Welby praises "profoundly thoughtful" IDS: "We're very careful about saying he's got it wrong"
When Zeinab Badawi, for the BBC's Hardtalk programme (c21.30), asked the Archbishop of Canterbury if he was "making the Church too political" (which she defines as "going into the realm of policy"), Justin Welby was unequivocal:
Of course you have to talk about policy, but we're political, not party political.. We have more people on the ground in more places, leading worshipping communities, than anyone else in the country. Professional people living in their parishes across 9000 places in the country, often in the areas of the utmost deprivation. Of course we're aware of the pressures on the poor, and when I read my Bible I find that Jesus commands me to be very outspoken about the pressures on the poor..It is a bizarrely ill-informed BBC view of the Church of England - the Established State Church with 26 Lords Spiritual in the Upper House of Legislature - that it should not "interfere" in the realm of political policy. Politics is the stuff of life, and policy can be transformational. What Christian isn't going to have a view on it? What is the Church for if it is not to speak truth to power? What does she think the Bishops actually do every day in the House of Lords if not scrutinise legislation and ask awkward questions?
The Church has been talking on welfare benefits and the reforms to that for some time. Iain Duncan Smith is profoundly thoughtful.. the Work and Pensions Secretary who's leading on this legislation and on these reforms is one of the most educated and thoughtful people in this area there is. I think we're very careful about saying he's got it wrong.
Sometimes the application of policy is complex in its impact on individuals, and that needs to be recognised, and we hear that. And when we hear that we speak about it. I'm very careful about saying the reforms are wrong: of course they've got to be right for those who contribute and right for those who receive.. The incentives to work are hugely important; training for work is hugely important.
Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that the Bishops do not represent a political party, it is absurd to pretend that they are not political animals. They may not represent parliamentary constituencies, but the Archbishop of Canterbury makes it clear that they are closer to their communities than any other national organisation, and this informs their diocesan and national roles. They may be constitutionally non-aligned, but like the independent Crossbenchers, they ask political questions and take political decisions. Of course, their parliamentary profession of neutrality is coloured by their individual inclination: the vast majority veer very much toward the left; to Socialist Labour and to the sacred writ of the Guardian.
Which is why Justin Welby's appreciation of Iain Duncan Smith is rather interesting. It is one thing to point out that the Church is "very careful about saying he's got it wrong" - that would be a cautious expression of the non-aligned politics of Upper-House neutrality. But praising the individual as being "one of the most educated and thoughtful people in this area there is" comes very close indeed to an affirmation of policy, for it is concerned with individual motives and morality. Rowan Williams found Iain Duncan Smith's pronouncements "disturbing". But not Justin Welby. What is the likelihood of "one of the most educated and thoughtful people in this area" getting it wrong?
Iain Duncan Smith is concerned with feeding the poor, housing the homeless and loving the lonely, because such actions reflect the humanitarian priorities which lie at the Christian core of his being. He is good-natured and sincere; concerned with individual lives and family welfare, not bland and impersonal matters of economics and statistics. There are quite a few bishops - Anglican and Roman Catholic - who would take the Owen Jones line on IDS and his reforms: he's not evil, but certainly unforgivably cruel. They attack the politician more than the policies, hence their visceral hatred, still, for Margaret Thatcher. But Justin Welby appreciates personhood. And this would be true whether we're taking about Iain Duncan Smith or Ed Miliband: Socialism may bankrupt the country, keep families in poverty and deprive children of a good education, but Archbishop Justin would still have Mr Miliband in for a coffee to chat about welfare policy and education, not least because minds are only changed through dialogue and persuasion.
But personal praise? His (former) Grace can't quite see His (present) Grace saying of Ed Miliband or Ed Balls that he is "one of the most educated and thoughtful people in this area there is". No, anyone who supports inflationary policies which hit the poor hardest, or who advocates tax increases which penalise enterprise but don't actually raise any money, is neither well-informed nor particularly thoughtful. But they're still worth a coffee.