times complex and in places dense, but the story arc is simple and timeless: with increased success comes increased recklessness, until finally distaster strikes. In this case, that means hundreds of millions borrowed and spent on planning for a development in Ashford (Kent) that never got off the ground. The result: Parliamentary investigations, fears over the future of clergy pensions and the upkeep of church assets, and plans for one of the biggest overhauls in the history of the Church of England.
Of course, compared to scandals around Vatican banking, financial mismanagement in the Church of England is a far less glamorous and dramatic subject. One First Commissioner is arrogant and distant, another central figure is somewhat bumbling and reckless, and it seems that one partner in the Ashford business venture did surprisingly well out of the overall mess, but no-one ends up hanging under Blackfriars Bridge. However, when the Commissioners defend themselves in court against a suit brought by Richard Harries (perhaps scuppering his chances of becoming Archbishop) concerning investment in South Africa by arguing that Jesus' teaching is of no practical value when it comes to the stewardship of funds, and that they are legally obligated to seek the most profitable investments, one cannot help but recall the remarks attributed to Paul Markinus when he was asked about the Banco Ambrosiano: "You can't run the Church on Hail Marys".