We certainly have an almost supernatural gift as the Church of
England for presenting ourselves in the worst possible light in the
The Archbishop of
THIS comment by Dr Williams could have been provoked by many
aspects of the Church's life. In fact, it was made in a sermon
about Christian social action. Over the past year, we have seen
just how badly the Church communicates with the outside world about
this. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the events in and around St
Paul's Cathedral, the Occupy camp and its eviction reinforced the
impression of an "institutional Church" that was out of touch and
in the pockets of vested interests (
Features, 12 October).
This Sunday, 4 November, marks the start of Living Wage Week. It
is the next stage in a growing campaign, and will probably attract
much favourable media coverage. Boris Johnson will announce the new
London Living Wage figure; Ed Miliband will announce the national
rate. The campaign has transcended party divisions and gained
support in surprising quarters. As well as trade unions, many
leading companies now argue that there is a sound business case for
paying a Living Wage.
Amid the media coverage, one detail may well be overlooked. From
the very start, churches have been central. Without them, there
would be no Living Wage. The campaign was born at a meeting of
community leaders, mostly from religious institutions. All were
members of the East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), our
local chapter of Citizens UK.
It was a group of Roman Catholic nuns who secured the first
meeting between TELCO and the chairman of a large bank. When polite
letter-writing yielded no response from HSBC, the nuns paralysed
its Oxford Street branch by paying in thousands of pounds' worth of
votive-candle donations, coin by coin, and carrying placards
demanding a meeting with Sir John Bond.
As a result, Sir John came to an Anglican church in east London
to hear testimony from people living on poverty pay. That meeting
led to the campaign's first victory: HSBC made a commitment to pay
all staff and contract workers the Living Wage.
Christians have been at the heart of many subsequent successes -
actions that have put about £100 million more into the pockets of
more than 10,000 low-income families in London alone.
THE Occupy camp led many commentators to berate the conservatism
and general uselessness of the "institutional Church". It is this
very institution, however, that has made the Living Wage possible.
Believing can be an individual activity, but it is in a religious
institution that people spend time each week, building a community,
sustaining relationships, and placing the story of their lives in a
larger narrative of meaning and hope.
Politicians have now taken up the cause of the Living Wage. This
is, of course, to be welcomed. But it is important to tell the
story of the campaign's genesis, at a time when effective action
for justice is needed on so many other fronts. Unless we understand
what generated this success, we are unlikely to take the actions
that will achieve other much-needed changes - such as Citizens UK's
current campaigns for affordable housing and against exploitative
The question remains: why does the Church find it so hard to
tell the story of these kinds of success?
First, it may seem too much like blowing our own trumpet. In the
end, however, the story is not about us: it is about the gospel's
transforming power, and the fact that gospel transformation happens
when believers meet, and when they worship and act together.
Second, such communication may seem too risky. Christians may
feel so bruised by the negative media stories that they fight shy
of engagement with the press. Experience suggests that this is a
serious mistake. It cedes the airwaves and column inches to those
who want to portray the faith as divisive and reactionary.
Third, some of the most exciting stories involve co-operation
with those outside the Church. (The Living Wage campaign is a case
in point, as was the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel debt in
developing countries.) This makes it a more complex story to tell,
and also makes it harder to communicate the part played by the
Yet, in an increasingly pluralistic society, we need to get much
better at communicating that the Church is committed to the gospel
as a public truth, and is capable of working with others to achieve
lasting social transformation.
Living Wage Week provides excellent opportunities for such
communication. Congregations can engage with their local media to
tell the story of what has been accomplished, and the part that
churches have played in it. (And for those churches that have not
yet played a part, there are many ways in which they can begin to
The national Church can also show its support, when the issue is
debated at the General Synod in November. Encouragingly, the
private member's motion - which both supports the principle of the
Living Wage and calls on all Church of England institutions to pay
it - has more signatories than any other. It is important that the
Synod celebrates the Christian origins of the campaign, and offers
its un- ambiguous endorsement. This is one way, among others, in
which the Church can present itself in a better light.
Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology
Centre in east London.
The Centre website (www.
theology-centre.org) has resources for Living Wage Week, and
for community conversations on the wider financial crisis.