Welby and a lot of whataboutery

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A shorter version of this post featured as the Evangelical Alliance’s Friday Night Theology post which is available here.

The Archbishop of Canterbury knew what he was doing. Ahead of his speech to the Trade Union’s Congress this week he put out a tweet teasing that it might ruffle a few feathers. He knew that it would reignite the debate that had hardly simmered down follow his involvement in the IPPR thinktank’s commission on economic justice and their report last week.

Justin Welby followed up his calls for an increased minimum wage and an overhaul in inheritance arrangements with an attack on gig-economy employers and zero-hours contracts. In questions following his speech he spoke about the Universal Credit scheme, saying that, “It was supposed to make it simpler and more efficient. It has not done that. It has left too many people worse off, putting them at risk of hunger, debt, rent arrears and food banks.”

The backlash has been intense. The front page of Thursday’s Times reported that ‘Tories blast Archbishop’, tweets flew swiftly and often without much theological nuance. After the IPPR report the Taxpayer’s Alliance perhaps took the wooden spoon for theological illiteracy with their comment: “The Archbishop seems to have forgotten Jesus’ command to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s’. He should stick to his important theological work and keep out of politics!”

What has not helped is the revelation – entirely predictable in an organisation with as dispersed an authority structure as the Church of England – that some cathedrals and dioceses are employing people and advertising roles on zero hours contracts. There is the attempted defence that for some these are exactly the sort of contract people want, but the problem raised in recent years is that while sometimes wanted, they are often exploited.

Trickier to navigate for the Church of England is its stake in Amazon, which was listed in the Church Commissioner’s 2017 annual report as one of its top 20 global equity investments. The defence offered is that investment in companies enables shareholder engagement which is one of the best methods of achieving change. I grant that that can make a difference, but how much engagement is required to offset how egregious the company’s activities? I also wonder if the Archbishop again knew exactly what he was doing and saw his own church’s Commissioners as one of the audiences he was trying to reach through his speech.

I see the plank in my own eye. While on holiday recently I read James Bloodworth’s Hired which details his experience working a range of low pay job with precarious employment arrangements. His work as a stock picker in an Amazon warehouse is perhaps the most shocking of the tales he tells. I squirmed slightly as I recalled that I’d bought that very book along with the rest of my holiday reading from the very same online giant. We should not require perfect morality of those who seek to address systemic problems, and low pay and precarious work are challenging public policy dilemmas of this age.           

Back to the Taxpayer’s Alliance and their quoting from Mark 12, the problem is that that passage, alongside the companion section of Matthew 22, it is where I would go for a defence of Christian engagement in politics. The Herodians and Pharisees were out to trap Jesus, they wanted him either to pledge allegiance to the Roman overlords or speak out in rebellion against them. Instead Jesus did neither; the coins with Caesar’s image on were Caesar’s property, but God’s image is spread far wider than the coinage they were discussing. When Jesus says to give to Caesar what is his and to God what is God’s, Jesus is acknowledging the role of government and, by extension, of taxation. But importantly, He is also saying that all of life, even the coin, even Caesar, everything is God’s.

The commands to stand for justice which are littered throughout the Bible – for the quartet of the vulnerable, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant and the poor, as Tim Keller puts it in Generous Justice – ensure that we cannot pretend theology isn’t political and reminds us that the activity of the church is rightly concerned with the welfare of people on earth as well as their eternal salvation. It is always both/and, not either/or. Nick Spencer wrote in response to the Taxpayer’s Alliance: “Every time I imagine we have moved on from this question, I read a tweet like this one.”

We’ve had blogs galore, twitter threads expounding, confected outrage coming from the usual parties, and the inevitable responses from Christians seeking to defend Christian engagement in politics. In many ways it would be easy to rehearse the same set of arguments for engagement to respond to the volley of critiques trying to silence Christians speaking in public.

The challenge in responding to the likes of the Taxpayers Alliance, or the libertarian thinktank the IEA, or Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian, is that in an attempt to defend Christian engagement in politics, and the vital role of Christian leaders speaking into political debate on a national level, we might be fearful of critiquing anything that is said or how it is interpreted. There can be a sense of not wanting to give any ground to those who are criticising. I have spent the last decade advocating for Christian engagement in politics, and I recognise the charge against Christians for engaging and I see the familiar critiques that don’t lose their power because they are recycled for the countless time. But I don’t think we can just rehearse the same defences.

