The bishops who secretly agree with IDS's welfare reforms
It has been a disappointing week. Not only has the Government palpably failed to alleviate poverty; it actually appears to have exacerbated it by current reforms to the benefit system. Worse, according to Bishop Nick Baines, politicians are not being entirely open with us:
Should the government just say clearly: we are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.The belief that politicians are consciously and deliberately causing people to “starve and become destitute” to reduce benefit dependency is impossible to prove, but it is surprisingly widely held in the Church – at all levels. We can guess at the Government’s motives, and our guess may be informed by observation, suspicion or general dislike of them and all their policies. And our guess may be correct. But it is also possible that starvation and destitution, where they occur, are not the Government’s aim, but collateral damage caused by a chronically inefficient benefits system combined with a cack-handed attempt at radically reforming it.
Harsh? Yes, but honest..
Intention – as in other ecclesiastical contexts – is everything. Which is no doubt why the letter to the Mirror signed by 27 bishops (and subsequently endorsed by seven others via His Grace's site [and, indeed, eight others, if one includes the Archbishop of Canterbury's tacit blessing]) does not impute such a motive. While it blames delays, sanctions and cutbacks in the benefit system for half of those using food-banks (it does not explain the other half), it neither accuses the Government of having hunger as a policy objective, nor does it question the need for benefits reform; confining itself to calling 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”.
What has become the Great Benefits Row began with the publication on 14th February of a Telegraph interview with Archbishop (now Cardinal) Vincent Nichols, who said that “the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart” and that “the administration of social assistance.. has become more and more punitive”. This prompted a reply from the Prime Minister in the same paper who claimed that the Government’s welfare reforms were part of a “moral mission” to give the unemployed “new hope and responsibility”.
Only a month ago, there was a flat endorsement of Iain Duncan Smith by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He told the BBC's Hardtalk programme: "..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.”
There is, to put it kindly, a lack of dovetailing here. Is Archbishop Justin saying that the Government has got it wrong or not? There are characteristic signs of poor behind-the-scenes advice, crass Church House communication and a total lack of co-ordination: the 27 bishops’ letter – which is actually not all that devastating – was published in the Mirror, which is noted for its crude and slavish pro-Labour, anti-Coalition (and certainly anti-Conservative) slant. It would have carried much more weight had it been delivered to a more impartial newspaper, any of which would have been happy to publish it with the 'Red-Top' embellishment.
But, wherever it appeared, we must wonder what good its authors thought the letter might do. Will it – or the furore surrounding it – cause the Government to think again about its benefit reforms? Will it make them more open to the Churches’ representations on behalf of the poor? Or will it force them back into their bunker and to a conviction that, since the Church is prepared to criticise them so publicly, it has no interest in negotiating privately?
For the record – though speaking strictly off the record – two bishops bothered to make contact with His Grace to voice their disagreement with the bishops' letter. They understand the Coalition's political reasoning and appreciate the Cameron/IDS "moral mission". They recognise the social consequences of indolence and grasp the importance of work incentive. Neither bishop wished to be named because they were fully aware that the story would then become one of 'Church schism", or that of aloof Tory-toff bishops indifferent to the plight of the poor. Other members of the clergy have also been in touch to express their dismay, but they are loyal ministers of the gospel, in submission to their bishops, and have no wish for the media story to become one of 'breaking ranks' or rebellion. It is absolutely appalling that the media narrative is so skewed to the Left that sincere and devout Christian leaders dare not be seen to support the Right (whether they do or not). The truth is that eradicating poverty is not a party political pursuit, yet these 27 bishops and Church House have helped to make it so by choosing to bellow through a pathologically anti-Conservative rag: the medium is the message.
Neither these two 'dissenting' bishops nor other members of the clergy deny the reality being experienced by the 27 (now 34), but the view is that this letter was an inept and graceless way of addressing their concerns: it not only failed to appreciate the ethical complexities of debt and the manifold causes of poverty, it gave an utterly distorted view of the Church to the world – that of being riddled with Socialist vicars supervised by Marxist bishops under the lordship of Jesus who would undoubtedly vote Labour. So pervasive is this belief that it constitutes a cultural truth.
Poverty is a soft issue for the Church, and an easy topic to shout about in order to secure an injection (or perception) of political relevance. The Christian calling is to love our neighbour and to alleviate his or her suffering, and this has been our duty and joy from the beginning. We cannot, and should not, ever be criticised for espousing the cause of the poor. In times when the Church is so little regarded, we need to hang on to that. But the Church needs to see it not so much as a righteous banner or holy war-cry, but as a labour of love, and that includes not denouncing those in power – with whom we may or may not be naturally in sympathy – but engaging with them in a reasoned and constructive manner, and, indeed, praying for them.
The poor need us to do that. We have nothing to lose but our chains.