Ethics & Christian living

Low pay or Living Wage: does the Church practice what it preaches?

Wages of sinSome Christians might be delighted that today’s front page headline in Britain’s most popular newspaper is a direct quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  But the article titled ‘Wages of Sin’ highlights the Church of England’s inconsistency in simultaneously calling for the Living Wage but not paying this to all of its staff.

True to form, The Sun’s journalists found a job in Canterbury Cathedral (of all places) which is advertised as paying well below the Living Wage.

The Church has responded by saying that because they are separate legal entities, each individual cathedral, diocese or church has to make their own decisions around pay levels.  But that really will not wash.

To most people, this sounds like when a major corporation is caught out but claim that it was one of their subsidiary companies who did something wrong. Conveying organisational complexity does not answer the core question: does the church practice what it preaches?

Speaking as one

Last week, in their pastoral letter which hit the headlines, the Bishops spoke out as one. And the debate created by the letter was a great sign of its relevance and impact.  Now, when the backlash starts to discredit the church’s message, the Bishops need to respond as one too.

We have been here before. Just last year, after the Archbishop  spoke out against pay day lenders, it was exposed that the church held investments in Wonga. In response, Justin Welby knew he could not hide behind the Church’s complex relationship with the Church Commissioners – he just had to make sure the issue was sorted out.

Integrity and power

Thank God the Church is not a think tank which simply produces reports.  Rather, it is a living and working institution with outposts in every community in the land. So when it speaks out, it does so off the back of real experience. It’s integrity and power comes from faith in action. For example, it can speak about food poverty because its members are running so many food banks.

So when it comes to the Living Wage, the Church needs to get its house in order. Every diocese, every parish and every C of E affiliated charity should commit to undergo the process to be a Living Wage accredited employer.

Hard decisions

Following a decision by the Methodist Conference, the West London Mission (where I work) underwent the process last year.  We employee over 70 staff so it is an exercise that requires commitment and thoroughness. The terms and conditions of employees, especially those such as cleaners who may get the least pay, have needed to be re-examined. Some arrangements that have been murky and unclear have needed to pulled out into the light and reviewed.

I am sure that it will be a significant project for the C of E. It might be especially complicated for cathedrals who contract with other companies to run their gift shops or catering. It might mean tightening the belt – maybe a few Bishops might need to lose their chauffeurs or a couple of palaces might have to be sold off. It would not be the end of the world.

Firmer ground

But going through this process would make firmer ground for the church to stand on when it then speaks out about low wages. If all churches and dioceses became Living Wage employers, then the Church would be seen to live out the justice of which it speaks. In Gandhi’s words, it would become the change it seeks.

Integrity demands that we should always be skeptical of political theology which is not manifested in practical action.

An issue for everyone

And let’s remember, this is an issue for everyone who is employed.  Everyone could start the process of asking our employees to take the step to pay the Living Wage. If every Christian did this at their workplace the impact could be incredible and the witness profound.

Last week’s headlines have shown the potential of a Church speaking out sensibly, passionately and faithfully. Let’s not give the Harry Chomley’s of this world, or his mates who work at The Sun, more justification for their dismissal of what the Church has to say.

5 thoughts on “Low pay or Living Wage: does the Church practice what it preaches?”

  1. I was part of a group at Oxford calling on colleges to employ cleaning and catering staff on living wages. We did questionnaires with employees at our college, passed motions at the college student union and joined in a process to assess the cost of living in Oxford. Just this week I was delighted to find out that 5 years later my old college, Hertford, is now paying the Living Wage: These things do take time but are worth it in the end. I think you’re right Jon, the C of E needs to commit to the same sifting process of its employment contracts that it is asking for elsewhere.


    1. Great example – and thanks for sharing. I think this is something that everyone could do and as you say it may take time but this is the work that will make the difference.


  2. I do agree that we (the C of E) should all sign up to the living wage; but I also sympathise with Welby because he genuinely has no control over churches in his diocese, let alone the wider church of England. In our church, we pay the living wage to our cleaner, but many won’t. He can’t be held responsible for whether we do or not, but that doesn’t mean he can’t speak out about it.

    The difference between this and the business subsidiary example you use is that welby admits it’s embarrassing, and continues being grown-up about it. As he did with Wonga.


  3. Speaking from a parish that pays its cleaners less than the living wage … there’s work to do, perhaps I’ll log out now!


  4. Integrity is essential, all mistakes are forgivable, but lasting authentic change must be the evidence that faith is in action.


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