I think it is important that we are able to recognise where Christian political engagement is valuable and where it might be problematic. My verdict on Justin Welby’s contribution over the last couple of weeks is that it is mostly good and helpful, but that positivity isn’t without some caveats.

First of all, and as is inevitable in any political engagement, I don’t agree with all that he said. Two things stood out for me, I thought his rhetoric about the gig-economy being the reincarnation of an ancient evil was unnecessary hyperbole – especially if there is some defence for their use in some contexts. Second, and the more I’ve thought about it the more I am troubled by this is his comment: “Today I dream that governments, now and in the future, put church-run food banks out of business. I dream of empty night shelters. I dream of debt advice charities without clients.”

The second part of that I can’t disagree with, but it’s the idea of the government putting church activities out of business that represents a very statist view of poverty relief. A conservative would surely argue that it’s the role of businesses employing people and paying a good wage that would put food banks out of business. I also wonder what other aspects of the church’s ministry the Archbishop wants to be rendered obsolete by the government. How about moral education? Is Welby really asking that churches are left with nothing to do but run church services every Sunday? I can’t believe he really thinks that, but nor can I understand such a careless choice of words.

The second caveat I would want to add, and I think more significantly, is insisting that our beliefs have a political application does not give us a carte blanche to engage in whatever way we choose. There are a couple of questions that it is helpful to ask about Welby’s intervention. Is it what he said that is problematic or where he said it? And is it more or less of a problem because it is the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than any other church leader?

On the latter question his position is unique: not only does he also occupy a seat in the House of Lords but he is also the leader of the Church of England and by virtue of the establishment of that church, the de facto Christian leader of England. That means he isn’t just any old church leader speaking out. He has a platform that is rarely afforded to others, and the use of that platform is worthy of scrutiny, which leads to the first question.

Christians in the UK tend to vote across party lines. Research from the Evangelical Alliance before the 2015 general election, suggested that Evangelicals broadly planned to vote in a similar fashion to the wider population. When a key leader is associated with organisations and platforms – the IPPR thinktank and the TUC – that are aligned with part of the political spectrum there is the risk that it sends two damaging signals.

First to the general public, the media and politicians, that Christians are predominantly to be found in that party camp. And second, to Christians, that their views have greater or less legitimacy depending whether they cohere with what that party says. Despite protestations of non-partisan political engagement, implicit signals carry strength.

When the leader of the opposition is tweeting supportive quotes of your speech and congratulating you for being part of a growing movement, I think there is license for concern. Lord Bourne, the Conservative government minister for faith, was relatively magnanimous, in while telling The Times that he disagreed with the Archbishop that: “I think it’s the role of regions and religious leaders to occasionally be that bit of grit in the oyster and make us feel a little bit uncomfortable.”

A challenge for local church leaders when considering the Archbishop’s intervention this week is, what does this mean for me? Where should I speak up and where should I stay quiet?

As a rule, I think where it is encouraging political engagement, speaking up is vital, and when it is speaking for the disenfranchised and those who have the least, it is biblically commanded. All of this can be done without signalling party political support. I would be wary of platforms offered by political parties, or campaigns clearly associated with one party – they will often want the endorsement of local leaders to give their campaign legitimacy and help recruit more supporters.

Next week the media will have moved on from Welby’s intervention, but politics will always be with us. Both locally and nationally political engagement is an important outworking off our beliefs. For some that will mean engaging in the party system – it’s a crucial way of achieving change. For other that will mean campaigning, for others working to achieve change in businesses and communities across the UK.

When we engage we should focus on speaking up for the justice that God commands, for the freedom God brings, and for the truth of His word.

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Assisted dying: it’s just not cricket

On Saturday morning James Anderson marked out his crease in effort to prevent the England cricket team capitulating to a hefty first innings deficit. The previous night Stuart Broad has played a few shots and helped Joe Root nudge the scoreboard towards respectability, and then the final batsman – not a batsman in any conventional sense of the word, but the final player in the team to come out to bat – hung around long enough that his bowling duties would be delayed until the next day.

All through Saturday’s morning session Root and cricket batsAnderson pushed the total up, with Root, the recognised batsman, initially protecting Anderson from most of the play before they went on to bat as equals with the teams talismanic bowler trading the red leather for the bat as his weapon to do damage to the opponent. That morning all sorts of records fell. It was the first time both number 11s had scored fifties, first time both teams had a final wicket partnership over a hundred. When Anderson finally succumbed shortly after lunch England had carved out a lead from this granite of a wicket in Nottingham.

