‘Start focusing on social goods, not welfare gaps’, Churches told

24 November 2017

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Meeting a need: a sign for a Trussell Trust Foodbank is displayed on a street in Edinburgh

Meeting a need: a sign for a Trussell Trust Foodbank is displayed on a street in Edinburgh

CHRISTIANS need to stop “hand-wringing and despairing” about the fraying condition of the welfare state, and focus on the good things that they can cultivate in communities, such as relationships, compassion, and joy, a new book launched last week at Lambeth Palace argues.

The book, For Good: The Church and the future of welfare, warns that simply trying to plug gaps in the safety net can lead Christians into “depression and despair”, and that, 70 years after the Beveridge reforms, a new vision for the Church’s relationship with the State is needed.

“The days when the Churches could subcontract their conscience to the Government may be coming to an end,” the authors — the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, and Russell Rook and David Barclay, partners at the Good Faith Partnership — write. “The days when the Churches resume their constant quest to see the face of Christ in the poor, and to base their work and worship there, may be about to begin again.”

MPs speaking at the launch welcomed the Church’s efforts to cultivate relationships and meet needs, but spoke of the potential dangers of stepping into the shoes of the State. The Conservative MP Gary Streeter, who chairs Christians in Parliament, said that he was opposed to “welfare on the cheap”.

The authors’ own assessment of the welfare state is a qualified one. The Church “fell in love” with it in the 1940s, they argue, but then adopted an “increasingly introverted and self-serving agenda”. They warn that the welfare state “exacerbates a culture of dependence”, and “cannot heal the profound wounds in our lives made by the breakdown or absence of companionship, trust, healthy mutual reliance, and practices of kindness. Efficient bureaucracy can never supply what only human touch and genuine encounter can offer.”

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Moreover, they say, meeting the needs of the sick, unemployed, low-paid, and elderly is “bankrupting the whole nation”. Looking ahead, they predict a direction “indisputably towards a world where Government commissions more and delivers less”. The Government is still best-placed to address “deficits” such as disease and hunger, they argue, but it is “seldom the best vehicle for cultivating assets”.

The book also casts a critical eye over the Church’s response to the “fraying” of the welfare state, noting a “preponderance of recent Christian reports on welfare” that have “little or nothing to say about the role that local churches can or should play in addressing poverty and social impact. The danger is that, for all their growing social impact, churches become defined more by what they believe about the State’s role than what they believe about their own.”

The Church’s goal, they argue, should be to play the part of both the “righteous prophet”, calling the Government to account, and that of the “good Samaritan”, taking action.

“There is no use hand-wringing and despairing that our nation can no longer afford the blanket of well-intentioned anomalies, compromises, and inconsistencies we call the welfare state,” they write. “We can focus on scarcities all we like, but the secret of happiness and the key to the Kingdom is to enjoy the things that God gives us in plenty.” Churches should “cherish people for what they are, not what they are not”.

The book celebrates the growth of social action in churches, documented by Jubilee Plus, the Church Urban Fund, and the Cinnamon Network, and notes that this has been a “point of renewal” for churches. But they express concern that “the theological underpinning of these social projects remains underdeveloped,” and that most Christians are “confused and conflicted” about why and how their church should engage.

While interviewing Christians involved in social action, they discovered anxiety about what might constitute “ulterior motives” for offering help. Yet focusing on unconditional service could result in an “impersonal and disempowering activity” that fails to acknowledge the goods that those in deprived communities can offer to the Church. “Those facing economic disadvantage often embody assets as much as more than those in more affluent communities,” the authors write.

Speaking at the launch, Mr Streeter said that one of the dangers of social action was that churches “lose the essence of why we are doing it in the first place: the love of God in our hearts and our lives; Christ and his redemptive power”. Sometimes, it was right to pray for people, he argued, and commissioners had to understand that. There were “lots of things” that the State was good at doing, he said. “It is important that this is not about doing welfare on the cheap. . . Even I, a nasty right-wing Tory, do not want that.”

Some of the people interviewed for the book, who were focused on challenges in society, had become despondent, the authors found. “Meeting needs might be a fine place for Churches to start their social action, but it is not a destination by itself and if it becomes one it can only lead to more depression and despair as congregations find that they cannot in fact plug the gaps appearing in the welfare safety net.”

Also addressing the launch, a former chairman of Christians on the Left, the Labour MP Stephen Timms, told the story of a woman in Liverpool who had tried to survive on tap water while waiting for her Universal Credit payments to begin. Feeling suicidal, she had been referred to the NHS, but also to the church foodbank, where it had been friendships that had turned her life around. But, he went on, “I do not agree that opening up space for churches to step up is an argument for scaling back the welfare state.”

The director of Christians in Politics, Claire Mathys, also warned against the dangers of being “co-opted” by the State, and described comparing the capacity of the State and the Church to delivering services to “an elephant and an ant”.

The book includes five options for relationships between a Church and the State, ranging from “contradiction” to “co-option”. The former can become “addictive”, the authors warn. “Righteous indignation is an attractive emotion for many people, and protesting against the Government can be both morally satisfying and a powerful collective experience.” But it could also be a sign of a “lazy mindset . . . that sees all problems in society as the responsibility of ‘someone else’ — usually the State”.

At the other extreme, they warn, co-option can mean that Churches end up “permanently carrying out deficit-related activities that are properly the responsibility of the State.”

For Good: The Church and the future of welfare is published by Canterbury Press at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.90)

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