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Poor are suffering the most, Synod warns

01 March 2019

Poor are suffering the most, Synod warns

Geoff Crawford

The Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury

THE General Synod carried a motion seeking to address the nation, assure politicians and civil servants of the Church’s prayers; to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable; and to call on the divided political parties to unite for the common good.

Introducing the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised the strengths of the UK, including stability, global influence, generosity in overseas aid, soft power, and a robust and effective democracy. Also, “many of us are among the most privileged people alive in the world today.

“But not all,” he continued. “Today we see signs of division, perhaps more clearly than for generations in peace time.” There was exclusion from a sense of common purpose and of equal rights, politically, economically and socially. “Brexit has . . . revealed how our politics and society have not paid sufficient attention to the common good: that shared life of society in which everyone is able to flourish. That pain and exclusion continues in this country.”

A national failure to pay attention to this, he said, would lead to “greater division and ultimately strife”. He called for solidarity with the poor, and the common good. “We hear the prophets tell us that justice must roll down like rivers: the Bible does not do trickle-down economics.”

The challenge, he said, was to “unify as a country, to have a healthy and functioning democracy, and to have a strong, ethically and morally based economy that works for all”. The challenges to the nation “must define our mission and what our nation thinks of us”, he said.

He urged the Synod to pray for political leaders, which meant not judging or necessarily agreeing with them, but loving them. While the Church was already doing much of the “heavy lifting” on supporting for the most vulnerable, through its social action and schools, the Archbishop said, this had to be accompanied by advocacy, which would “put us in the place of reconciliation”.

He voiced concern for the effect that the first few months after Brexit might have on the nation’s poorest people. “We must be ready for any difficulties and uncertainties, and not allow any destructive forces to create further divisions in society. It is true that no predictions on the economy are certain. That is not Project Fear; it is saying that where there are risks, it is the strongest, not the weakest, who must bear the weight of that risk. That is not currently the way we are going.”

Referring to Christian social reformers such as “Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale, Wilberforce and Wesley, William Booth and William Temple”, he called for a new national narrative “which gives rise to new and exciting possibilities, and is capable of bringing out the best in us and giving hope to all”.

“We can help to create a vision for a country that is inspired, abundant with hope and brimming with promise,” he said, and outlined a “new national aspiration of a country united in faith and working out of its Christian heritage to lift the poor and the vulnerable, and finding its own purpose under God”.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, wanted to acknowledge the problems that faced not only the UK, but Europe, and the diocese in Europe. She said: “Of course, division is not new.” She had been at an event in St Paul’s Cathedral on Monday night, at which she had learnt that the main fault lines were now cultural or generational rather than Left v. Right. “The report calls for a politics and a broad public discourse based on a different language, and a transcendent conversation — one that can address deeper questions of meaning and belonging. . . It’s not as easy as it sounds; otherwise we would have done it by now.”

As Christians, they were to walk among other people of good faith and good will to help all. She argued that the Church should be looking out for the marginalised in society. She would be calling churches in London together to discuss the issues of the future, particularly around 29 March.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, picked up from where the Bishop of Oxford had finished in Friday’s evangelism debate. “Blessed are those who don’t know all the answers . . . [and] know they can’t do it on their own.” They needed to learn some humility, as the rest of the world knew what English people looked like, and it was not always a good impression. He said this was one of the most challenging and outward-looking General Synod meetings he had ever been present at. He quoted a speech by a former Archdeacon of Canterbury from the General Synod in 1979. He had said: “If you want to do evangelism, first, catch your prophet.”

Before it was too late, Synod must realise that it had been having one debate about living in love and faith, about living in disagreement, and showing concern for the marginalised. Over the past few days, the Synod has been fleshing out what it meant to be a Christian.

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) had heard clause (a) of the motion somewhere before, and that it was something that St Paul had asked St Timothy to do. It was a no-brainer, and they should be doing it already. She would include the sentiments of the motion in her prayers in church.

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) focused on clause (c) of the motion and the Queen’s recent words about speaking well to one another. There had been an internal divorce in the UK, and a rift had been laid bare. He suggested that this motion could encourage people to go beyond the current debate to ideas of how they should live. The motion was a hopeful direction, not a hopeless dream.

Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) said that he had been initially sceptical about the motion, but was now used to the idea of the debate. He was involved in the South Bank and Waterloo Neighbourhood Forum, which brought together the marginalised and the richest in a kind of citizens’ assembly. He wondered whether the convening of a citizens’ assembly could be a good alternative way of doing politics, and offer the Church’s unique experience to other organisations looking for a different way of doing things.

Canon Andy Salmon (Manchester) drew attention to local government, as someone who had spent ten years as a councillor in Manchester. Councils were facing immense cuts: Salford, one of the most marginalised communities, faced cuts amounting to £211 million. Cuts had not been applied evenly: Surrey and Buckinghamshire received more than Salford, where the needs were greater.

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, had lost count of the proud parents and grandparents who had sidled up to her at the Synod and told her of their great joy of their children living in Bristol. No one had said that their child was in Swindon. She spoke of the closure of the Honda factory in Swindon, with 3500 jobs lost. “Swindon now faces a significant loss of skills, jobs, and dignity.”