Cricket is a strange sport, it asks everyone to play their part. Only a fortnight before Anderson had fallen two balls short of the most redoubtable defence against Sri Lanka, turning down shot after shot, refusing to risk his wicket for anything. When he was out to his fifty-fifth ball it was the second longest duck ever. There were tears in his eyes when he was interviewed after the match. In most walks of life we play to our strengths, we do what we’re good at, and we avoid those things where failure is likely. Bowlers have no such option. James Anderson is not in the team for his batting, as a number 11 he is sent out onto the wicket as a final sacrifice at the tail end of an innings. He is not expected to score, but still he marks his crease and waits for the bouncers designed to scare him, the yorkers which will put him off balance and the reverse swing, of which he himself is a master, designed to tempt him into playing a shot.

A couple of years ago I was working with someone who had cancer, I didn’t know all the details, but I knew he had cancer, went into remission, then was no longer in remission. In May 2012 he passed away, but a few months before he wrote about his experience and his thoughts on assisted dying. Yesterday his thoughts were published in the Independent ahead of a debate in the House of Lords this week on legalising assisted dying for the terminally ill. Christopher Jones writes, that had the proposed law had been in place it would be for people like him:

“I might have been open to the option of ending my life by legal means, had these existed. The legal prohibition of this course was immensely helpful in removing it as a live option, thus constraining me to respond to my situation more creatively and hopefully. In hindsight, I now know that had I taken this course, I would have been denied the unexpected and joyful experience of being ‘recalled to life’ as I now am.”

Over the weekend the unexpected revelation that Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, supported the proposed change in the law sent shock waves around the Christian community, uniting those from often hostile factions in disagreement with his stance. This was followed by the support from Desmond Tutu, a seeming momentum of support from senior Christian leaders to change the law to one that is ‘more compassionate’. But, as current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wrote in the Times, “Helping people to die is not truly compassionate”.

I cannot imagine the suffering many people who are terminally ill face, or the life of those who are not terminally ill but suffering from illnesses that render their lives hard to live. There are cases that go through the courts of people who want their loved ones to have the freedom to end their lives, there are heart wrenchingly painful accounts.

And yet, and yet, I don’t think life can be subject to those choices. There are some choices we should not be allowed to take. I firmly believe that restricting the choice available to assist in someone’s death is the more compassionate thing to do.

We all have our part to play in life, and whether that’s for a few more months than we might expect. I am grateful for having known Christopher, and I am grateful he left these words.

Number 11 batsmen are sent out at the end of the innings when it is nearly over, but for them this is their chance to play some shots before the end. And sometimes it is remarkable. In twelve tests the winning shots have been struck by a batsmen disregarded as really a batsman. We could limit the batting to those who are good at it, those who train day in day out to receive the bullets of fast bowlers, the turning balls of whirling spinners.

cockney cricketSometimes playing out of position leads to unexpected results. Sometimes things happen that should not. What looks like a lost cause can be the gateway to something new. After Anderson’s heroics on Saturday the epilogue on Sunday evening was even more remarkable if irrelevant to the outcome of the game. On a pitch that yielded few easy wickets a draw was the inevitable conclusion as India batted through the day yesterday. As the sun dipped beneath the horizon and the match proceeded towards its close Alastair Cook took the ball to bowl his second and third ever overs in test match cricket. And took a wicket. The batsman out of form became a bowler, and the country’s greatest bowler was a batsman when it mattered.

In yesterday’s sermon at ChristChurch London Liam Thatcher talked about how Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from his chains while under arrest in Rome. He writes to the church that started when revival broke out in another jail twelve years before. His chains were not the method he would have chosen, but they were the way the gospel was spreading throughout the palace guard. Paul was chained up but the good news could not be.

Playing out of position can be awkward, being somewhere we would rather not can be painful, and it can be difficult, and sometimes we wish we could choose otherwise. But sometimes we learn something in those places, sometimes the unusual is where the unexpected happens. When it does, it’s more exciting. Anderson taking wickets isn’t worthy of headline (and nor should Cook scoring runs – but that’s another matter altogether), but when his heroics were with the bat people sat up, refreshed the live updates, and paid attention. There is something about let everyone play there part, even if it is out of position, and allowing assisted dying could stop that: and it’s just not cricket.

Is it the church or the media who’s obsessed with sex?

Justin Welby

Credit: Alex Moyler

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury came to work for the official opening of our new building. He spoke with wisdom and grace, he spoke of the need for unity in the church – especially poignant exactly 50 years on from when Martin Luther King declared he had a dream.

