Archbishop of Canterbury continues to speak against stark inequality

By Savi Hensman
January 26, 2015

Gross inequality is a “great challenge for our world,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby warned. On a visit to the USA, he spoke more forcefully on the issue than perhaps he has ever done before.

He gave a talk at a Trinity Institute conference in New York on 'Creating the Common Good' and preached at Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal (Anglican) church in the heart of a major financial district.

At the conference, he suggested that “at the heart of the Genesis story of the creation of human beings is the essential nature of the human being, both male and female, existing to know God intimately and to walk intimately with God. There is an equality of worship, in adoration of the presence of God; there is an equality of revelling and feasting in fellowship with God in the Garden. Equality is a gift in creation.”

He drew attention to “a commonality of status, and the absence of great riches” in the Exodus story, the laws which “prevented the indefinite accumulation of land and slaves” and prophets’ denunciations of inequality. There was ambivalence about wealth, he said; it could be seen as a blessing, but there was also “a hesitation about, a fear about its consequences.”

The archbishop also spoke of how, in the Acts of the Apostles, part of the New Testament, Christians shared what they had, and examined other New Testament teachings on equality, stating, “The Eucharist in its thanksgiving includes thanksgiving for the new community in which needs are met, poverty ended and the just rule of God is seen. And James hits hard at the wealthy who don’t share their wealth and at the business people who don’t depend on God.”

He drew attention to the “revolutionary” message of the Magnificat, the song of Mary, though the early church too experienced “pragmatic ambivalence when faced with the inevitable realities of economic and social differentiation.”

Nevertheless “in Christian history whenever there is spiritual renewal extremes of wealth are challenged by the prophetic words and actions of those caught up in the renewal. It’s complacent, lazy churches that accept inequality without question.”

Recently there had been a “massive increase in inequality in Europe and the US (especially the UK and the USA) arising more than anything out of the liberalisation of financial markets in the 1980s.” Problems arose even if rich people were generous “because the asymmetries of power means that wealth allocation becomes a matter of paternalism, not a basic issue of justice.”

At Trinity church, one of the texts he preached on was Luke 4:17-21, Jesus’ proclamation of his mission in the words of Isaiah. Welby pointed to “God’s bias to the poor.”

He stated that “Jesus comes into the exile of the city of man (as Augustine described it) in which human beings find themselves and he challenges every assumption we make as to what is a good outcome for our society. He does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded (whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability, or sexuality).”

Christians should “be caught up in a revolution of expectation and of implementation. Were it not for the fact that He is in title Prince of Peace, and lived out his mission in service and foot-washing, ending it in crucifixion and resurrection, this would be a call to violent revolution; but even that option is removed from our hands by the way in which He lived his life and calling.”

Ecumenical action in poverty-stricken Liverpool was cited as an example. He urged that Christians become engaged at both a macro and micro level, drawing on “the gift of the Spirit of God who will make possible the impossible revolution, the impossible revolution to be achieved without violence, to be achieved without hatred, to be achieved in blessing and loving and serving and transforming the society in which we live.”

Over the years, many Christians have challenged economic and social inequality in stronger terms. Yet Welby’s call for greater equality was unusually forthright for such a senior cleric, especially since the Church of England’s closeness to the establishment has sometimes got in the way of its witness to Christ.

As communities across the world organise to resist the worst excesses of an unjust system and seek to build alternatives, his words were timely and powerful.

* The Archbishop of Canterbury’s talk can be found on http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5481/archbishop-of-ca...

* His homily is on http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5482/archbishop-of-ca...

* Archbishops robustly challenge government on income inequality (Ekklesia): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21305

* Combatting the denial of poverty and inequality (Ekklesia research essay): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21318

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.