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Thatcher clashed with Church, despite her faith

12 April 2013

by staff reporters


Out: then Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins at the headquarters of the pit-deputies' union in Doncaster, in 1984. The union voted to strike by a majority of 82 per cent

Out: then Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins at the headquarters of the pit-deputies' union in Doncaster, in 1984. The union voted to strike by a ma...

DURING her time in office, Margaret Thatcher's relations with the Church of England were often strained. When Robert Runcie was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1980, it began a decade in which the Church's was often the strongest opposition voice.

As a result, the right-wing press was highly critical. Lord Runcie told his biographer Humphrey Carpenter: "I remember Jim Prior used to say to me: 'It's not that she [Thatcher] initiated the attacks on you in the papers, but she could have called them off at a moment's notice'" (Robert Runcie: The reluctant archbishop (Hodder Headline, 1996).

The inner-city riots in 1981 began a debate about responsibility for the poor. This culminated in the report Faith in the City, published in 1985 by the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas. This was described by an unnamed member of the Thatcher Cabinet - widely believed to have been Lord Tebbit - as "pure Marxist theology".

Earlier, Mrs Thatcher was said to have taken exception to the sermon preached by Archbishop Runcie at a service of thanksgiving for victory in the Falklands War, at St Paul's Cathedral, in 1982. Archbishop Runcie remembered the Argentinian dead, as well as the British, and said: "Those who dare to interpret God's will must never claim him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another."

Speaking to Mr Carpenter several years later, Lady Thatcher said: "Some people say that you shouldn't celebrate victory. I thought when you were celebrating victory over aggression, you should do it." At the time, her husband Denis had reportedly told MPs after the service: "The boss was angry enough this morning. Now she is spitting blood."

Church leaders were also leading opponents against changes to the welfare system. They took exception to the Prime Minister's view, ex- pressed in a speech to the WRVS in 1981, "that the volunteer movement is at the heart of all our social-welfare provision; that the statutory services are the supportive ones, underpinning where necessary, filling the gaps, and helping the helpers".

Not everyone in the Church was critical, however. There was considerably sympathy, for example, for her views on personal responsibility, expressed in her address in St Lawrence Jewry in 1978:

"It is one thing to say that the relief of poverty and suffering is a duty, and quite another to say that this duty can always be most efficiently and humanely performed by the state. . . Once you give people the idea that all this can be done by the state, and that it is somehow second-best or even degrading to leave it to private people - it is sometimes referred to as 'cold charity' - then you will begin to deprive human beings of one of the essential ingredients of humanity: personal moral responsibility. You will, in effect, dry up in them the milk of human kindness. . .

"I wonder whether the state services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him.

"I am not saying, of course, that the state has no welfare functions. This would be wholly against the tradition of my Party. We have always believed that there must be a level of well-being below which a citizen must not be allowed to fall. Moreover, people cannot realise their potential without educational opportunity. But the role of the state in Christian Society is to encourage virtue, not to usurp it."

There was, however, concerted opposition to the central view in Thatcherism that there was "no such thing as society", from a Woman's Own interview in 1987: "If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people, and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves, and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate."

This view was expounded in a second address in St Lawrence Jewry in 1984: "It is to individuals that the Ten Commandments are addressed. In the statements, 'Honour thy father and thy mother', 'Thou shalt not steal', 'Thou shalt not bear false witness', and so on, the 'Thou' to whom these resounding imperatives are addressed is you and me. In the same way, the New Testament is preoccupied with the individual, with his need for forgiveness and for the divine strength which comes to those who sincerely accept it.

"Of course, we can deduce from the teachings of the Bible principles of public as well as private morality; but, in the last resort, all these principles refer back to the individual in his relationships to others."

Another prominent church critic was the Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, who responded to the threatened closure of coal mines in his diocese by an attack on Ian MacGregor, chairman of the Coal Board, describing him as an "elderly, imported American".

Lady Thatcher responded to these criticisms in an address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988, in which she quoted St Paul: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."

Early in her time as PM, in a television interview in 1980, she had defended herself against the charge of promoting inequality: "If opportunity and talent is unequally distributed, then allowing people to exercise that talent and opportunity means more inequality; but it means you drag up the poor people, because there are the resources to do so. No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well."


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