The Grenfell Tower fire disaster, social divisions, and the politics of greed
From Dr Robin C. Richmond
Sir, — Something is rotten in the state of Britain. Where is the sense of justice in our land? I am afraid the anger of Amos comes to mind. You have a report on foodbanks (News, 16 June) in which it is claimed they are here to stay — in the sixth richest country in the world!
Foodbanks did not exist six years ago in the UK. The Church should not be actively encouraging their proliferation, funded by 1.6 million from the National Lottery, which, ironically, is largely paid for by the lottery tickets bought by the poor. The Church should be vociferously campaigning with others for the elimination of foodbanks from British society and the restoration of adequate state benefits, so ruthlessly cut by the Tories.
Alongside your report on foodbanks, you report, with little reference to the obvious political implications, the terrible fire in the shoddy and lethal Grenfell Tower, built to house the poor in probably Europe’s richest local-government borough, where multi-million-pound mansions are left empty. Kensington and Chelsea Council reportedly has reserves of £300 million of public money.
In 2014, the same council returned £100 to those residents who paid their full council tax. The Church should be howling from the rooftops at this terrible unjust inequality, with the same anger as led Christ to overturn the moneychangers’ tables.
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Comment, same issue) suggests that “a compassionate society where the poor have enough, the worker is fairly paid, the vulnerable are protected and public services sufficiently resourced . . . is a costly vision, and a Labour [election] win would have huge financial consequences for everyone.”
For “everyone”, read “the more than comfortably well off”. For all to have enough to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves ten years ago was not considered a “costly vision”. It was the accepted status quo. We may all be greedy, but a progressive tax system is the answer to that greed. The rank injustice is the result of a vicious political campaign to denigrate the poor and disabled as idlers in bed with the curtains closed as hard-working families set off to work.
It is simply a question of political priorities. Raising the tax-free personal allowance, reducing corporation tax and inheritance tax, lifting the rate at which the paltry top rate of income tax is paid, and allowing huge profits to be hidden from taxation while forcing the poor to rely on charitable foodbanks and squalid public housing, outsourcing the management to unaccountable private entities, as well as the enforced sale of public housing — all this is a national disgrace.
Rowan Williams aside, the Church, by mumbling rather than shouting alongside the poor, has connived with the politics that have brought Britain to this obscene situation.
ROBIN C. RICHMOND
Providence Cottage, The Downs
Herefordshire HR7 4NY
From the Revd Paul Nicolson
Sir, — The catastrophe in the Grenfell Tower has thrown into sharp relief the inability of the housing market in London to find homes for a sudden surge of homeless individuals and families.
That is nothing new. Thousands of tenants had already been shipped out far away from their communities. It stems from the 1979 Thatcher government, which turned British land into a commodity and hurled it into an international market. They abolished rent controls, deregulated lending, and allowed the free flow of cash in and out of the UK. National and international money flooded into the UK housing market in short supply forcing up prices and rents.
The 1997 Blair and Brown government let it rip until it blew up in 2008. The poorest tenants have been made to pay for saving the banks in the taxation by local councils of benefit incomes shredded since 2011 by the Coalition/Cameron governments. British land has become a commodity to be traded like copper or coffee, gold or silver, and left unused until a profit can be made.
That means there are rows of empty “investments” in the smarter parts of London, and 600,000 unused plots of land owned by the four big UK builders, while there are record evictions, and thousands of people are desperate for an affordable home.
The Church of England exploits British land in that international commodity market to pay bishops and clergy, and our pensions, without shame or theological justification. I look forward to the day when we will cry from the roofs of our cathedrals that land is the free gift of a loving and generous God, and intended for shelter, food, fuel, and clothes for everyone, and put that principle into practice.
