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On the nation's conscience

15 March 2013

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.

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