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Northern foodbank Britain finds its voice

by
01 July 2016

The EU referendum exposed deep divisions, and the Church must stop colluding with them, argues Philip North

AS I CLAMBERED into bed on referendum night, and heard a claim from Iain Duncan Smith that “turnout was high on the big housing estates”, I realised at once that it was all over for Remain.

Those of us who work in the north know that the European Union is not greatly loved in the region, and this is especially the case in areas of deprivation. If estates’ residents were going out to vote in big numbers, it could be good news only for Leave.

Herein lies a tragic irony. History suggests that, whenever there is economic uncertainty or recession, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately; and that is a general prediction among those who have sought to forecast our post-Brexit economic future. It is the jobs of the low-paid that are the most vulnerable; it is those who depend on benefits who will suffer most from extended austerity; it is those who live with debt who have the most to fear.

It would be easy to criticise those who have apparently voted to make their own lives harder. There are many who would casually accuse pro-Leave working-class voters of ignorance, or of a failure to understand the issues, or of xenophobia. But that would be neither fair nor accurate. We need to listen to the voices of the poor expressed in this referendum, because when we do, we will hear not ignorance, but grief.

 

THAT grief is for a nation of which they are fiercely proud, but which they see being taken from them. They feel themselves to be abandoned by a metropolitan elite, who casually dismiss their concerns about the fast-changing nature of their communities as racism; abandoned by politicians, whose actions have subjected them to years of unrelenting austerity; abandoned by the big employers, whose workplace security has been replaced with zero-hours contracts, dull and unrewarding jobs, and, in far too many cases, the humiliation of foodbank dependency.

It would be good to boast that the Church has stood up against this, but, sadly, with our neglect and passivity, we have colluded. Church decline on the estates is four times faster than the national average, and our response has been to disinvest. We spend an average of £8 per head on ministry nationally, but this figure drops to just £5 on the estates.

In 2012, with only two votes against, the General Synod nodded through a hike in fees for occasional Offices, which priced the poor out of the ministry of the Church. Our much-vaunted clergy selection processes deliver a white, executive-class cadre of leaders, most of whom are unwilling or unable to minister in deprived areas.

We love to speak the language of a bias to the poor, and boast pompously about our “prophetic voice”, but the reality is that we are abandoning the people whom we purport to represent by closing down their churches and pulling out their clergy.

 

THE working-class vote in this referendum was an expression of anger by people who feel forgotten and disempowered, and who have developed an intense hatred of anything that seems to be “the Establishment”.

This anger is something that has been exploited cleverly but cynically by the Leave campaign. They have held up to working-class Britain a vision of the country that they fear that they are losing, while knowing that this vision is undeliverable.

Intelligent and well-informed politicians promised that the money “wasted” on Europe would result in £350 million a week invested in the NHS, while knowing that this statistic was entirely false. They promised an end to mass immigration, while knowing that most immigration is from outside Europe, and that the overall impact of immigration on the British economy is beneficial.

They offered to “take back control of our country”, while knowing that, in a highly complex, global situation, the power of any sovereign government is severely curtailed. One can only hope that the politicians who have made these pledges will take responsibility for their words and deeds.

 

THIS referendum, borne not out of the public interest but from decades of toxic infighting within the Conservative Party, has proved to be alarmingly divisive. A particular danger is division along lines of social class, as predominantly southern and middle-class pro-Europeans express their frustration with Brexiteers, many of whom are northern and working-class. This would be profoundly damaging to our national life, especially as the economic consequences of the decision start to bite.

The Church needs to take a lead in the journey of healing which is now required, and this must include an urgent programme of re-investment in areas of deprivation.

We need a fresh commitment to a presence in every community; we need to replant churches in areas that we have abandoned; we need a new generation of leaders who will commit periods of their lives to ministry in the poorest areas; we need to raise up and support local leadership on the estates; and we need to do all this in partnership with ecumenical colleagues.

This referendum shows that it is time to renew the urban Church. If the political classes can offer only austerity, abandonment, or cynical exploitation, it is vital that the Church speaks more loudly than ever the language of hope.

 

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn.

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