Panel Hears Divestment Debate

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Activists frustrated by human-rights violations in the West Bank lined up in the early days of General Convention to urge divestment from companies doing business there.

More than 50 observers filled chairs and sat on the floor as the Social Justice and International Policy Committee held a hearing that lasted several hours. Speakers were divided on the issue. Some supported the resolution as a moral stance.

“We have an opportunity to move on divestment, to do something honorable and memorable,” said Gary Cummings of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. “To continue with our current policy … is to do something forgettable and regrettable. These policies have not worked. Things have not changed as people said; they’ve gotten worse.”

Others saw it as potentially dangerous both to the church’s relationship with supporters of Israel and to the portfolios of pensioners. The Church Pension Group has been very successful in part due to its approach of finding a broad array of investment opportunities, according to Roger Sayler, chief investment officer.

“Any attempt, any step toward divestment, in some way limits our ability to continue with that program,” Sayler said. “That in turn could result in an economic cost to the beneficiaries.”

Sayler’s office implements directives of General Convention when investing church assets. The goal is to honor those orders and the values they represent while also generating solid returns for the 15,000 Episcopal Church employees and retirees who depend on the Church Pension Fund’s $11.2 billion portfolio.

For more than a decade, activists have urged the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant denominations to leverage assets to advance the causes of human rights and improved living conditions for Palestinians living in Israeli territory.

In 2012, General Convention narrowly rebuffed calls for divestment and voted instead to pursue a strategy of encouraging investment in Palestinian businesses and infrastructure. Current policy also calls for practicing shareholder advocacy through proxy voting and other forms of lobbying boards of directors. But supporters of the resolution say it’s time to try something different.

“The executive council tried cooperative engagement in 2012, but that has gone nowhere,” said Alan Bartlett, retired Bishop of Pennsylvania.

The resolution calls for an examination of Episcopal Church holdings, including those in the Church Pension Fund and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Four companies would be banned from Episcopal Church portfolios: Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and G4S. The DFMS has no positions in the named companies. The Church Pension Group would need to sell its shares in Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar if the resolution were to pass.

Opposition to the resolution came in part from those who have faith in the current strategy.

“If our church divests, boycotts, and participates in sanctions against either side, then nothing positive will have happened,” said Paul Schumacher, an engineer from the Diocese of Hawaii. “Worse, we may help to harden the situation so that positive outcomes in the territories and in Israel are delayed or unreachable.”

Committee Chairman Russell Randle said that, as chairman, he will not cast a vote on the resolution unless the committee reaches a stalemate. But he’s monitoring the debate carefully because he knows the stakes are potentially high.

“General Convention resolutions only accomplish as much as a group of people is committed to do to carry it out,” Randle said. “But they can do a great deal of harm. They can antagonize people who should be our friends and allies.”

Image of West Bank 2005 from Wikimedia Commons •

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