WHEN church leaders speak out on political issues, they face a
range of challenges. They need to avoid becoming pawns in the
Westminster game; but they also need to do justice to the
legitimate range of Christian views on politics and economics. It
is useful, too, to try to avoid seeming like well-meaning windbags
- full of pious aspirations, but without the power to make anything
The continuing economic crisis is a case in point. At times
(most notably during the Occupy camp outside St Paul's Cathedral),
it has seemed as if the Church was caught in the headlights - stuck
in introspection and infighting at the very moment when the wider
society was turning to it for some guidance.
What was frustrating for many Christians was that the debate
about the camp obscured the work that was going on in our inner
cities. The reality of local engagement - of churches' working with
people of other faiths and none on precisely these issues - was at
odds with the public image.
Last week, we saw the public image brought a little closer to
reality. As George Osborne announced a cap on payday lending, it
emerged that the Archbishop of Canterbury had played a crucial part
in persuading the Government into this change of heart (News, 29
The achievement of this cap has shown Christian public action at
its best. Like the Living Wage campaign, it began with patient work
at the local level. Indeed, it came four years to the day after
churches, mosques, and synagogues in Citizens UK presented their
demand for a cap on loan costs to the Treasury spokespeople of each
of the main parties.
AS ANDREW BROWN observed in a Guardian blog, earlier
this year, the Church of England continues to have a unique
capacity to bring these grassroots perspectives into the national
debate: "Bishops with experience as parish priests will almost all
have worked among the poor and homeless, and many will have lived
in parts of the city where there are no other middle-class
professionals. With Westminster so dominated by a small range of
professions and perspectives, Archbishops Welby and Sentamu have
helped some very different voices to be heard."
Politicians of all stripes continue to claim that reducing
inequality is a priority. As David Cameron argued in 2009: "We all
know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living
systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the
poorer for it."
For the Church to speak out is not to become a pawn in the
political debate. It is to hold politicians to their own words, and
(more importantly) to the words of the Gospels.
ALL too often in our tired political discourse, state action and
free-market economics are held up as the only alternatives. Locally
and nationally, the Church provides an alternative vision. This is
beginning to capture the imagination of people far beyond its
Great work is being done by many churches in this field.
Examples of this are given in a new report, God and the
Moneylenders, which also offers some pointers to further
action. It argues that a cap on interest rates is only part of the
solution, and there are other areas on which churches and
individual Christians are also taking a lead.
• addressing the underlying gap between what
many households need to live with dignity and the income they
receive: the Living Wage Campaign is an obvious way to ease the
pressure here, but changes in the benefits system also need to be
Too often, the national political debate floats free of the
impact of such changes on households. Because of its local reach
and national voice, the Church of England is in a unique position
to bring these two closer together.
• Providing money-management
courses to those in debt - and beginning early:
Citizens UK's "Money Mentors" programme is an example of local
residents taking responsibility for teaching their young people
about finance. Through organisations such as Christians Against
Poverty, many churches are now offering much-needed financial
coaching, counselling, and education.
• Supporting credit unions, to place
face-to-face relationships, and habits of saving as well as
borrowing, at the heart of our financial systems. Different credit
unions are at different stages of development; so it is important
for Christians to get to know the one in their area, in order to
work out how best to support it.
The Contextual Theology Centre is working with a number of
dioceses to pilot a Churches' Credit Champions Network, which will
help local churches to discern the most effective responses.
• Establishing new forms of social enterprise:
"out-competing Wonga" will require loans to payday borrowers whom
the credit-union movement is not yet able to reach.
Work is already under way to establish not-for-profit Christian
social enterprises, which can compete with high-street lenders on
accessibility and speed - but which also offer directions for
lower-income adults towards long-term solutions to credit
dependency. Such solutions include active membership in the
credit-union sector (as it expands), and financial coaching,
counselling, and education.
SUCH proposals cut across the usual political dividing lines
between those who always want state action, and those whose
response to every problem is individualistic. They embody the
unique perspective that faith brings into public life - of human
beings called to both personal and social transformation in Jesus
Most excitingly of all, they are not just proposals.
Congregations and individual Christians are already taking action
on all four fronts. They remind us that there is much more that we
can do, especially to build on the successes of the past two weeks
- and to make a lasting impact on the scourge of exploitative
Canon Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre,
east London. God and the Moneylenders is online at