THEY used to say the Anglican Church was the Conservative Party at prayer. It was true that in the 1970s and 1980s a lot of Conservative members could be found at morning service on a Sunday.
Today the gap between the Church and the Conservative Party is even greater than when Anglican worthies wrote in condemnation of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, and set up Faith in the City.
They were not too noisy during the Blair years about domestic matters, but today some Church leaders seem to have become the religious wing of Labour’s campaign for higher welfare payments.
They imply there is a level of welfare benefit that could be paid which would mean no-one needed emergency help any more. They look forward to the closure of all food banks because everyone always has enough money to pay the household bills. I would sign up immediately for that if there was a way of achieving it.
If poverty could be abolished by a sweep of the legislative pen, elected officials would have done it years ago. If only government could magic away all life’s problems and all people’s mistakes.
I seem to remember there were all too many people on drugs, without jobs and suffering from insufficient welfare support, under Labour as well.
Food banks were set up under Labour for people facing a temporary crisis, though the government did not want to encourage them.
The main difference between the last Labour government and the current coalition is the present Government welcomes the additional help food banks offer, and refers people to them, where Labour declined to do so.
Coalition MPs did not come into politics to be unfair to the disabled or unsympathetic to someone who cannot find a job.
The evolution of Anglican theology and philosophy is interesting. In the heyday, the Church preached a more balanced moral position.
Protestants thought people should work hard and provide for themselves wherever possible. Some in the Church even went too far, implying the elect or God’s chosen were people who provided for their families and used the fruits of their success to finance the local Church and offered welfare to the poor. Certainly the rich and the moderately well off were welcomed to Church.
Today much Anglican rhetoric is a doctrine for the oppressed. The Church, of course, wishes to do good by offering a helping hand to the dispossessed, the disabled and the fallen. I am all for that. But, in doing so, it does not need to condemn or cold shoulder all those who do manage to provide for themselves and their families in true Protestant enterprising style.
The art of the Church should be to draw those people in too, and to harness their talents and energies, to a wider purpose. Nor should it just campaign against a government of two parties seeking to promote work as the best means to a better living standard for many, without accepting that there is good in plans to make it more worthwhile for everyone to have a job.
Instead, some vicars seem to think all welfare has to come from the Government, that the only morality that matters is the morality of higher taxes and that the better-off half should be condemned or left outside the Church door as unworthy of the union of the dispossessed who will come to attain the kingdom of heaven.
Such thinking is divisive and can harm the poor. I rarely hear an Anglican statement these days without a ritual denunciation of bankers, though Anglican staff salaries are partly derived from the extensive invested wealth of the Church which passes through the hands of financiers, and from the extensive tax breaks the Church enjoys on its income and wealth.
I do not want the Anglican Church to go back to supporting the Establishment without sufficient thought for the poor. I do want them to have a more mature understanding of the complex causes of poverty, and of the various ways successive governments are trying to combat it. The current Government has no more wish than the previous Labour administration – or the Thatcher government – to create more poverty or to leave poverty untreated.
The Church – at its best – can be a presence in our communities, itself reducing loneliness, low self-esteem, poor morale and the sense of powerlessness which can grip people. Helping people with a few days of free food may be a good thing to do, and unfortunately necessary even in a welfare state spending £210bn a year on state benefits and tax credits.
Even better is for the Church to work with individuals and families on how in future that family can manage better and work to help themselves, so they can face the food bill the following week with money to pay it. The Church needs to work with the grain of our welfare state, and to understanding the drift of policy towards seeing work and self-help as the best way for many to achieve a better lifestyle. As is often said, it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish to eat once in a while.
Tomorrow: Mark Russell, chief executive of Church Army, on the politics of food banks.
John Redwood is a Conservative MP and a former Cabinet minister.