He challenged the church to begin with repentance, to recognise the scars that still hurt, and to follow Martin Luther King’s example and set a vision for what society should look like, and how the Church can bring that into being.

He spoke of the contribution churches bring to communities, the places they bring hope to communities in need. He spoke of the power of the gospel to transform people, and through transformed people change society.

If you see anything in the press about his visit, and a few papers have covered it, this is not the message you will have read. Continue reading

Is a little sin tolerable? Investment and searching for the good

The Church of England declares war on pay day lenders and then it’s uncovered they’re one of their investors. It’s a perfect story. And it draws back the curtain on the difficult business of ethical investment.

Further unfortunate headlines have largely been nipped in the bud by a frank and disarming interview with Justin Welby in the feared 8.10 slot on the Today Programme. He achieve that through such unorthodox techniques as:
1. Answering the questions
2. Being honest
3. Admitting fault

This isn’t a new idea for the Church of England, it’s had a similar policy toward unscrupulous lenders for twelve years, expanded in 2011 to prevent investment in the new breed of pay day lenders such as Wonga that have proliferated in the light of recent economic crises. The recommendation in its ethical investment policy on high interest lenders not to invest in companies with more than 25 per cent of their business in this area is not a cop out, and nor is it tolerating a little bit of sin.

The policy if correctly implemented – and my suspicion is that the investment through a hedge fund in which the Church’s pension fund invests is an error rather than a gap in the policy – means that companies engaged in pay day lending would not be invested in. However, were there a company that produces databases used for a wide variety of companies some of which were pay day lenders, then investment in this company would be acceptable as long as pay day lenders were not the core of their business model. Where the policy would fail to achieve its ends is if a pay day lender was part of a large business engaged in many different industries and the pay day lender comprised less that 25 per cent of its business, in this case the policy would need amending. And the policy is not rigid, it does not condone everything that isn’t automatically caught by the threshold, it allows the space for companies to be specifically excluded from investment. I expect that following this revelation closer attention will be paid and portfolios reviewed to ensure similar embarrassments are avoided. Continue reading

The first shall be last and the last shall be first

Today the next Archbishop of Canterbury was announced. In the New Year Justin Welby will leave his current post as Bishop of Durham and move south to take over from Rowan Williams as head of the Church of England and worldwide Anglican Communion. This is a big deal, it will matter a lot in the coming years who takes this role. And it seems to me they’ve chosen a good man, he cited the West Wing in the press conference after the appointment was officially made public, so that bodes well.

But that’s not what I’m writing about, I’ve already done so elsewhere, I did that yesterday afternoon. More I wanted to think about the mass of press releases and quotes that were bombarded at journalists and the twittering public at the strike of eleven this morning. Press officers furiously overriding their scheduled auto send or publish as Downing Street tweeted the official version of events ten minutes early. I should know, I was one of them.

Because the announcement had been rumoured for several days, and more or less confirmed by Wednesday evening, it gave everyone plenty of time to check his biography, scour his prior public pronouncements, draft quotes and get it all lined up for the official announcement. So by the time he took to the lectern in the Guard Room at Lambeth Palace to speak to the assembled journalists and many more as the pictures were broadcast live, the quotes were winging their way to the news desks and editors. Ruth Dickinson from Christianity Magazine tweeted a photo of her inbox.

The contrast struck me as the questions came in and were answered by Justin Welby with humility and grace. That here was a man who seemed to barely seek the post he was now set to take, that such inclination against preferment was almost a pre-requisite for the role. But there were hundreds tweeting their comments and statements at breakneck pace to grab the attention of any journalist struggling to fill their copy. Which is unlikely.

I’ve no doubt the quotes and the calls for prayer are sincere. I am certain that all those sending out their congratulations and best wishes really do think exactly what they are saying, it’s not the content that I’m a bit perturbed by. It’s the rush for preferment in the pages of the press. The mentality that says, here on one of the very few days when the church gets to dominate the main stream press on an issue of its choosing and in a way it decides, we end up trying to jostle to the left or the right of the man to gain some reflected glory if only one of those writing the story for the nationals might choose to use our quote.

In my own complicity I realise this stinks.

We should pray for Justin Welby, I think he sounds a fantastic man for the job, I hope that those quoted by the press will call others to do likewise. I hope that we will get behind a man taking on a position few would choose to carry, and if they did are likely unsuited for its burdens. I hope that he gets our support and our encouragement and not just as a way to segue into calling him to support our causes and views however noble they maybe.