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Always with you?

24 January 2020

THE link between poverty and poor health has been shown in numerous statistical studies, the latest of which, in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggests that the health gap in the UK between the poorest third and the wealthiest is now wider than it was in the 1920s. Care must always be taken with such generalisations. Financial poverty does not necessarily cause poor health; nor does wealth insulate people from ill-health. International comparisons suggest an increase in what are termed (and not only by Tom Lehrer) diseases of the rich. One significant factor, however, is the worsening health provision in poorer areas, where GPs are hard to replace, and where hospital staffing is in crisis. Delays or lapses in treatment of ailments common to all are a key factor in the health gap. The new study, by Dr Stephen Jivraj of University College London, has a definite purpose: “The approach provides a clear steer to policymakers on where future demand for healthcare will be likely to come from and thereby for whom interventions could be prioritised.”

The parallel with the Church is as easy to draw as it is painful. The General Synod next month will be asked to approve a request by the Leeds diocesan synod for a study that explores “the reasons why, in contrast to Jesus, the Church of England is generally less effective in communicating with, and attracting people from, more disadvantaged communities”. Once again, care must be taken. Passages from scripture suggest that self-sufficiency — financial and spiritual — can inhibit a relationship with Jesus; by contrast, the poor are said to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet C of E statistics show that 2.4 per cent of people in the least deprived areas attend services compared with 0.9 per cent in the most deprived. The causes of non-adherence, like the causes of ill-health, are many; but a parallel with NHS spending — the C of E spends £8.14 per capita in the least-deprived areas and £4.54 in the most-deprived — must be a factor.

A year ago, the General Synod supported a motion to establish a worshipping community “on every significant social-housing estate”. The Bishop of Burnley has fronted research about how the Church can be better manifested on urban estates. In a briefing paper to accompany the Leeds motion, the secretary general, William Nye, lists past attempts at making inroads: the Southwark Ordination Course, Kelham, the worker-priest movement. We suggest, though, that the problem has less to do with staffing and more to do with the Church’s purpose. When the things that characterise its target areas are deprivation and disadvantage, these are what it needs to concentrate on, not finding new ways to tailor its proclamations. Jesus’s example of unconditional service is before the Church at all times. Any study of the problem has no need to examine what the Church should be doing. It must look instead into why it fails to behave as it should.

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