Monday, February 24, 2014

Clergy, poverty and moral authority

I was initially quite surprised by the tone of a recent article in the Independent. As a newspaper which is politically critical of the government, you'd expect it to be positive about others offering criticism. But no. There is a moderate defence of welfare cuts, coupled with a dismissal of the recent intervention by the Archbishop of Westminster and the recent letter signed by Anglican Bishops, Methodist chairs of district and URC and Quaker leaders recently published in the Daily Mirror.

One of the weaker arguments of the editorial is that the church leaders represent a "tiny fraction of the population", this coming from a paper with a circulation of a little over 70,000, when there are rather more than 1,000,000 attending the Church of England (not to mention our ecumenical allies).

However, this misses the point. The article also implies that the welfare cuts and austerity agenda are moral because they are endorsed by the majority:

"Is the pursuit of policies that are supported by the majority of the electorate of no value, for example? And would it be a more moral course to fail to tackle our dysfunctional welfare system and even more dysfunctional public finances, risking not only the standard of living of all but also the taxes out of which benefits are paid?" full article

Whether the majority of the UK population endorse current austerity policy is an interesting question in itself. Even if they did, this wouldn't automatically mean that such policies were beyond moral questioning. There have been times in our history when the prevailing view needed to be challenged. When those campaigning against the slave trade started, they were a small minority, but that didn't make their moral case invalid. Neither would it address the very real question of whether this government's austerity policy was the best way out of the financial crisis, but that's for another blog post!

I'd like to suggest that many clergy are actually remarkably well placed to comment on the effects of current policy on the poor. Many of us have people knocking on our vicarage doors asking for help with food, energy bills or clothing. It's hard to know what to do, and it leaves us all with a feeling of not doing enough. That's because clergy, unlike many other professionals, live in contact with people in need and live in the middle of the communities they serve. We meet people on the street, outside the school, in the pub and in the paper shop. That doesn't make us special - it just comes with the role. People come to the church with their needs, and we hear a lot about them, simply because we're here. Quite a few church leaders have been vicars and ministers in similar circumstances, and even if they haven't, the ministers they lead have plenty of opportunities to share and to show what is going on in their patch.

Perhaps the most instructive thing about the Independent editorial is that it indicates a shift in credibility and reputation for the Church, and especially for its senior leaders. When the Faith In The City report was published by the Church of England in 1985, it stung the government, and was welcomed well beyond the active membership of the Church. In the period when the Labour party was in turmoil, the Church was seen as providing genuine alternative critique and even opposition to some of the policies having a detrimental impact on the poorest areas of England, and by implication the whole of the UK.

I doubt that could happen now. Perhaps the decrease in church affiliation is part of it, but I suspect it's the public perception of the church's leaders that is a bigger problem. Some the scandals in churches over the neglect of child protection, the public statements on gay issues and equal marriage, and the endless Synod debates over women as bishops haven't commended us to the population as a source of moral leadership worth listening to.

This is a loss, as I think the contents of the church leaders' letter and the capacity of the churches to refer to real hands-on experience in communities across the nation would be well-worth listening to.

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