74 Anglican bishops don't castigate Cameron
The mainstream media are running prominently today with a letter to the Daily Mirror on the subject of food-banks, which has been signed by 27 bishops of the Church of England (along with sundry Methodists, and a couple of Quakers thrown in for good measure). The letter reads:
Sir,And then comes a veritable psalter of episcopal signatories:
Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry.
Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year.
One in five mothers report regularly skipping meals to better feed their children, and even more families are just one unexpected bill away from waking up with empty cupboards.
We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must “heat or eat” each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30% in just five years.
Yet beyond even this we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.
On March 5th Lent will begin. The Christian tradition has long been at this time to fast, and by doing so draw closer to our neighbour and closer to God.
On March 5th we will begin a time of fasting while half a million regularly go hungry in Britain. We urge those of all faith and none, people of good conscience, to join with us.
There is an acute moral imperative to act. Hundreds of thousands of people are doing so already, as they set up and support foodbanks across the UK. But this is a national crisis, and one we must rise to.
We call on government to do its part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger.
Join us at www.endhungerfast.co.uk.
Stephen Platten, Wakefield
David Walker, Manchester
Tim Stevens, Leicester
Andy John, Bangor
Tony Porter, Sherwood
Paul Butler, Durham
Alan Wilson, Buckingham
Alan Smith, St Albans
Nick Holtam, Salisbury
Tim Thornton, Truro
John Pritchard, Oxford
Steven Croft, Sheffield
Jonathan Gledhill, Lichfield
Michael Perham, Gloucester
Alastair Redfern, Derby
Lee Rayfield, Swindon
James Langstaff, Rochester
Martin Warner, Chichester
Mike Hill, Bristol
Martin Wharton, Newcastle
Peter Maurice, Taunton
Gregory Cameron, St Asaph
Peter Burrows, Doncaster
Stephen Cottrell, Chelmsford
Martyn Snow, Tewkesbury
John Holbrook, Brixworth
David Urquhart, Birmingham
But we must keep these things in proportion: if 27 bishops are clobbering Cameron, 74 are not. No doubt this letter was circulated to the episcopal extremities with persuasive entreaties and pleas, but a colossal three-quarters of diocesan and suffragan bishops were unable, for one reason or another, to put their names to it.
His Grace is all in favour of this sort of temporal intervention by the spiritual; indeed, it is his raison d'être: As Sir Humphrey observed: "It’s interesting that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics." The fact is that man does not live by political platitudes alone: he needs bread. And if he doesn't get any bread, he goes hungry and life becomes rather miserable.
But the fact remains that many of these bishops are well-known anti-Capitalist Guardian readers, and Chris Mould, the food-bank entrepreneur, is a self-declared member of the Labour Party. His Grace neither doubts the noble motives nor disparages the good intentions of those who provide emergency food to people in crisis who are facing hunger, but let us not be under any illusion that many of them have a political agenda, and believe it to be the sole function of the state to provide such services: individual acts of charity, organic fraternity and 'Big Society' altruism should be subsumed to HM Government's ever-burgeoning Welfare State, paid for by the hard-pressed taxpayer (either of today or three generations hence).
Those who establish food-banks (which, incidentally, date from 2004, when Labour was very firmly in power) also seek to raise awareness of food poverty in order that policy-makers take account of their views. As Chris Mould's Trussell Trust explains:
Trussell Trust foodbanks will not benefit from current welfare reforms or become part of the welfare state. Indeed, we are concerned that welfare reforms could lead to an increase in the number of people who will need to be referred to foodbanks and that this could place strain on foodbanks and their donors.So perhaps it comes as no surprise that Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has refused requests to meet food-bank leaders, having accused them of “scaremongering”.
..The Trussell Trust, and Chris Mould in particular, have repeatedly and publically (sic) highlighted our concerns that government welfare reforms are likely to negatively impact people in poverty and have urged politicians to speak to us to find out more about the reality of food poverty so that they can create policies to help the poorest.
But there is manifestly some epistemic distance between politicians and prelates which needs a bit of attention. No matter how much George Osborne bounces around gleefully yakking on about recovery, the fact is that life remains very bleak indeed for many who, through no fault of their own, are plagued by poverty and are wholly reliant on food banks. You can't cook GDP figures or eat unemployment stats. Life is hard for the poorest and most vulnerable, and the "arrogant posh boys" (who don't know the price of a pint of milk) remain aloof and indifferent.
The gulf is nothing new: the Church of England has produced a number of reports over the decades on the direction of Conservative welfare policy: in addition to Faith in the City (1985), there is Not Just for the Poor (1987) and Welfare - a Christian Option (1989). But time and again the Church comes down in favour of universal public provision and public funding of all services. There is no appreciation of the concept of relative poverty, and no acknowledgment that the 'poverty' so often talked about is not real poverty - of the sort last seen in Dickensian times.
And yet.. and yet..
There is no point having central heating if one cannot afford to run it. The Conservative Party tends to take note of possession; the Church of England looks at practical usage. Unequal interdependence fails to respect human dignity. The Prime Minister may have a "moral mission" to reform welfare, but people are not hearing the ethical reasoning. If the poorest are feeling ghettoised and isolated, they will live parallel lives in deprived neighbourhoods and forever curse those evil Tories who place their faith in market dynamics and deify the economy. There may be periodic irruptions of civil unrest, but the Tory solution is not to address the plight of the poor, but to send in the water canons and armed police to bludgeon the despondent and dispossessed. These 27 bishops (and sundry Methodists and a couple of Quakers) are shouting out for the poor, but politicians are as deaf to these clerics as the clerics are as resistant to Conservatism.
Conservative politicians do themselves no favours when they try to lecture the Church on social thought when they clearly have little understanding of the depth and long history of Christian social thinking. But Anglican bishops do themselves no favours when they fail even to entertain the moral philosophical stream from which conservative thought proceeds. If the poor are homeless and hungry, there is nothing to be gained by bishops and politicians ranting at each other in public denunciations of their mutual ignorance.