This Sunday (June 22) has been designated by the Church of England as Poverty Sunday; a day to pray and reflect on issues of poverty in this country and how churches and individual Christians respond.
This year, churches are being urged to renew efforts to tackle deprivation. To coincide with the day, The Church Urban Fund (CUF), which was set up by the Church of England to work in deprived and impoverished areas, has released a resource which reveals the levels of poverty in every parish in England. The Poverty Look Up Tool reveals the number of adults with no qualifications, poverty among working age adults and child poverty based on official government statistics
Take for example Rev. Giles Fraser’s parish of St Mary Newington in Southwark. Giles often talks about the level of deprivation around him in his Guardian articles and looking at the figures you can see that he’s not wrong – his church is in the top ten per cent most deprived areas with high levels of child and pensioner poverty.
The Poverty Look Up Tool isn’t going to solve anything, but it is a helpful resource allowing you to gauge an understanding of the situation geographically around you, and even if you live in an affluent place, chances are that you won’t have to travel too far to find areas of poverty if you look hard enough.
The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker has called for prayer and a pledge to act in support of the Poverty Sunday campaign:
“The widespread effects of poverty can be felt in every parish in this country. Whether it’s struggling with benefits and having to rely on foodbanks, or coping with isolation and low self-esteem, the church has a vital role to play in addressing the needs of so many in our society.”
The Rev Paul Hackwood, Executive Chairman of the CUF, added:
“Poverty Sunday is an opportunity for the Church to reflect on one of its primary callings, to show compassion to the poorest in society.’ All Christian people are called to take poverty seriously and we hope that these resources will equip the Church to effectively reach every community to tackle poverty.”
This is one of the main reasons why the Church exists – to serve and care for those who do not have enough to get by on their own. ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress’ (James 1:27a). We could apply ‘orphans and widows’ to those who have fallen through the holes of the state’s welfare safety net, but this is a narrow definition of poverty that focuses too much on income. The government has been making noises about changing the official definition of poverty, although it is having trouble deciding what it should encompass. Perhaps the Church Urban Fund’s would help them. It defines poverty under three broad areas:
- Poverty of resources – when people lack sufficient resources, such as income, skills, qualifications or health, to achieve a good standard of living. Where resources are limited, so are people’s choices and opportunities.
- Poverty of relationships – when people lack the strong and supportive relationships on which individual, family and community life are built, resulting in loneliness and isolation. Where relationships are under pressure or where communities are fragmented and hostile, it is difficult to thrive in human terms.
- Poverty of identity – when people lack a strong sense of self-worth and a belief in their own ability to respond to challenges. Where these are missing, it can lead to low self-esteem, a lack of well-being and aspiration, poor mental health and even drug and alcohol misuse.
This gives a better understanding of the nature of poverty. These issues are complex and closely interlinked, trapping individuals and whole communities. The CUF considers this in detail in their Web of Poverty report. An example of this interconnectedness was given on Wednesday in the government’s Education Select Committee report that found that poor white youngsters are ‘consistently the lowest performing group in the country’.
For anyone in teaching this will come as little surprise. I’ve taught enough children from this group to know that a significant number have little interest in educational attainment or the value of their education and often their parents will encourage that attitude. They may be financially poor but when a poverty of ambition and aspiration is coupled to this, the chances of them working their way out of their situation will be minimal without a change of mindset, even if their financial circumstances improved through increased welfare support.
There was an interesting article on the BBC website a couple of months ago about Labour abandoning Gordon Brown’s methods of attempting to deal with child poverty. Merely redistributing money to nudge people over a statistical line so they are no longer classed as impoverished will not solve many of the other problems associated with poverty and can lead to an over reliance on the state with a mind-set of expectant dependency. The piece asks the question as to whether too much compassion in the welfare state could hurt the very people it is supposed to help. In a recent speech Ed Miliband drew on the ideas of a sociologist – Richard Sennett – who has written that: “Charity itself has the power to wound; pity can beget contempt; compassion can be intimately linked to inequality.”
From a Christian perspective the concept of too much compassion being detrimental is something that appears counter-intuitive and un-biblical. The Bible talks about God being gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Christians are repeatedly told to be continually generous to others and especially to the poor.
Instead of talking about deliberately limiting compassion, perhaps a better term would be ‘intelligent compassion’. Genuine compassion is surely something that we can never have enough of, but there is a potential for both good and harm to be done as a result depending on the way it is implemented. Sometimes our well-meaning actions can have unintended and undesirable consequences. For example, overprotective parenting, which is rooted in the care and safety of a child has the potential to stifle their development and ability to think and act independently.
Churches have limited resources and it is still amazing how much they achieve through their members to bless and serve others. There is widespread poverty in our towns and cities and many churches are already doing a great deal to address this. Calls to renew these efforts run the risk of turning action through compassion to action through guilt and pressure, which is always demotivating and leads to resentment. Where churches need to consider moving forward is going beyond addressing immediate needs as is the case with foodbanks, to include work that aims to help those in poverty to improve their situations.
The saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Churches have a role to play reaching into the places where the state can’t or only does so with limited effect. For churches to do this well they need to apply intelligent compassion. Churches aren’t in a position to fix people’s financial needs long-term, but there is certainly more that can be done of benefit than giving out a handful of days worth of food.
The rise of foodbanks has been an incredible and timely phenomenon. In many ways this is the churches working at their best. However, sticking just with foodbanks should never be seen as the church’s great response to poverty in the UK. With God’s strength and wisdom, the energy and obedience that has caused the rapid spread of foodbanks needs to be turned to ways of bringing people out of poverty in the wider sense of the word. We’re seeing this already in many places with debt counselling, jobs clubs and other initiatives. This is about quality more so than quantities. Jesus deliberately didn’t visit and preach to everyone. He did what he could and what he knew to be right. Churches need to hold on to that same attitude; allowing the compassion that ultimately comes from God to drive their work whilst at the same time using the resources available to have the greatest impact on the lives of those they engage with.