Archbishop Says Tax Avoidance is Sinful. If Only Someone Would Remind the Churches…

When British Archbishop John Sentamu (pictured below) isn’t busy slamming gay rights or denouncing atheists, he likes to lecture people about fairness. Easy to do… I mean, who doesn’t like fairness, right?

Sentamu, the second-highest authority in the Church of England, confidently trained his sights on tax avoiders the other day:

Tax avoidance is “sinful” and tantamount to robbery, one of the UK’s most senior clerics has said as G8 leaders prepare to discuss the issue. Dr. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, told the BBC that individuals and companies needed to be held accountable for their actions when it came to tax. Tax avoidance was hindering efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition in developing countries, he suggested.

The bishop is specifically talking about tax avoidance (which isn’t illegal), not tax evasion (which is). Basically, if you hire an expensive accountant to help you figure out how to pay not a penny more than you’re obligated to, that’s tax avoidance (a.k.a. tax planning); no problem. But if Amazon or Apple or Walmart do the same thing, that’s evasion, and it’s an outrage.

I kid (kind of). We’ll leave the political discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that Archbishop Sentamu simply wants everyone to pay their fair share, most especially big multinational entities. People and businesses who aggressively try to minimize their tax bite are criminals, the 64-year-old prelate thundered.

Those not paying their full tax liabilities are “not only robbing the poor of what they could be getting, they are actually robbing God, because God says ‘bring into my store house all the tithes’. So if God has told us to be just, to walk humbly and to be merciful and then we behave in a very strange way — God is being robbed, the world is being robbed, your neighbor is being robbed.”

Tax minimizers are also killing kids, he added:

“They (companies) should have a conscience which says that a child is dying tonight because of some of their actions,” he said.

You know what they say about how, when you point a finger, three of your digits are pointing back at you?

For each of those fingers, here’s a data point that His Excellence might like to contemplate:

1) The Church of England, which has yearly revenues of well over a billion pounds ($1,570,000,000), is given huge tax breaks on major repairs to its buildings. It also receives grants from the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (English Heritage), and proceeds from the National Lottery. The state Anglican Church is one of Britain’s biggest landowners, with 112,000 acres. Regional Church organizations own more land; the Diocese of Oxford, for instance, holds 6,000 acres in its portfolio. Donations to the Church, which account for roughly half of its income, are tax-deductible, despite an ultra-fat investment portfolio that the New York Times recently estimated to be worth some £8,000,000,000.

You’d think that church authorities would be pretty chuffed about the largesse they receive from the citizenry, but you’d be wrong. When, last year, they were asked by the U.K. Treasury to pretty please pay value-added tax (VAT) on alterations to churches and parish houses, spokesmen for the church were up in arms, blustering that their poor institution could ill afford it and that such a request was a dunderheaded affront.

I wonder why the archbishop wasn’t insisting then that “all must pay their fair share.”

2) His cousins in the Catholic Church enjoy lavish tax advantages all over the world, and they display the exact same sense of entitlement about it. No financial concession is ever enough, and every tax obligation is potentially an attack on God’s people. For instance, the Vatican took illegal tax exemptions on thousands of buildings from 2006 to 2011. When Italy’s fiscal authorities got ready to send a bill, indignant padres took their protest to the European Commission last year; and though no one seriously disputed that the Catholic Church did in fact owe billions of euros, the Commission members decided it would be too hard to arrive at an exact number… and forgave the entire debt.

If archbishop Sentamu condemned the Vatican’s tax-evasion chutzpah, I guess I missed it.

3) The Church of England fought an 18-year legal battle against the owners of a farm in Warwickshire, eventually extracting £230,000 from Gail and Andrew Wallbank in 2009. The Church’s case rested entirely on a 16th-century feudal law, long considered dead, which held that certain landowners, no matter their religious beliefs, must help pay for the upkeep of Anglican churches. After the matter was decided, at least a quarter of Anglican dioceses began looking for ways to screw private-property owners in the same manner.

No worries from the archbishop, apparently, despite his professed commitment to “financial fairness.”

If His Excellence is going to voice his concerns about numbers and morality, I’d like to suggest that he take these numbers to heart: 40, 1.6, and 19:21. Let me explain.


Forty percent of those polled [in a survey commissioned by Britain's Sunday Times] said they did not trust priests, vicars and other clergy to tell the truth, and overall doctors, teachers and judges were rated as more trustworthy.


That’s the percentage of Britons who attend an Anglican church on any given Sunday. Is it “fair” to give the so-called State Church massive benefits paid for by all taxpayers if only one in 63 citizens care enough to show up for Sunday service?

Matthew 19:21:

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I wonder how many of those poor children archbishop Sentamu cares so much about could be saved by even just a fraction of the Church’s impressive wealth.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.