Archbishops robustly challenge government on income inequality

By staff writers
January 16, 2015

A new book edited by the Anglican Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, provides a substantial and robust challenge to the assumptions of the current UK government and to a society built on self-interest rather than social solidarity.

On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future has been published this week by SPCK, and it is already causing a media and political storm following Dr Sentamu's remarks to the conservative-leaning Telegraph newspaper.

The book contains contributions from established figures in economic, political, social and religious disciplines, including Lord Adonis, Sir Philip Mawer, Oliver O Donovan, Andrew Sentance and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Dr John Sentamu said: “The book addresses crucial questions about the moral principles that undergird the way Britain is governed. It is about building firm foundations for Britain’s future and setting out the essential values we need to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society in which we can all participate and flourish.

"We need to rediscover the true meaning of the word economy – it means a household, a community whose members share responsibility for each other. [It is wrong that] some few have far too much and the many have too little.”

In the koine Greek of the New Testament the word for economy is oikonomia, derived from oikos meaning household.

Archbishop Sentamu has addressed the concerns of the new book in a short video made available on YouTube, in which he says that an unequal society has left many "hard-pressed working families on poverty wages".

“It would be quite a pity if the powerful, the richest, are the ones that are thriving in our household and some are left behind and therefore one of the greatest challenges that faces our nation has to do with income inequality … The giant that must be slayed is income inequality – where some few have far too much and the many have too little,” he says.

He stresses that he and his co-authors are making an intervention in politics as the question of power and governance in the whole of society, not in party politics. “Like the Old Testament prophets, I suggest, it is essential for religion to speak truth to power”, he writes.

For that reason, the Archbishop of York, together with his senior colleague at Canterbury, who has a business background, does not pull any punches.

Echoing elements of the 1985 Faith in the City report, which drew ire from Margaret Thatcher's administration, they argue that society today is too dominated by “rampant consumerism and individualism”.

As for the main parties, they "rush to outdo each other in enticing and beguiling the swing vote of Middle England not with a vision of justice but with appeals to individual preference, interest and consumer choice,” Dr Sentamu told the Telegraph newspaper.

Dr Sentamu continued: “If it is the survival of the fittest, that’s what I call living in the jungle and I don’t want to live in the jungle – this is supposed to be a civilised society. It is nothing to do with being socialist or whatever. What it has got to do with is, is this how God created us? Has [God] created us to be people who go to Black Friday to fight with each other because they want the biggest bargain? No, that’s the rule of the jungle, we left that behind.”

The book, whose contributors include a peer and a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, say that the welfare state, partly generated out of the thought of people like Archbishop William Temple, can be seen as an embodiment of the Christian command to “love your neighbour”.

“Britain achieved a National Health Service which became a model for Europe and the rest of the world,” writes the Archbishop of York. “Moreover, the United Kingdom in the welfare state has provided income and support to those who are sick, unemployed or incapacitated in many other ways.

“And we have developed an educational system to provide a free and full education for all primary and secondary school pupils. Have we lost this vision? For me, and I’m sure for many others, a major concern is the extent to which the social compact which the welfare state represented is now under threat.”

Challenged about political bias in his interview with the Telegraph, Dr Sentamu responded unabashedly: "That sounds extremely leftwing doesn’t it? The truth is it is the theology of where I am coming from. If God has created us unique, [and] all of us have got [God's] image and likeness, is it ever right that I should have more when somebody else has nothing?”

Meanwhile, Archbishop Justin Welby, a former business executive, says that “entire towns and regions” have been excluded and “trapped in an apparently inescapable economic downward spiral”.

“Our economy appears to be, in one sense, a tale of two cities – one being a growing and constantly improving London (and the south-east generally), and the other being most, but not all, other cities, alike in that they are each trapped in apparently inevitable decline”, he declares, adding that public spending cuts have helped widen that gap.

“The hard truth is that many of these cities are in what appear to be lose-lose situations. Already in decline, the road towards recovery and growth is made even more difficult. There are now fewer readily available government resources able to support economic development in these regions; and also, since the 1980s, the banking system has become more and more London concentrated and consequently out of touch with local needs.”

Making an initial response to comments around the new book on behalf of the Christian political think-tank Ekklesia, co-director Simon Barrow welcomed the debate it is generating.

"The significance of this important intervention from Dr Sentamu and his co-authors – which criticises inequality, poverty wages, and other aspects of dominant economic policies which effectively bail out the wealthy while imperilling millions of ordinary people – is that the message comes from contributors who can hardly be labelled radicals, but who are in fact establishment figures", he said.

"This shows the true depth of disquiet within the country about the austerity agenda, and makes government attempts swiftly to dismiss On Rock or Sand? 's moral and religious critique of present politics look rather desperate.

He added: "It is encouraging to see increasing engagement with economic issues within the churches. Also worth reading, for example, is the World Council of Churches' latest document on an alternative 'economy of life' -- one focused on sustaining and meeting the needs of communities faced with unprecedented global financial and economic crises, the threat of climate change and widespread ecological devastation."

On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future is to be launched officially at an invitation-only event on Tuesday 20 January 2015.

Andrew Sentance, Julia Unwin and Ruth Fox will speak at the event about their own contributions in the book on economy, poverty and democracy respectively.

Sir Philip Mawer (Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards from 2002 until 2008 and former secretary general of the Church of England's General Synod) will chair a panel for the Question and Answer session to follow. Both Archbishops and all contributors will be present.

* Archbishop Sentamu's video introduction to the book (YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owif6Cp0O-M

* On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future, edited by John Sentamu (SPCK, January 2015) ISBN 978 0281 07174 6. Price: £9.99

* Economy of Life: An invitation to theological reflection and action (WCC): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21116

* More about economic alternatives on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/eyeoftheneedle

* More on the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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