Bishop Faull said that perhaps the wider Church could learn lessons from the work that Bristol diocese was doing in Swindon. Proactive reconciliation was a key part of this, alongside longer-term planning for job clubs. The Church in Swindon needed to speak of the unshakable Kingdom, especially in the most uncertain parts of the country. She agreed with Bishop Cottrell on the need for “a new humility”. There were simple tasks for churches, spaces for lament, and the creation of a new narrative for the nation, particularly for its marginalised people.

Dr John Appleby (Newcastle) asked whether a politician could ever be truly honest. One of the problems of the referendum was that people asked simple questions to which there weren’t simple answers, and some people were knowingly misleading. He was currently standing for election (he is the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for “North of Tyne” Mayor), and that he had avoided being gleeful when his opposition made a mistake the other day.

The Revd Professor Martin Gainsborough (Bristol) said that he wanted to go beyond the terms of the motion. He had recently read a book, The Demons of Liberal Democracy, by Adrian Pabst, which argued that they were seeing the dark side of liberal democracy. Everyone struggled to talk about their politics without descending into partisanship. Dr Pabst argued that they didn’t need more liberal democracy, more populism, but more reciprocity and solidarity. Professor Gainsborough suggested that what had been lost were the social bonds and civic ties on which a functioning and vibrant democracy depended. The Church was best-placed to tackle the hollowing out of democracy and communities, but first its members needed to take a hard look at themselves, and what they modelled to the world.

Zahida Mallard (Leeds), supporting the motion, said that her council had set its budget this week, and her council leader had said that they were at “breaking-point”. Since 2011, she said, £262 million had been cut from the council’s budget. She suggested that Synod members give their voices and money to supporting the people of God.

Martin Sewell (Rochester) said that he had been initially underwhelmed by the motion. Now the Synod was fleshing out things beyond personal and party politics. He spoke of Martin Luther King, whose movement had dominated the television screens as much as the current Brexit debate. King’s followers had shown that victory could be won when they turned the other cheek. He urged Synod members to keep the pressure on. Younger people should take a look at the history of that period: “Dr King had a dream. We can still keep that dream.”

The Revd Anne Stevens (London) thanked the Archbishops for the motion, especially the bit about praying for elected representatives. What the Archbishop called “our effective democracy” is in danger of paralysis, she said. They should talk together about what the future of this country looked like, and she reassured the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP, that her prayers were with her.

Canon James Walters (Universities and TEIs) spoke of Islamic extremism, and said that the same thing was now happening to Christianity: populist and nationalist movements were using it as a cover for their politics. There was an ideology that was racist and nationalist, cloaked in empty Christianity. “We are unprepared for the likelihood that this will get worse.”

He said that they should do more to distance themselves from those who distorted the gospel. He gave three recommendations: first, to create strong interfaith relations; second, to nurture a “vibrant theological life” to understand the gospel and spread it; and, third, to make a “confident, and attractive witness” to the Christian life, standing up for social justice.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, thanked the Archbishop for his emphasis on supporting the poor. The Synod would attract the opprobrium that Archbishop Welby had received after speaking at the TUC. “We will be seen as those who take a stand. I hope that we will do so wholeheartedly today.”

He said that divisions were sharpening in Liverpool, as in Salford, and that through more people coming to church, there would be more justice in this world. The Anglican ideal of “We are not making a party-political point” was losing its meaning. The Church was always political, especially in looking after the marginalised. Its approach to the common good was to offer a direction, which some people might disagree with. “In every conversation, whether in public or in the private square”, they must stand up for these ideals, he argued.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) compared India with the UK, saying that India was a country that believes it best days are ahead of it. He said that we need to not just pray for our leaders, but to pray for them to be better, and to have a bigger vision than simply one of economic growth. The Church and its clergy need to articulate a “counter-narrative of hope”.

The Revd Dr Meg Warner (London) warned an internally divided Synod against telling political leaders to get over their divisions. None the less, recent disasters such as Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester bombing gave the Church a blueprint for responding to the trauma of Brexit. Clergy were now being included in disaster-response plans, and the public were beginning to see what the Church had to offer, she said. It had “myriad liturgical, pastoral, biblical, and practical resources”, she said.

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham) talked of local young people who were displaying a passion for justice over the Shamima Begum case. She encouraged them to listen well, even if they disagreed.

Enid Barron (London) urged hospitality as a means of healing divisions and opening up conversations, especially among the most marginalised in the parish. Call your MP to organise opportunities for bringing people together, she suggested.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, spoke of a need to acknowledge “the damage we’ve done to the soul of Europe”. The debate did not ask “What is good for the EU?” No-deal was indefensible, and would take a toll on many families across the EU. The loss of the UK economy was equivalent to that of 20 smaller countries, he said.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, led Synod members in his Brexit prayer.

The motion was carried by 240 nem. con., with 1 recorded abstention. It read:


That this Synod, knowing through the experiences of parishes across the country that social divisions feel more entrenched and intractable than for many years, and concerned at the divisions within the major political parties which are stifling the emergence of a hopeful and viable vision for the common good in our communities:
a) call upon every diocese and parish regularly to hold in prayer their local MPs and politicians and the members of Her Majesty’s Government and civil servants, seeking God’s strength and wisdom for the responsibilities they bear;
b) reaffirm the Christian commitment to putting the voices of the poor and marginalised at the heart of the nation’s concerns; and
c) call upon the nation’s leaders, drawing on Christian hope and reconciliation, to work together for that common good at this time of division.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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