West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Mercy Ministries and Cuts of Biblical Proportions

by Pat Dodd Racher

Who do we want to fund social welfare programmes?

Indeed, can we still afford a Welfare State?

Globalisation has all sorts of perverse consequences, including the levelling down of wages. In the global factory, substantially owned by a small number of powerful corporations, low wages are of course a key to profits – if you take the current fashionable short-term view, at any rate.

Incomes in Carmarthenshire are low. The median household income in 2012 was £23,127, according to the county council’s area profile. Take off taxes, rent or mortgage, utility bills, insurance, food, transport, and the residue, if any, will be tiny. There is no leeway for widespread tax rises to cope with the costs of limiting illnesses (suffered by one Carmarthenshire resident in every four), or with care in old age, or for individuals to save for their own futures.

The increasingly lopsided family and community budgets are set to be damaged further, as Carmarthenshire council leader Kevin Madge has made plain, with reference to cuts of biblical proportions — http://www.southwalesguardian.co.uk/news/10461406.Worse_cuts_to_come___Kevin_Madge/.

Cue the return of Mercy Ministries, the evangelical Christian US-born campaign to provide residential homes for women aged 16-28 with ‘life controlling issues’ including unplanned pregnancies, eating disorders and depression: more here — http://www.towychurch.co.uk/church/mercy-ministries.html.

Mercy Ministries offers six-month programmes in a fundamentalist Christian ethos which rejects both abortion and same-sex relationships, and appears to prioritise salvation through faith. Also to the point, Mercy Ministries claims not to accept any state funding.

Cue Towy Community Church, which has a link to Mercy Ministries on its website — http://www.towychurch.co.uk/church.html. Towy Community Church has received a great deal of public money, towards its complex in Johnstown, Carmarthen, on the site of a disused creamery. The Xcel Bowl bowling alley and café, in phase 1, opened on June 14th 2013 (with an alcohol licence). Phase 1 also includes a furniture recycling venture and, in collaboration with the Trussell Trust, a food bank relocated from the church’s offices in Hall Street, Carmarthen.

The church has published a list of its main funders:

  • £798,202 from the Big Lottery Fund and the Welsh Government, via the Community Asset Transfer Fund.
  • £300,000 from the Welsh Government’s community facilities and activities programme.
  • £55,000 from three funds controlled by Carmarthenshire County Council.
  • £45,000 from Cwm Environmental, which is wholly owned by Carmarthenshire County Council.
  • £4,000 from Carmarthenshire Association of Voluntary Services.

This little lot adds up to over £1.2 million. But that’s not all. Carmarthenshire County Council gave the site, which it owned, on two 99-year leases at (so I am told) peppercorn rents. Apparently the value of the land in 2011 was £750,000.

Running total from Carmarthenshire County Council / Cwm Environmental so far — £55,000, £45,000, and the loan of land worth some £750,000.

There’s more, a lot more. The minutes for the county council meeting of December 7th 2011 show an additional capital contribution from the council of £280,000 as already agreed, and they report further funding from the council, a loan of £270,000, ‘secured’ as a third charge against the leases provided by the council at peppercorn rents. Who have the first and second charges on the development? A bank lending £300,000 (the only commercial money going into the scheme) has first charge, the Big Lottery Fund has second charge. Should the scheme fail, who expects there to be much left over to repay local government, once the bank and the Big Lottery Fund have reclaimed their dues?

The minutes note: “It is TCC’S (Towy Community Church’s) aim to pay off this loan as early as possible and TCC will continue to fundraise with the hope of reducing the loan commitment.” (I’m sure the Scarlets have the same laudable aim.)

Indeed, so desperate was the county council to lend £270,000, without much hope of getting the money back in the event of scheme failure, that it altered its own Treasury Management Policy to allow the loan to run for 15 years, instead of the previous maximum of three years.

The church’s own funding list, referred to above, seems to amalgamate capital and revenue accounts. The estimated capital cost, as stated in the county council’s December 7th minutes — http://online.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/agendas/eng/coco20111207/sum14.htm — was £1,970,863, all but £491,863 from lottery and community (you and me) sources. In addition to the £300,000 bank loan, the church is committed to a capital contribution of £191,863: see agenda item 14 in the December 11th 2011 minutes, link above.

A ‘Phase 2’ is planned, but according to the minutes “is proposed to be delivered in future years and is not linked to this capital contribution”. Phase 2 comprises a 600-seat auditorium, and rooms for purposes such as debt counselling, training courses, and a luncheon club.

Towy Community Church has a statement of faith on its website. While church members are of course free to tell others of their beliefs, should so much public money have gone to a group believing “the Bible, as originally given, to be without error, the fully inspired and infallible Word of God, and the supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and conduct”? The church also believes that those who reject Christ will suffer “eternal conscious punishment”.

Back in 2011, when there was some uncertainty whether the church would receive all the money it needed for its venture, the website link to Mercy Ministries was reported to have disappeared. Funds obtained, the link is back. To me, this seems more like political pragmatism than a reflection of biblical infallibility, but of course the temporary absence of the link may just have been a mistake.

Certainly, Carmarthenshire County Council is not at all keen to disclose communications between itself and the church. In fact, it has refused to publish the relevant documents — https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/correspondence_between_carmarthe

Also pointing out the council’s determination to keep communications under wraps, blogger Y Cneifiwr asks: “A legitimate question is therefore why this small organisation has risen so rapidly to such a position of prominence and received so much public money?” —  http://cneifiwr-emlyn.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/disclosure.html?spref=tw

Why indeed. The question in my mind is not at all about Towy Community Church per se, or its links to Mercy Ministries, but about

  • Hidden decisions in local government.
  • Councillors‘ apparent conviction that a church believing 100% in the literal truth of the bible is an ideal organisation to provide counselling and material support to people of all backgrounds and all beliefs or anti-beliefs.
  • The Welsh Government’s and the National Lottery’s decisions to provide large sums of money to a church whose members are sure in the knowledge that non-believers will suffer “eternal conscious punishment”.

While a bowling alley provides a fun outing, the provision of such generous amounts of public money for a leisure venue, when cuts of “biblical proportions” will further damage our school-less, shop-less, post office-less and consequently work-deprived rural communities, strikes me as both bizarre and blinkered.

So, who do we want to fund social welfare programmes? I would suggest that responsive national and local governments should continue to take the lead themselves and avoid shifting basic public responsibilities onto churches or special-interest groups. Locally, lower top salaries, reductions in benefits such as expensive cars for officials, and much less throwing money at big projects (like East Gate, Llanelli), would help us to continue to afford social welfare programmes, and to take the ‘biblical proportions’ out of cuts.


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