The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Sound and Fury cloud the Bishops’ words

5th March 2014

Matthew Groves addresses key points highlighted in the Bishops' welfare letter on food poverty

There was furore when a letter on food poverty, signed by twenty-seven Anglican bishops and Methodist and Quaker leaders was printed in the Mirror. The letter written in coordination with the charity End Hunger Fast, called on the Prime Minister to act on the “acute moral imperative” to tackle problems of poverty and hunger. The Mirror used the letter as ammunition for an aggressive editorial attack on the Government.

In response to the letter and the Mirror editorial, Conservative MPs and Right wing commentators retaliated just as strongly. A more sober and level-headed critique from the Right was provided by Isobel Hardman of the Daily Telegraph and the ‘blogger who writes under the pseudonym of Archbishop Cranmer.

Archbishop Cranmer quoted the phrase “the medium is the message” to emphasise the controversial choice of newspaper that the letter was published in. This picked up on concerns expressed by Tim Montgomerie and Lord Carey about the bishops associating their comments with a very Left wing newspaper that is vehemently hostile to the Coalition Government.

In writing the letter in response to contact from the campaign group End Hunger Fast, the bishops also relinquished control of how the letter was publicised. So the choice of the Mirror and the consequent opportunity for that newspaper to launch another hostile editorial was not strictly within control of the bishops. The letter did endorse the three campaign goals of End Hunger Fast – calling for an investigation into food markets, making sure work pays and ensuring the welfare system provides a robust line of defence against hunger. It does not necessarily follow that the bishops supported the further points made in the Mirror’s editorial and yet the ensuing debate to some extent seems to have been premised on a confusion of the editorial and the letter.

True the letter was strongly worded, stating that Mr Cameron had an “acute moral imperative to act.” However, surely it is a Christian imperative to speak up for the poor, even if that does mean a less than supine acceptance of politicians’ no-doubt-sincere assertions to be following a “moral mission”. To act on that imperative does not mean the bishops have called into question the integrity of the politicians implementing welfare policies or that the bishops are completely opposed to government policy.

Indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has sympathised with the letter, has also in the past spoken out in praise of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary as “one of the most educated and thoughtful people on this area [welfare reform] there is. I think we’re very careful about saying he’s got it wrong.”

What this letter is about is not an attack on the underlying philosophy behind welfare reform under Mr Duncan Smith, but a response to the empirical facts on the ground. The anecdotal reports from vicars within the bishops’ sees is of an increase in the hungry and destitute arriving on vicarage doorsteps. This anecdotal evidence appears confirmed by the statistics the bishops were provided with by reputable organisations (namely Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust), leading to the bishops to call for government action.

Anglican bishops have always been clear that they support the policy of introducing universal credit. On Thursday 27th February two bishops, Birmingham and Leicester, have also spoken in support of the Government’s child-poverty strategy.

Once the choice of medium is put to one side, along with that medium’s own political stance it becomes easier to see through the fog of heated public debate. We find bishops honouring their duty to speak up for the poor, without straying into the fully-political field of presenting solutions – which would be entering party politics. So a response to the empirical facts in the parishes has led to a call on the Government to look at the state of the poor today. It is just as conceivable that much of the problem in the growth in foodbanks is due to administrative delays in the welfare bureaucracy, leading to people falling back on such support as a stop-gap. It is not necessarily an attack on the philosophy to ask for the mechanics of implementation to be looked at.

Perhaps the defensive response from the Government has more to do with a feeling that their moral integrity is being impugned than anything else. The Government has made much of the moral basis to its welfare reforms. When one relies on morality as the justification rather than pragmatic balancing of interests in policy, then a new level of debate is reached, where one must be subject to greater and more searching scrutiny. Moral scrutiny of policies should be welcomed not feared. If the bishops are challenging us to think about the impact of policies on the poor and the moral robustness of our moral approach, well isn’t that what bishops are for?

Politics and the State do not define our moral code, rather that comes from our heritage and the bishops are amongst the custodians of that heritage. When the bishops speak out on a political campaign making moral claims then there should be reflection. At the same time, as many commentators have pointed out, the bishops must not simply put their faith in State solutions (although whether they have actually done so in this letter is a moot point). It is to the churches that the hungry are turning to and while we should not wash our hands of the poor and leave it to churches, they surely have a vital role.

The Church of England is putting its money where its mouth is, not only by working with the Trussell Trust to provide emergency food assistance, but also by embarking on a generation-long mission to grow the credit union sector through the resources of the Church. This is the big Society in action. Further to this practical help, there is involvement in analysis and a search for solutions. For example, the Bishop of Truro is co-chairing with Frank Field a cross-party inquiry into the rise of foodbank use.

It is right to be sceptical of attempts to balance the budget through welfare cuts, but it is also the case that the bureaucratic, state approach to welfare can be demeaning and degrading. People are treated as numbers, targets have to be met and as the bishops imply in their letter, vulnerable people become victims of gridlock in the bureaucratic system. Charity has a human face however and volunteers organised by churches are unconstrained by the target culture, allowing them to demonstrate compassion. So the crisis confronting parish priests demands reflection from statesmen and Episcopalians alike.

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