A network of Christian clergy, academics and activists is calling on the churches in Britain to resist the government's public spending cuts and expose the Big Society's 'big lie'.
The statement from Common Wealth - which has been signed by theologians, Anglican priests, Methodist ministers and others - was formally launched today (16 November 2010).
The group says: “Christians in Britain today are called to take a stand. Faced with the biggest cuts to public spending for over a generation, it is not enough to retreat into the private ghetto of religious consolation.”
Steven Shakespeare, an Anglican priest and lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool Hope University, explained: “This is not the time for the churches to be cozying up to government. That would be a failure of nerve, imagination and faith. We need to be saying loud and clear that we are part of the resistance. We don’t accept that the market is God.”
The Common Wealth document, which offers a radical theological critique of current government policies and the economic and social system they perpetuate, declares: “We are convinced that the actions of the current government are an unjustified attack on the poor. The rhetoric of necessary austerity and virtuous belt-tightening conceals a grim reality: the victimization of people at the margins of society and the corrosion of community. Meanwhile, the false worship of markets continues unchecked and the immorality of the growing gap between rich and poor goes unquestioned.”
The statement is the most forthright declaration of opposition to government policy to come out of the church and faith communities so far.
British church leaders have, however, expressed deep concern about public spending cuts hitting the poorest. The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York have spoken out on the issue, and the Rev Alison Tomlin, President of the Methodist Conference, has said that the test of the government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is whether it protects the most vulnerable.
The Public Issues Team sponsored jointly by the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Methodist Church has also challenged the government's assumptions and statistics.
Meanwhile, the Church of Scotland, through its Church and Society convenor, the Rev Iain Galloway, has criticised the impact of the cuts.
Campaigning groups such as Church Action on Poverty say that the government's policies are regressive and target the poor, as demonstrated by the analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others.
However, the Evangelical Alliance's statements have been much more equivocal on the government's policies, and have encouraged Christians to claim their stake and position in the 'Big Society'.
By contrast, the new Common Wealth initiative says targeting the poorest in society is un-Christian and warns against churches being co-opted into plugging damaging gaps in social provision.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which backs the Common Wealth statement, commented: "There are signs that some churches, while expressing concern about the impact of current economic and social policies on the most vulnerable, are starting to buy into the government's 'Big Society' rhetoric in a way which could see self-interest taking the place of hard-headed analysis and a willingness to stand out for alternative practices, policies and values."
He added: "The Common Wealth statement suggests that the 'Big Society' is an excuse for those with power and wealth to hide behind the social commitment of ordinary people which they played no part in creating, and whose financing they are actually threatening. Big does not mean 'just' or 'better'. The danger for the churches is that, in their rush to 'get involved' and achieve public recognition, they will be used to plug dangerous gaps in social provision which end up making people dependent on charity. Yet core Christian convictions are inimical to a society increasingly divided between haves and have-nots, and suggest that the role of the Christian community is to work for creative alternatives and build a just society rather than prop up a one-sided status quo."
The full Common Wealth Christians for Economic and Social Justice statement can be read here (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/CommonWealthStatement) and downloaded from the networks' website (http://commonwealthnetwork2010.blogspot.com/).
The initial signatories of the document are:
* Al Barrett, Anglican vicar, Parish of Hodge Hill, Birmingham
* Anthony Reddie, Methodist preacher, Research Fellow in Black Theology, Queens Theological Foundation Birmingham, author of Black Theology, Slavery & Contemporary Christianity, and editor of Black Theology journal
* Chris Howson, Anglican priest at Soul Space, Bradford, and author of A Just Church: 21st Century Liberation Theology in Action
* Chris Shannahan, Methodist minister, Research Fellow in Urban Theology, Birmingham University, and author of ' Power to the People: A Theology of Community Organising'
* David Torevell, Associate Professor, Department of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University
* Gary Hall, Methodist minister and Tutor in Practical Theology, Queen's Theological Foundation, Birmingham, and Co-ordinator of the Open Horizon anti-trafficking group
* Keith Hebden, Anglican priest, St Katherine's Church Matson, and editor of 'A Pinch of Salt' magazine
* Lisa Isherwood FRSA, Director of the Institute for Theological Partnerships, University of Winchester, and executive editor of Feminist Theology journal
* Ray Gaston, Anglican and Methodist minister, Inter-Faith tutor and enabler at Queen's Theological Foundation and Birmingham Methodist District; author of A Heart Broken Open - Radical Faith in an Age of Fear
* Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, writer and theologian, former assistant general secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
* Steven Shakespeare, Anglican priest; Lecturer in Philosophy, Department of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University, and author of Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction
* Tim Gorringe, Anglican priest, Professor of Theology, Exeter University, and author of The Common Good and the Global Emergency
* Zoe Bennett, Director of Postgraduate Studies in Pastoral Theology at the Cambridge Theological Federation and editor of Practical Theology journal
Those who would like to be signatories to the statement and become supporters of the Common Wealth network are asked to email their details to: firstname.lastname@example.org