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Transatlantic Blog

Abp Justin Welby compared Amazon to leeches - but it built his church

In a recent speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury likened Amazon executives to leaches and ancient Aztec rulers who “ate the flesh of human sacrifices.” However, in reality Amazon has generated such prosperity for its shareholder, the Church of England, that it has financially built up the body of Christ.

In a harsh address to the Trades Union Congress last week, Welby said that Amazon “leached off the taxpayer,” since its low tax bill proves “they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education.”

“Not paying taxes speaks of the absence of commitment to our shared humanity, to solidarity and justice,” he said. The former oil executive also praised TUC’s history of “Christian socialism.”

Many commentators have accused the archbishop of being shortsighted and hypocritical.

Amazon pays less tax in part because it charges sellers low fees for acting as a middleman, thus reducing its taxable profits. Would the nation be better off if Amazon began price-gouging to increase tax revenues?  

Amazon reduced its tax bill in large part due to a UK government policy that rewards companies which give employees shares of stock. The government believes this increases workers’ assets and makes them stakeholders in their workplace. An Amazon spokesman said the company gave full-time employees shares “equal to £1,000 or more per year, per person.” Since Amazon’s stock price has skyrocketed more than 84 percent over two years, the employees’ stock income has risen so fast that it wiped out much of the company’s tax liability.

In simple terms: Amazon substantially reduced its tax burden because it so successfully pursued the government’s objective of making employees prosperous stakeholders in the company. The Archbishop of Canterbury sees this as proof of misanthropic oppression.  

The charge of hypocrisy has been more stinging, since the Church of England owns millions of pounds in Amazon stock – so much that the company is listed as one of the 20 most valuable investments in the church’s £8.3 billion investment fund. Adding to his woes, this is not the first time Welby has criticized a company which the church owns. Shortly after becoming leader of the Anglican communion in 2013, Welby bitterly attacked payday lenders – before it emerged that the COE indirectly invested at least £75,000 in Wonga, a leading short-term loan provider. The church sold its shares – just days before the government unveiled new regulations (announced months earlier) that effectively strangled the company’s ability to make a profit. A cynic might conclude that the church profited from the company until the last possible moment.

The church has already refused to divest from Amazon, a move the Church Commissioners justified by saying, “[W]e take the view that it is more effective to be in the room with these companies seeking change as an active shareholder than speaking from the side-lines.”

But that rationale raises three questions:

Why does the COE need to own millions of pounds of Amazon stock? Shareholder activists of both the Left and the Right routinely purchase the fewest stocks necessary to raise their concerns at the annual shareholders’ meetings.

Second, if the church’s primary interest is nudging the company to behave more responsibly, then we must ask: What actions, if any, has the church taken in a shareholder setting to influence Amazon’s practices before Welby made his (very) public statement? The absence of such statements may indicate that the commissioners’ investment served the church’s financial, rather than pedagogical, aims.

And perhaps most to the point: Would the Church of England want to be “in the room” of an unprofitable company? As it has refused to reveal its portfolio, it is impossible to know if the church has a strategy of missionary investment. But it is a safe bet that Amazon’s explosive growth, not the opportunity to lecture Jeff Bezos, attracted the COE’s buy-in. Disreputable companies that offered no benefit to the church’s bottom-line have not apparently earned its patronage.

“There are two messages coming from the church,” said Ian Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party. “One is they don’t like the companies. The other is that they do like the returns.”

That very profitability means that, far from cannibalistic parasites, Amazon has been a leading funding source of the Church of England and its ministries. At a time when barely more than one percent of the population attends Sunday services in the Church of England, the COE enjoyed a spectacular 17.1 percent return on investment in 2016. This was no doubt fueled, in part, by Amazon, which briefly became the second trillion-dollar company in U.S. history earlier this month.

This would have been particularly welcome, as planned donations fell in 2016 for the first time in more than half a century (by approximately £1.35 million).

Church observers candidly admit the investment portfolio helps keep the church doors open. “It's what pays for the church to keep going, and if they don't secure these big increases [in investment returns] which they tend to do year on year, we won't be able to keep the show on the road and pay for housing and pensions,” said Madeleine Davies, the features editor of Church Times, a COE-oriented publication.

Amazon dividends may have even been substantial enough to replace the £1.8 million scheme the UK government announced last month to fix historic Anglican churches at taxpayer expense.

Anglican churches perform vital roles in the community, most importantly evangelizing the nation, but also as food banks and counseling centers. These ministries are made possible by the church’s investments in Amazon, BP, Google’s parent company Alphabet, pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, and the other gargantuan corporations Welby and his ideological allies regularly assail.

Instead of flashes of Old Testament wrath at actions of dubious moral offense, Archbishop Welby might rather wish to express the Christian virtue of gratitude.

(Photo credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.