Wesley, the poor and the cuts

By Alison Tomlin
19 Oct 2010

This is the text prepared for an address given to a rally organised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) at Methodist Central Hall in London.

You may not have noticed but this but you are sitting in a Methodist Church, where a vibrant multi-cultural congregation meet each Sunday. When you came in on the first floor, on your left there was a life size statue of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. You may have missed it - he was a very short man.

In his journals Wesley wrote about a press that stigmatised the poor, he wrote of politicians who did not wish to look at the concerns of the poor, and who continually blamed the poor for their own fate. He wrote of people using that stigma and blame to continually treat the poorest and most vulnerable badly. Thank, goodness that was 250 years ago and could never happen now!

The past ten to fifteen years of boom benefited some sections of society but not the poorest. Relatively their income went down. Justice or, to use that popular word, ‘fairness’, demand that they do not suffer now during the bust.

Earlier this month [October 2010] Eric Pickles [Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government] asked us to judge the government on how they treated the most vulnerable. That we will do.

The task the government has set itself of cutting the deficit in a short space of time while not harming the most vulnerable is a difficult one, some may say an impossible one. We shall wait and see, but the initial signs are not promising.

Brief conversations with colleagues highlight the fears that they have for the work going on in the communities they serve. Local authorities and others are tightening their belts prior to the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

Just in the last week, I have been told about an emergency housing project in Birmingham at threat; a project in Newcastle working with women seeking sanctuary anxious about its future; a young offender rehabilitation project in Liverpool wondering if it must close.

The church is grateful to be able to work with these and hundreds of other projects like them up and down the country. The people whose compassion and hard work have created and sustained each of these projects will not be sleeping well tonight. And they will rightly be wondering about the meaning of the phrase “Big Society”.

This building was built a hundred years ago using money donated by ordinary Methodists. To ensure this was a building of ordinary people, initially no-one was allowed to donate more than one guinea. Rich and poor alike. In the historic roll, which you can see on the left as you leave the building, the names of all the people who gave one guinea, including my grandparents, are recorded.

This hall was built because Methodists believed that ordinary people, people who could afford no more than one guinea, should have a voice in the heart of Westminster. Hearing today’s contributions, the stories of ordinary people, the concern for ordinary people, I am confident my grandparents would have felt that theirs was a guinea well spent.

Methodists support a wide range of views about deficit reduction. It is possible to be a Christian and a member of almost any political party.

But John Wesley, and the Methodist Church he founded, believe it is inconceivable to follow Christ and not have the welfare of the poor and the vulnerable close to your heart, and we are proud to stand beside others who share those concerns today.

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(c) Alison Tomlin is President of the Methodist Conference - www.methodist.org.uk The Methodist Church is one of the largest Christian churches in Britain, with nearly 241,000 members and regular contact with over 550,000 people. It has 5,237 churches across the country, and also maintains links with other Methodist churches worldwide with a membership totalling 70 million.

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