SHORTLY after his temptation in the wilderness, according to St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus appeared in Nazareth and read aloud from the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” Such preaching was not merely to be expressed verbally. He went on: “He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” These, the first words of Christ’s public ministry, were recollected on the floor of the General Synod on Tuesday, as the Bishop of Burnley upbraided a Church that, he said, had taken “a preferential option for the rich”. In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presentation at the start of the debate, he cited the 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England. An unapologetic declaration that England needs converting would do no harm today, if only everyone, including many in the Church, could be made to understand conversion in the way that Christ indicates: nothing less than the subversion of the accepted order that favours the rich and powerful.
When Isaiah warned Hezekiah to set his house in order, it was because the King was near to death. Unless people believe the Church of England to be dying, the focus of the Renewal and Reform programme ought to be wider. As its architects have said repeatedly, this is not about saving the Church, but about ministering more effectively to the people of this country. If the Renewal and Reform documents made little mention of the social aspect of mission, critics of the programme have made good this omission, and there is the potential for concerted action.
The good news, not always reflected in official statements, is that the days are long gone when the Church was the only means of ministering to the poor. It does not sound particularly visionary to talk of a multi-agency approach, but an outward-looking Church must recognise and value the work of others in the field: social services, the health service, local and national charities, the police, and so on. Many of them are as cash-strapped as the C of E, thanks to the cutbacks to the public services that were approved tacitly by the electorate in last year’s Election; but they each in their own way manifest God’s love for the poor.
If the Church were looking for a sympathetic and knowledgeable partner, it need look no further than its own schools. Church schools are in the front line of the fight against poverty, and the damage and neglect that seem to accompany it. Schools do a tremendous amount to counter these downward pressures, and there are many examples of where an active, enlightened partnership with a church congregation can help to carry the burden that this brings, and even transform the community.