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Be honest about the deficit

22 March 2013

THE bishops have been applauded for their challenge to the Government on benefits. There were perhaps fears that the appointment of a former oil-man to Canterbury might indicate a swing of the Church to the Right, after the American model of the Christian far-Right - although that was never very likely.

Yet, while it is important that the Church speaks on behalf of the poor, it would help if those condemning the cuts had demonstrated a more realistic engagement with the problem that we face: the black hole in our finances. If each of us individually had to pay back what we owe corporately, we would lock our cars away, turn our heating off, burn candles, and live on lentils. It really is that bad.

There are those, of course, who argue that adopting a Keynesian approach would get us out of the mess more quickly: borrow more, and embark on a massive plan of public works. The problem is that we cannot tell whether this would work, or whether it would bring us nearer to the abyss.

The Opposition talks about alternatives to austerity, but it is not clear that it would abandon the policy of its most recent Chancellor, Alistair Darling, of reducing the deficit, only a bit more gradually.

The Church should understand the problem; for the cash is running pretty low for us, too. The sense of moral failure which accompanies an inability to pay the parish share is a heavy burden. Parishes question diocesan policy, while diocesan attempts to encourage parishes to go for growth can be experienced as vaguely persecutory.

Those in ministry in multi-parish benefices are particularly stretched, as already exhausted priests are frequently asked to take on more depressed and anxious congregations, in addition to those that they already care for. This means, of course, not only people, but buildings, paperwork, and committees. The system is straining towards collapse, and the problem cannot be wished or even prayed away.

Iain Duncan Smith was right to respond to criticisms of cuts to benefits with a moral argument - the impossibility of justifying the culture of welfare-dependency in which we have all colluded. In its way, it is as corrosive as tax fraud, trapping individuals and families in helplessness. To many of the struggling low-paid, who are themselves on benefits, the current system is simply unjust.

It might improve the quality of the Church's social criticism if it were more honest about its own deficits, the burdens of which are rapidly becoming intolerable.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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