This weekend saw another avalanche of media coverage about a row between the Church and the government. This time it relates to the refugee crisis. The Bishops have accused the government of dragging its feet and not responding adequately to their offers to help mobilise the churches.
“The mean-spirited response of the government goes against the spirit of our nation…This is a matter of real urgency. Winter is coming. It seems crazy that the government is not listening.”
Despite widespread assumptions of its decline, the Church continues to stand up against the government more effectively than any other institution. And we should expect to see more and more disputes between Church and State in the coming years. This is for two main reasons, one political and the other theological:
1) Further public funding cuts and deepening austerity
Virtually everyone agrees that the cuts have only just begun. On top of what has already been slashed, this summer George Osborne instructed all government departments to plan for cuts of between 25-40% over the next 5 years. Many are predicting that in in the near future, local authorities will be running virtually nothing apart from the most basic elements of adult social care and child protection.
As the state rolls itself back, to cover deficits and promote the ideology of small government, more and more people and communities will be left exposed. Two of the most obvious indicators, food poverty and homelessness, will increase. As as there’ll be less resources to tackle it, voluntary-run food banks and night shelters will be busier than ever.
An example is the Day Centre for homeless people run by West London Mission (where I work). Every day we see more and more street homeless people (today it was 114) but, mainly due to cuts, we now receive no government funding. We have to organise events like the sponsored Sleep Out that my wife and daughter did this week,to make up the shortfall.
2) The growth of Christian concerns for social justice
In the last 20 years, there has been a marked increase in the amount of social action run by churches. It has been the vibrant faith of churches has provided the capacity to grow the network of food banks, night shelters, Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty’s Debt Centres.
One element in this growth has been the shift in the social awareness of evangelical churches. Significantly, this is the part of the church which is growing. The surge of activism has been backed up by a wide range of books, courses, initiatives and events which have embedded a biblical theology of social justice. Increasingly, the traditionally personal emphasis of evangelical theology is being fused with a deep commitment to social justice. And this has affected political views.
Before the election last year, a major survey of UK evangelical Christians, showed how different their political views were from the US stereotypes. It found that the Labour was the party most UK evangelicals would vote for. And what did they feel was the single most important issue facing the UK? Poverty and inequality.
These views show how the Church is reflecting theologically and politically on its social action. The Church cannot be dismissed as some liberal-leaning think tank. Rather, it is a vast network of people who know what is happening in their communities and feel deeply concerned about what they are seeing.
Beyond ambulance work
Running food banks, drop in centres and night shelters is all about meeting emergency needs. It is ambulance work. In the past, this kind of charitable work has been applauded by Conservative governments. After all, it doesn’t use government money and represents ‘the Big Society’ in action.
What rattles their cages is when people question why people are poor in the first place. The words of Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Helder Camara, are still relevant:
‘When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask, ‘Why are poor hungry?’ they call me a communist.’
It seems that the government wants Christians to be busy pulling drowning people out of the river. What it doesn’t like is when people start questioning who is pushing them in.
The Church already does a huge amount to help those in crisis. And this is why it has a right and a responsibility to speak out about political and economic decisions which make the situation worse.