Taxpayers Against Poverty
93 Campbell Road
London N17 0BF
From Angela Capper
Sir, — An “us-and-them” attitude is deep-seated in our society. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower happens when this attitude is writ large. The people in those flats, and many others like them across the country, deserve to live in decent homes and not be vilified for not being able to buy their own. It is even more deplorable when councils such as Kensington spend money on tarting up properties to make it look as if they care, when, at a basic human level, they don’t care enough to keep people safe or listen to their fears.
In a small but more insidious way, we have experienced this attitude. When my husband, a Church of England priest, and I were looking to buy a retirement home, we chose one “off plan” on a new Taylor Wimpey estate. We were surprised that the saleswoman was obliged to inform us that near to our preferred site there were six houses that would be social housing.
For various reasons, we were actually choosing a house that we now rent from the C of E Pensions Board, and were shocked when the Board also informed us that there were to be houses near ours designated as social housing. Why? Presumably the occupants would be “trouble”, or “lower the tone”, or have two heads!
The people who now live in these houses (incidentally, less spacious and built at the least attractive end of this small estate) rent from a housing association because, for whatever reason, they cannot buy their own home. How are they different from us?
We assume that all the other residents on the estate have not been informed that we cannot afford to buy our own home either, and rent from a charity. Are we “us” or “them”? I wonder.
3 Kingfisher Walk, Loddon
Norfolk NR14 6FB
From Canon Peter Holliday
Sir, — The Bishop of Burnley detects a “massive change in priorities” in politics since the General Election, and sees a challenge to the Church “to articulate a much bolder, Christ-centred vision of a healed society”. I am hopeful, but also somewhat cynical, both about the Church’s ability to respond and whether there really is a change in national mood in which voters no longer look to their own economic well-being.
Politics that puts the economy first (which I’m not sure is the same as “the politics of greed”) came to an end, or at least paused, in the 1997 General Election. In that year, the British economy was arguably at its strongest ever, and yet the ruling party was cast aside on account of the immoral behaviour of a few of its MPs. That was a huge change in the national mood, the first election in my lifetime which was not lost on the economy, and one to which the Church failed to respond.
While I would dearly like to believe that voters in 2017 were seeking “a generous vision of national life”, I suspect that at least some of “the hordes of young people who had never previously bothered to vote” might just have been swayed by the promised abolition of tuition fees and by the feeling that they will be worse off once we leave the EU, both matters of their own economic well-being.
There certainly is a change in national mood, but for other reasons, I think. One element, witnessed in the US and France as well as in Britain, is a deep suspicion of the established order. There are, however, signs that that people will look to those who respond to change in the national mood, as witnessed by both the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and also the response of the Queen to the Grenfell Tower tragedy
But the premise of Bishop North’s article, that now is a moment for the Church to respond in a new way, holds good. First, however, we need better to understand what is motivating the growing unease in our national life.
19a The Close, Lichfield
Staffordshire WS13 7LD
From Dr Mark Vernon
Sir, — I fear Bishop Philip North’s optimism will prove to be built on sand. The election demonstrated one thing: how unstable the political psyche has become. And it’s not swinging about only in the UK, but also in the United States (Obama to Trump) and Europe (Hollande to Macron) — lurches to forms of right-wing politics which Bishop North would presumably not welcome.
So we are not on the verge of a new relational world-view, but are simply struggling to live with uncertainty, which itself shows no signs of changing. In this, the Church of England seems, sadly, to reflect the national mood already, as it, too, swings between evangelical hope and institutional fear about the future.
200 Benhill Road
London SE5 7LL
Tim Farron’s resignation: sign of liberal malaise?
From Canon Paul Brett
Sir, — I applaud Tim Farron for his integrity in standing down from the Lib Dem leadership because he felt it conflicted with his views as a Christian. But we must not let the media, or the wider public, get away with the idea that faith and politics are incompatible.
Indeed, at the basis of Christian involvement with society is love of neighbour, and that means, as the Good Samaritan story clearly shows, practical, cross-cultural, even expensive care of those who suffer in any way. Helping to develop a caring society is what politics is all about.
