I was struck by recent reports concerning the two senior Anglican archbishops and their comments concerning poverty and the state of the nation, and what this has to do with religion and politics, and the discussions that followed. “The Church’s two most senior figures came under fire yesterday after claiming the poor are being left behind and whole cities swallowed up in a ‘cycle of decline’. In a highly political intervention – coinciding with the start of the General Election campaign – the Archbishops of Canterbury and York insisted that the Coalition was ‘casting aside’ the poor while chasing votes in Middle England. As a result, they said, Britain had become dominated by ‘rampant’ individualism, is ‘ill at ease with itself’ and was in many places ‘trapped in apparently inevitable decline’.” Unsurprisingly, besides attracting support, there were those, including senior politicians, who criticised what was said, including saying that as church leaders they needed to get their own act together e.g. concerning declining congregations and stop criticising what they don’t understand.
As a community activist, mindful of the devastating effects of poverty and systemic failures that have led to many of the heart-rending situations I come across all the time in my work, in particular concerning the homeless, it might be tempting to wade in with my two penneth worth by supporting the archbishops and condemning the politicians. I have no doubt there will be a lot of that going on by others in the lead up to the next election and, undoubtedly, I will have something to say, to add to what I have said already. But not here and not now, at least on who is right and who is wrong in this instance. For one thing, I have not studied the detail of what the two archbishops have been saying and would rather base any argument I make on what I know rather than merely to give vent to my anger and righteous indignation, despite knowing what I know and suspecting much else besides.
However, poverty and helping the poor is an issue on which the Bible has a lot to say. Helping the poor is a Christian obligation. Moreover, the Church has been at its best and the best examples of church in action have been when its members have done just that. While it is true that the baulk of the Bible’s teaching is directed toward Jewish and Christian believers, urging them to act in a responsible and compassionate manner toward the poor, some of the most devastating condemnation, particularly from the lips of the prophets, were directed toward those who had it in their power to do something about poverty. While the afore-mentioned report cited the days of Margaret Thatcher when similar criticisms were made toward the government of the day, along with the disdain shown by those being criticised, I should refer for the sake of balance to the spin that came from the office of Tony Blair, that “we don’t do God“. Whether or not politicians on the right or the left wish to consider their actions with respect to what God thinks on these matters, they will be called to account on the day of judgement and the church has a prophetic role to remind them of this and their obligations.
However, there is another aspect I wish to refer to and that is the role the church has in helping the poor and the oppressed. It wasn’t that long ago, before the advent of the welfare state, that the church played a major role in helping the poor and was supported by the state in doing so and religion, for good and ill, played a major part in politics. The church in more recent years has tended to relinquish this role and this was for all sorts of reasons, like its decline in influence, the growth of secularism and the state increasingly taking on this role. Mine is not a call to turn the clock back but rather to take stock regarding the situation we now find ourselves.
When I came off duty yesterday morning from the homeless night shelter I manage, I had a short conversation with the manager of the shelter for the next night around these themes, and my experience working with the homeless and its related activities has influenced what I am about to share. My concern was that I was showing hospitality to two particular guests who were being let down by the system (and this is the sort of situation I come across regularly, for a plethora of reasons) and I was frustrated that the service I was able to offer did not go much further than my hospitality remit. My friend pointed out that filling in those gaps, like those I shared with him, and providing the holistic services used to be very much part of the churches remit and having sold our birthright we should reclaim it and do what we are called to do in reaching out to the poor.
Increasingly, I see evidences of this being done and it seems quite clear to me that church and state could be effective partners in the future in tackling these great needs. In the light of such great needs, to say religion has nothing to do with politics is madness. While the church does need to get its act together and in some ways helping toward this is my major calling, I will be also looking to make politicians accountable for their actions and seek to explore ways as to how best we can work together to identify and address the great needs in our society, especially toward the poor and needy.