Welfare debate: do politicians want churches’ works but not their words?

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Hearing a politician say that job of “the Church of England is to evangelise the message that Jesus Christ is the son of God, come to intervene for a humanity that can never meet God’s standards of perfection, and that humanity should concentrate on loving God and loving our neighbour” should be a cause for joy. Unfortunately the words from Charlotte Leslie MP are used as a device to try and shut the church up.

Since the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, spoke out last weekend against the government’s welfare reforms and austerity measures Christian leaders have made the running for the week’s news. David Cameron replied in an article for the Daily Telegraph attempting to claim a moral mission for his government’s reforms. Theos think tank published a collection of essays on the Future of Welfare, and then 27 bishops along with other church leaders signed a letter to the Mirror calling on the government to act on food hunger, ensure the safety net of the welfare state is secure and make work pay.

There was bluster and counter bluster, the most significant intervention in decades, an unprecedented attack. Forgetting that these unprecedented moments happen a couple of times a year. David Cameron in his response to Vincent Nichols had the courtesy to welcome his comments, and his place in the debate. Others have been less kind, and I would put Charlotte Leslie in that position, at least implicitly criticising church leaders for speaking out.

Christians are welcomed for their work on the front line, collecting food donations, handing them out, counselling those in severe debt, walking the streets at night causing crime to drop. The social action churches do is lauded, their contribution to the voluntary and charitable sector is vital. There are times when the church is loved. And there are times it is loathed, and that’s usually when it conflicts with the prevailing political consensus. Political ostracism is one threat but political co-option is arguably the greater challenge.

When church leaders criticise a political programme the other side can easily grab the religious leaders and use them as a shield. While the comments can be fair, the concerns grounded in reality, the policy asks reasonable, sometimes the political climate can morph an outspoken church leader’s statement into a political point scoring mechanism.

That’s where political interventions are dangerous. They become a clothes horse used to hang whatever particular agenda or priority best suits at that moment. It’s either a sign of strength, or a sign of disconnect, of a church finding it’s fight, or showing all it has left is to complain about the incoming tide and garner the attention given as it expends the last gasps of its relevancy on a fruitless cause. For journalists looking for a story it is the House of Bishops becoming the Labour Party at prayer. For naïve Bishops it is the church saying what they’re seeing on the ground and nothing more. The rest is up to the politicians to sort out.

It’s that sort of attitude towards politicians that gets us in trouble. When we think they are a special cadre of people, somehow more capable, more equipped, more likely to find solutions to the problems we encounter and comment on. When we think something is for politicians, so we don’t need to get our hands dirty, we’re abdicating responsibility. As I put it elsewhere, sometimes campaigning can look a lot like complacency.

Elaine Graham, in her book Between a rock and a hard place identifies this as the paradox of a post secular society, where Christians are welcomed on occasions, usually for the services and good they bring to communities, but also rejected, often for what they have to say. Perhaps, Christians are the new children, best seen but not heard.

Which bring us back to Charlotte Leslie’s intervention as well as John Redwood’s blog questioning whether churches want to pay more tax to fund the welfare they seemingly are calling for.

It was Christians who got involved before the funding of the welfare state started and as Stephen Timms, Labour’s employment spokesperson and chair of Christians on the Left, frequently comments, is it any surprise that it is Christians who have risen to the task in recent years?

A study by the Evangelical Alliance showed that 84 per cent of evangelicals volunteered at least monthly, for an average of two hours at a time, the contribution to the economy of this across the cities, towns and villages of our country is immense, and it more than offsets the gift aid churches receive back on the gifts they receive. If the government wanted to pay the church for its work the nation’s finances would be in a perilous state.

John Redwood doesn’t support higher taxes on churches, he’s not advocating the repeal of rebates which create vital stimuli. He’s a classic small state conservative, liberating voluntary organisations to take responsibility for their communities, Burke’s little platoons, is honey to his lips. But his tongue-in-cheek comments read like a warning shot across the churches’ bows, similar to Leslie’s call for the church to get its house in order before criticising the government.

If I were to caricature the two sides, the politicians and the church leaders, the politicians say to the churches: “thank you very much for the wonderful work you do, now leave us alone to make the important decisions which we know best how to handle”, they like the works but not the words. But the churches shouldn’t get off the hook either, too often their response is: “look at the dreadful impact of what you’re doing, we should know because we see it everyday, sort it. Oh, we don’t know how, just sort it”.

As I say, they’re caricatures, not the truth, but resembling it. The politicians want to keep the church at a safe distance, and the church obliges by lobbing in the odd hand grenade as they did this week, but then retreating to the comparative safety and affirmation of acting the Good Samaritan on life’s Jericho Road, letting others handle the tricky policy questions needing answers. 

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