Furthermore, one does not have to be an Evangelical to be a Christian. A mature understanding of the bible, being aware of its pre-scientific context and origins, and interpreting it in relation to the culture of today, leads many to a more progressive, more liberal, expression of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
There is a task here for our leadership to turn the church away from internal wranglings and outwards to the world. Anything less is to separate love of God from its essential implication: love of neighbour.
23 Stothert Avenue,
Bath BA2 3FF
From the Revd Ken Madden
Sir, — Please may we have a mature, reasoned, and respectful debate about the limitations of personal conscience in a liberal democracy of those elected to public office, especially MPs and other legislators?
Tim Farron has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats, citing incompatibility between his Christian faith and liberalism. It is not clear whether his personal views on gay marriage and abortion are responsible for some inner turmoil and conflict with his leadership position, or whether he believes that these have been used unfairly to hound him out of office.
Either way, is it not reasonable to suppose that many, perhaps all, MPs hold personal views on a variety of moral and social issues which are sometimes at odds with the official policy of their parties and the law of the land? This does not have to prevent their being good and effective representatives and legislators, since they are able to set aside their personal views and accept a collective position in a pluralist society.
It may well be that their insights and beliefs help to temper the debates around some of these issues and inform the eventual legislation. As I understand it, gay marriage and abortion are contrary to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, but no one is suggesting that their adherents are unable to be good MPs, or questioning their integrity.
Is liberalism becoming very illiberal? When will we learn to live with difference?
Odd Down Lodge
Upper Bloomfield Road
Bath BA2 2RU
Sexuality: Becontree clergy protest; Scottish Episcopal marriage canon
From Sir Tony Baldry
Sir, — The clergy of St George’s and St Elizabeth’s, Becontree, in Essex, have apparently accused the Archbishops of Canterbury and York of “unbiblical leadership” and have declared “no confidence” in their own diocesan, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell.
The Church of England is an episcopal Church, in which clergy take an oath of canonical obedience to their diocesan bishop; and Parliament by statute transferred responsibility for determining matters of worship and doctrine for the C of E to the Church Assembly, and then to General Synod, and it was the General Synod’s House of Clergy that voted against the House of Bishops’ previous policy document on same-sex relationships. This led to the Bishops’ bringing forward a new teaching document, and further debate and discussion to come next month.
So, rather than have a pop at the Archbishops and their Bishop, the Becontree clergy, like everyone else concerned in the C of E, should be prepared to discuss their viewpoint in deanery and diocesan synods, and the General Synod.
There is no way that the Church of England can flourish if anyone who disagrees with a particular point at a particular moment just walks away; and, by the way, their churches belong to the whole community, not just to them.
Dovecote House, Church Street
Bloxham, Oxon OX15 4ET
From Mr Leslie King
Sir, — As I read Selina McGeoch’s letter (16 June) about the Scottish Episcopal Church’s canon on marriage, I felt the same dismay as when I was lobbying last February at the C of E General Synod’s take-note debate, and a member of the House of Laity engaged me in conversation, stating that “All these homosexuals are only that way because of the amount of fluoride in the water.”
That person and Ms McGeoch show no recognition or understanding that LGBTI folk are born that way. They had no choice in the matter. God knew them as he formed them in their mother’s womb.
Ms McGeoch’s letter contains another factual error when she states, in effect, that gay relationships undermine society. That has categorically been shown not to be the case. She also refers disparagingly to “human weakness”, “mere sentiment”, and “political correctness”, in an attempt to trivialise an important debate.
None of those things has any bearing on this difficult issue, which is God’s teaching on love and relationships and understanding our (different) neighbour. I am glad that more and more parts of the Church are starting to gain a better understanding of the Bible on this matter, and are opening their eyes, minds, and hearts to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.
129 Holmwood Road
Cheam, Surrey SM2 7JS