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Is the poor man still at the gate?

by
14 August 2015

Peter Selby on how to abolish a them-and-us attitude to poverty

Poverty: The Inclusive Church resource
Susan Durber and Bob Callaghan
DLT £8.99
(978-0-232-53068-1)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor: A Christian response to poverty in Britain today
Mark Charlesworth and Natalie Williams
Jubilee+ £7
(978-1-78148-875-1)

 

INCLUSIVE CHURCH is familiar to most for its stance as an umbrella organisation bringing together those on the progressive side of the argument about divisive ecclesial issues such as sexuality. It has always in principle, however, embraced inclusivity as a mark of the Church in every aspect. So its resource book Poverty is concerned with enabling churches to be more hospitable to the economically excluded, and also to engage with poverty as a social, political, and theological issue.

In keeping with its message and subject-matter, the book is small in size and accessible in style, besides embodying that combination of experience, theology, and resources which the Inclusive Church brand stands for.

The core of the book is Susan Durber’s "Theology of Poverty", a clear and very useful exposition of what it would mean to be a Church of the poor rather than merely being a Church for the poor — let alone a Church without the poor. Such a Church embodies giving and receiving at the heart of its life; a Church that is genuinely open to being of the poor and so to being changed in every aspect of its life.

The theological section is the most valuable part of the book: the "experience" section, while very readable, is a bit disappointing, in that three of the four stories included are not, in fact, the experiences of poverty which a reader might expect, but are the reflections of people working at issues of poverty. The "resources" section at the end, offering some useful contacts, is fairly slight.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is a very different book, much more of a tract, albeit one that those seeking to foster a Church of the poor would do well to read. It is searingly topical, given that the forthcoming acceleration in cuts to welfare will undoubtedly exhibit that distinction between the deserving and the undeserving which has already come to scar our welfare state.

Jubilee+, with whom both authors are associated, seeks to encourage churches to engage with their communities. The value of this book is its trenchant attack on the notion of "deserving", one that easily deflects Christians from the good news they have to bring to the poor, who find themselves the subjects of constant marginalising attacks by the media; stories of the undeserving poor seem to make good copy.

Their historical chapter charts the course of the notion of "deserving" in relation to poverty in Britain, and this leads to "the biblical case for radical mercy". Facing the question whether Christians believe in "unconditional" mercy, the authors’ conclusion is that the Christian approach will seek to engage with the whole person over time, not simply withholding help from those who are considered "undeserving".

Where the authors seek to direct our attention is to whether we have a "heart" for the poor, in contrast to the kind of heart that insists on helping only the deserving. And they sketch an account of the kind of Church which is their vision: one that practises the virtues of simplicity and generosity, and, in an insight that echoes much in the IC resource book, gets close enough to the poor to understand their concerns and needs, and to be changed by them. Their warning is to a Church that, while rightly becoming more involved in helping the poor, still harbours a judging heart.

The language and style of the book come out of a strongly Evangelical environment; its message should encourage and challenge all who wish to resist the imminent return of a strident and punitive approach to welfare, far removed from "the Father’s heart for the poor".

 

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

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