WHEN a letter signed by 43 bishops, 14 of whom sit in the House
of Lords, appears in print, it is a sign that something has gone
wrong. It is hard, from the outside, to tell exactly what. The
subject of the letter - the reform of the welfare system - is
complex, and the presumption must be that the Work and Pensions
Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, consulted widely with concerned
agencies before launching his reforms. Did he consult, and does the
Church qualify as one of these agencies? Second, when the
legislation was published, church bodies had an opportunity to make
representations to Mr Duncan Smith's office about amendments and
improvements. After all, there is no self-denying ordinance that
directs the Established Church to limit its influence in state
affairs merely to interventions on the floor of the Upper House.
Was there scrutiny of the legislation, and were representations
made? If the Church is a political player, these are the sorts of
step it might be expected to take before expressing public
criticism of the Coalition's proposed policies.
The organisation of a letter for publication was bound to have
limited success. It alerted the public to the Bishops' concern;
but, of course, it had to pass through the filter of the
Conservative press. The letter became a personal attack by
Archbishop Welby on Mr Duncan Smith and, for good measure, the
Prime Minister. There was an instant rebuttal by Mr Duncan Smith,
and very little prospect of the letter's altering anything.
These were what might be termed the mechanical problems. The
main thing that has gone wrong is much more fundamental: the
relationship between the Government and the people. The
misrepresentation of the poor as undeserving and feckless, and
government policies built on this premise, are serving to widen the
gap between the affluent and those who struggle with either no work
or low pay. The Children's Society letter is just the latest
expression of anxiety from church leaders who have seen this
struggle at first-hand.
There have, of course, been occasions in the past when the
Church has found itself in opposition to government policy. The
1985 report Faith in the City encapsulated the
relationship between many in the Church and Margaret Thatcher's
Government. It contains a key passage: "The Church of England . . .
has a particular duty to act as the conscience of the nation. It
must question all economic philosophies, not least those which,
when put into practice, have contributed to the blighting of whole
districts, which do not offer the hope of amelioration, and which
perpetuate . . . human misery and despair." As the Budget
approaches, we look for signs that the Government appreciates the
moral as well as the economic imperatives before it.