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
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
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
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.