The power of endorsement is an incredible thing. When you see the ridiculously large amounts of money companies are willing to pay someone like David Beckham to have his face in the same picture as a drink, sunglasses or even a permanent marker, you can’t deny the value of it.
If the letter to this week’s Sunday Times from 43 bishops calling on the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of the planned benefits cap had not had the endorsement of Justin Welby, it probably would have been largely ignored. The fact that his endorsement provoked such a strong reaction from politicians and the press says something significant about how he has been received. Certainly Justin Welby’s appointment as the new Archbishop of Canterbury has gone down very well in Christian circles. There is something about this adulation that reminds me of Barack Obama winning his first term as president. Hopes are high that he will be a charismatic leader who will bring welcome change to the church and who for now appears to be able to do no wrong. The media too appears to have bought into this. The honeymoon period is already in full swing with every comment and criticism being lapped up and pored over. His past experiences both inside and outside of the church and his outspoken views, especially on banking, have filled the press with curiosity to know more. Politicians whether through respect or fear also seem to feel the need to respond to him. Ignoring the new Archbishop does not appear to be an option.
The church has a well established record of telling parliament what it thinks it should do. Andrew Brown writes that in the 1980s, when old Labour was committing suicide, it sometimes seemed that the only effective opposition to the Thatcher government was coming from the Church of England. As the reduction to welfare spending implemented by this government has continued, the bishops have felt the need to continue in this vein, highlighting the impact the cuts will have particularly on children in poorer families and urging the Government to avoid disproportionately targeting the most vulnerable in our society.
Something I’ve seen very little of over the last few days, is the press and politicians really getting to grips with the bishops’ motivation for making this sort of intervention. Are they just a bunch of lefties deliberately stirring up trouble for David Cameron and the Government by trying to meddle with the political process? It has had the effect of polarising the coalition partners to a certain degree with the Liberal Democrats siding with Justin Welby. The Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, said on Sunday , “I think the Archbishop’s intervention is an immensely helpful one in strengthening the Liberal Democrats’ hand to fight for a fairer deal for the least well-off.” On the other hand Iain Duncan Smith was less than impressed: “Getting people back to work is the way to end child poverty. That’s the moral and fair way to do it.” he said. “Dependent on the state. Unable, unwilling to work. What is either moral or fair about that? That’s my challenge to the bishop.”
Iain Duncan Smith unfortunately misses the point. He may have felt that this was an attack on his attempts to reform the welfare state, but it wasn’t, nor was it an endorsement of the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps the biggest misjudgment of the bishops’ intentions I’ve seen was by Tim Stanley in the Telegraph where he claims that the Anglican Church is now the Labour Party at prayer. “What Welby is defending is less a Christian settlement than a socialist one. It says a lot about the establishment of the Anglican Church that they can’t tell the difference,” he writes.
I would suggest however, that it is the politicians and political journalists who can’t always tell the difference. So often they seem to struggle not to interpret at any outside criticism through a political lens. Is this perceived attack on my policies is an attack on me and my party? Actually, no. Is this intervention an endorsement of another party? No, not that either. This confusion seems so great that Justin Welby has felt the need to respond himself to set the record straight. On his personal blog on Monday he wrote:
‘This is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about. It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don’t agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave. Perhaps a little less heat and a little more clarity would help.’
The issue of how we collectively support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society is primarily a justice issue not a political one, but perhaps our politicians lose sight of this at times. The Church’s job is to follow the teachings of Jesus and if he said, “Be generous to the poor”, which he did, then the Church needs to act accordingly and if it sees a government acting towards those at the bottom of the heap with limited amounts of compassion, then it has every reason to challenge what it sees happening. This is not the same as making pronouncements based on some sort of quasi-religious socialist ideology with the intention of antagonising any government that aims to alter the welfare system.
The church is in a unique position in society. The values of the Christian faith transcend those that inhabit the political spectrum, which is why it is possible to have Christian politicians on both the left and the right as well as in-between. The bishops may not have been elected through our democratic process, but they are in close contact with communities in every part of the country with their ears to the ground. They are also able to say what they believe to be the truth without fear of being voted out at the next election.
If Justin Welby continues to get this sort of reaction from politicians when he chooses to challenge them (which I am sure he will), then that strongly implies he is doing something right. The challenge as always is to stop whatever his message might be getting politicised , twisted or hijacked. He has done the right thing this time by keeping the conversation going to clarify his point. Iain Duncan Smith himself has said: “I have no issue with the Church of England, with the bishops, for them to say whatever they believe. It’s quite right and proper. They should try to argue with us and put pressure on us over a number of issues.”
The invitation is there and I’m sure the new Archbishop of Canterbury won’t ignore it. Our politicians will just need to learn to listen a bit more carefully to what he has to say.