In recent weeks Church leaders of many different denominations have raised their voices about the rise of food banks and the poverty and destitution inflicted on the most vulnerable through the government's welfare reform as reported by Church Action on Poverty's Niall Cooper and in the Church Times.
At the same time research by Professor Linda Woodhead based on a you gov survey reported in the Church Times and the Daily Telegraph suggests that the majority of lay Christians take a much more pro government line on welfare reform. In fact the analysis suggests that Christian laity in general and Anglicans in particular are somewhat more negative about benefit claimants and poverty issues than the general population and non religious. The main tables giving the breakdowns by religion on two statements on welfare cuts and welfare dependency are found on p 44 of this document A theos poll reported in the Guardian suggests the same findings.
Now it could be possible to critique the survey and the data analysis on technical grounds, (and I have corresponded with Linda about this). For example one could question the wording of the statements that were used in the survey, and the categories used for defining nominal adherents and churchgoing active believers, or for denominational labels. Or there is the possibility that the correlations between social class, age and gender of church attendance mask the effects of religion on its own. However the statisticians who worked on the survey have taken this into account and the main pattern cannot be denied. Church goers in general, and Anglicans in particular are slightly but significantly more hostile to the workless poor than the general population, and well out of step with what bishops and other church leaders have been saying in their critique of government policy.
On the other hand there are signs that the public, and the Christian public are more charitable towards the poor than the survey suggests. Christians are at the heart of the charitable response through food banks, soup kitchens and job clubs with the essential donations of food, money and unpaid voluntary work that keeps them going. In a 2012 survey of 1237 evangelicals (p10-11) 92% agreed "it is every Christians duty to help those in poverty" and 77% that "the government should make sure that the richest people in the country should pay higher levels of tax." However, in the same survey 68% agreed that "too many people have become dependent on state benefits and could do more to help themselves". Christians may well be personally generous and even egalitarian in outlook, but the majority do seem to have accepted the common narrative about the supposed problem of welfare dependency.
As someone working for the churches in the promotion of anti poverty programmes I take it for granted that the bishops are on the side of the angels in this debate, and that the immoral, cruel and misguided policy to cut holes in the welfare safety and to discipline the unemployed (and unemployable) by destitution and dependency on food banks must be resisted. So how come the church leaders "get it" and the public, including the Christian public, do not?
I think we should consider at least five possible reasons why which church leaders are untypically wise about poverty in the UK today.
They see through the ideology and spin of the media.
Over many years the majority of the media, most of which is controlled by and serves the interests of capital has been promoting the neo-liberal project which aims to transfer wealth and income from the poor to the wealthy elite. A discourse has been constructed which frames welfare claimants as scroungers, the undeserving poor who have become hopelessly dependent on state handouts. Whether it is the tabloid papers linking workless families with horrendous crime as in the case of Mick Philpott, or the TV programmes that have been described as "poverty porn" such as C4's Benefits street, the poor have been portrayed as deviant. Labeling and victim blaming are commonplace. In contrast church leaders still have a critical faculty, and have the ability to carry out their own policy research which provides an alternative narrative. We frequently pray for church leaders to have the spirit of wisdom and understanding so is it a surprise that they are able to discern the differnce between truth and lies.? http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty/
They are more in touch with the poor
Unlike many in the professional classes many clergy and church workers remain in day to day contact with the poorest in society. The Church of England, the Church of Scotland and to a lesser extent the Roman Catholic Church maintains a parochial and pastoral presence in every neighbourhood in the land, including the most deprived communities. Methodism and the Salvation Army have intentionally sought to maintain their ministry among the least and the lost. Even in more affluent areas the church is seen as an organization that will help those in need when no one else will, and people in great need turn up in church or knock on the vicarage door. Ministers of religions are trained to listen to people's stories, and for the sake of Christ, and/or the reputation of their church will help as they are able. And even though bishops and senior leaders may be more removed from the life of the streets, they will hear stories and reports of what the church is doing locally, and be asked to represent these realities to the public, and to the government.
They have a theology and reading of the Scripture which is deeper and more serious than that of the laity. It is a theology that recognizes that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ consistently exercises and demands a preferential option for the poor.
Full time ministers and ordained clergy can sometimes take for granted the immense privilege of their theological and spiritual formation. Not only will they have had an opportunity to read and reflect upon the whole of Scripture that is rarely given to the most avid Bible reader in their congregations. They will have been given a framework which provides a grand narrative, a big story of salvation history. Within that framework it is almost impossible to avoid grappling with questions of wealth and poverty, justice, compassion and solidarity which are major themes in Scripture and Christian tradition. For those who studied theology or trained for ministry since the 1970's the influence of theologies of liberation will have been encountered and have made their mark. Yet in many churches the average person in the pew has not appropriated a theology or a practice that goes much beyond some simple foundations. For many the gospel boils down to a couple of sentences, which are unlikely to include the word "poor".. God loves me and forgives my sins. In return I am expected to try to love God and my neighbour as myself, and as a result I will go to heaven when I die.
The clergy are more communitarian than the laity
While perhaps the majority of the population has accepted the neo liberal definition of the person as an individual consumer, church leaders for social as well as theological reasons tend to resist this heresy. They are by definition committed to an institution (the Holy Catholic Church) which spans the centuries and embraces people of every tribe and nation, social class, age and gender. Relationships are central, modeled theologically on the Divine Trinity, the church as the body of Christ, and the foundation that "I am indeed by brother or sister's keeper. While an ordinary citizen or church member can look after themselves, and maybe their family and choose their friends, a church leader has responsibilities towards a wider community. Some lay Christians behave as consumers of religious and spiritual products according to market rationality, and some churches, especially in the evangelical world have tailored their offerings to satisfy the market. However, for clergy who seek to minister to the whole community, in accordance with the charge and calling they have received, niche marketing is not so easy. There are expectations that they will speak up for and do good to the poorest and most vulnerable as representatives of Christ and the church.
Most Church leaders today are from an age cohort and possibly a social class background that has benefitted from the welfare state and lived their formative years through the Thatcherite revolution..
People born in the 1950's or 1960's are now in senior leadership positions in the main churches. They are the generation that took for granted the National Health Service, social security and free education leading to social mobility. Even if they themselves came from privileged backgrounds they were likely to have seen welfare provision as a noble thing, a national treasure. This was the generation of clergy who most likely did their training and curacies in the Thatcher decade, in the ferment of debates triggered by the 1985 Faith in the City report. Many current bishops served their time in UPA parishes, and similar experiences were common in the Free and Roman Catholic churches. It is in the DNA of such leaders that they will not let social progress be destroyed by right wing politicians.
So the church leaders who are now speaking up courageously for justice are doing what is right, well founded in Scripture, and natural for them as a result of their formation. However, if survey findings are correct, the great failure of church leaders is that over the last three decades they have not successfully taught or discipled ordinary church members to recognize the truth about contemporary capitalist society, or communicated the essential Biblical truths about community, social justice and the oppression of the poor. The challenge for church leaders is to move beyond the current bi-polar approach of preaching a domesticated gospel in church on Sundays and issuing prophetic calls for justice in the media and the House of Lords on weekdays, towards the effective communication of the whole counsel of God in word and deed so that the whole church can be involved in the mission of God every day of their lives. It will no doubt be doubly difficult, in an age where hierarchical authority is constantly questioned, and when the integrity, and progressive credentials of the mainline churches are often ridiculed because of the divisive debates and institutional politics over gender equality and sexuality.