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Reduce gap between rich and poor in UK, Synod urges all parties

17 November 2021

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, speaks during a General Synod debate on reducing the wealth gap, last November

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, speaks during a General Synod debate on reducing the wealth gap, last November

A DEMAND that the Government address the wealth gap in the UK was supported overwhelmingly by the General Synod on Wednesday, in a debate that featured no dissenting voices, but a call from the Archbishop of York to “make no apology for having a big vision of the worth of every human being” despite the risk of being branded naïve.

Originating in the diocese of Leeds, the motion called on the Government and all political parties to “adopt an explicit policy of reducing the wealth gap between the rich and the poor and the disadvantages that flow from it”.

In his speech, the Archbishop Cottrell said that it was “shocking to hear and to see the terrible and growing discrepancies between rich and poor across our nation”, and acknowledged that the motion was likely to attract accusations of naïvety. “Let us be undefended in saying, ‘Yes, we make no apology for having a big vision of the worth of every human being; we make no apology for holding ourselves and others to account for the scandal which I now see so clearly in the communities that I am now privileged to serve,’” he said.

A background paper prepared by the Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, noted that the UK had a “very high level of income inequality compared to most other developed countries” — a level that had been roughly stable since the late 1980s, after rising sharply during that decade. The poorest fifth of households received just five per cent of all income in 2017/18, compared with 44 per cent for the richest fifth.

Introducing the motion, Canon Paul Cartwright (Leeds) spoke of his parish of Grimethorpe, a former mining village known for its brass band, where almost a quarter of the children lived in poverty, while 40 per cent of the population had no qualifications, and life expectancy was 17 years lower than the highest in the country.

While there were many drivers of poverty, including periods of ill-health, “most are structural and amplified by increased living costs such as the period of time we are living in at the moment.” Efforts in his parish to help those in poverty were being undertaken “while others decide to access space travel, ensure their children receive a tailored education, leave university with a minimal amount of debt, go to the correct educational establishments. Just because of the colour of the tie, doors are opened.”

He went on: “Some may feel uncomfortable or angry at what I’ve just said. Don’t get distracted by these feelings. It’s not a criticism in any way, just a statement of fact.” The debate wasn’t “party-political”, he emphasised. “We can’t expect to be able to write social and fiscal policy on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, or even eradicate the wealth gap. Relative poverty will always exist . . . but what we can be is that gentle voice that speaks about the injustice of such a gap.”

The Revd Dr Sue Lucas (Chelmsford) drew attention to the references in Mr Nye’s paper to the economic liberalism championed by the Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek, which had shaped British policy in the 1980s. This ideology had been “the essential background, the atmosphere, if you like, that has led to this great gap between wealth and poverty”, she said.

The idea that “distributional incomes are neutral, neither moral nor immoral, has actually taken root and has proven extremely difficult to challenge”. Challenging “economic rationality as a moral rationality” was a “deeply theological task”, and, while the work of Professor John Milbank, Professor Adrian Pabst, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was to be praised, “what it has not done however is got a grasp on the public imagination”.

Canon Tim Goode (Southwark) spoke of the “profoundly damaging two-way relationship that exists between poverty and disability”, and the “disability price tag”, estimated to be additional costs of £583 a month for a disabled person “just to be able to function near to that of a non-disabled person”.

Prebendary Amatu Christian-Iwuagwu (London) recalled arriving in the UK from an affluent family in Nigeria 25 years ago and being confronted by racism. He noted the connection between poverty and racism. The Synod heard that 46 per cent of children in UKME households live in poverty.

Several speakers emphasised the importance of the Church’s putting its own house in order, and an amendment was carrited to recommit the Church to “working both nationally and locally to respond to human need by loving service, and to transform unjust structures of society which are creating the wealth gap”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the lead bishop for housing, noted efforts by dioceses and parishes to use land to address the housing crisis. But she warned: “In many places, we are still selling, buying, or developing land and housing just to make money, to keep our show on the road at a time of acute challenge.”

The Church should be using its assets to provide truly affordable homes for people, including the homeless and the Roma community, she said. “It’s not enough to ask the Government to act if we ourselves can’t or won’t. We worry about our lack of capacity, but really it’s a lack of confidence that God will honour our good actions if, like Peter in the storm on Lake Galilee, we will only step out of the safety of our rocking, capsizing boat, and walk on the water with Jesus.”

Concluding the debate, Canon Cartwright told the Synod that it had an opportunity to shape social policy. “If you have, don’t worry about having. That’s perfectly fine: that’s a gift that’s been given to you,” he said. “But don’t put it in the silos; for tonight you may die. What I want you to do is to encourage the sharing of things. I’m not saying we have astronomical taxes: don’t worry about that. I just want people to do what they can.”

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