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The day before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby spoke at an evangelical church in Nottingham. His comments were summarised by the Daily Telegraph thus; ‘The welfare state cannot go on doing the job it has for the past 70 years and the Church should step in to fill the void, according to the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury’.
If accurate, this was deeply disappointing. The implication was that the new Archbishop had accepted the political and economic orthodoxy of the current government, and that he accepts their argument that cuts to public services and social security benefits are inevitable. Tough choices, difficult decisions perhaps; but unavoidable. But this is contested. It is certainly not a politically neutral stance.
The Archbishop is quoted as saying that as a result of the financial crisis, ‘the state has run out of the capacity to do the things it had taken over since 1945.’
Surely the truth is that the government has made specific political choices. Iceland has taken a radically different path, as an Icelandic government minister explained: "The single outstanding factor is our commitment to preserve the Icelandic welfare system through this, and try to distribute the burden of the crisis as socially justly as possible.
"The economy is now picking nicely up... because we managed to keep everyone active and include the lower-income groups as active consumers and participants in the economy. In return of course, those with wealth have to contribute more."
Here in the UK we are constantly told there is no money for various socially beneficial services, like libraries and Sure Start centres, but the government has announced it will go ahead with HS2 and increase the budget for military procurement. The money is there for what they choose to spend it on.
Does the Archbishop’s statement indicate that he will accept these priorities and not seek to question them?
Speaking of the growth in foodbanks in Britain, the Archbishop said: “These are things that we never imagined because if you ran out of money the state cared for you." Again the implication was that we must accept this kind of care to be a thing of the past. Yet when he referred to foodbanks as previously being an American phenomenon, this undermined his argument. The USA had foodbanks whilst its economy was the richest in the world and booming. They were not a symptom of economic hard times but of economic injustice and inequality, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few to the detriment of the majority.
Even more worryingly, according to the Telegraph the Archbishop suggested the Church should “grasp the opportunity” presented by an expanding social role, through running schools and initiatives such as food banks, to spread the Christian message.
To see hunger and distress as an opportunity to evangelise makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. To imagine that a person experiencing the misery and embarrassment of needing a foodbank would be subject to any kind of preaching makes me shudder. We can only hope this is not what the Archbishop meant.
If the Church accepts this government’s political assertion that the State can no longer provide certain services, and steps in to fill the gap, it is letting the politicians off the hook and facilitating their political programme. Politicians who passionately believe in a small state whatever the health of the economy, will smile with satisfaction at the Archbishop’s words, perhaps seeing in them a sign that their abandonment of the poor is about to be facilitated by the Church.
Nobody’s welfare should be dependent on charity - on whether the rich are feeling generous. Everybody has a right to a decent life, and the Church should be challenging whatever prevents this: not accepting injustice and mitigating it with charity. This may mean the Church becomes unpopular with the powers that be and those who promote unjust systems and structures. In that case, the Church will be just like Jesus.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.Tweet