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General Synod digest: Government is urged to tackle inequality ‘scandal’

26 November 2021
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Canon Paul Cartwright (Leeds)

Canon Paul Cartwright (Leeds)

Leeds motion on wealth-gap.

A LEEDS diocesan motion calling on the Government address the “wealth gap” in the UK was introduced by Canon Paul Cartwright (Leeds) on Wednesday morning (News, 19 November).

Wealth, he said, was usually associated with assets, but could include more than this, including pay inequality. Income inequality was high in the UK in comparison with other countries’, but, over the past 30 years, the gap had remained “fairly static”.

Wealth was even more unequally distributed, he suggested. In his parish of Grimethorpe, 23.8 per cent of children were living in poverty, 40.7 per cent of people had no qualifications, and men and women lived 17 years less than the highest average life expectancy. Disability “significantly” increased someone’s chance of falling into poverty, and 46 per cent of children from global-majority-heritage backgrounds experienced poverty, Canon Cartwright said.

While parishes were helping those in need, “others decide to access space travel, ensure that 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 continued: “Some may feel uncomfortable or angry at what I’ve just said, but don’t get distracted by these feelings, as it’s not a criticism in any way: just a statement of fact.” He concluded: “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 which speaks about the injustice of such a gap.”

Canon John Bavington (Leeds) quoted from the American theologian Jim Wallis, who observed that charitable work among the poor was “like pulling drowning people out of the river. . . At some point. somebody has to go upstream and ask who is pushing them in.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the lead bishop for housing, spoke of the “devastating” effects of the housing crisis on the poorer and more vulnerable people in communities. The Church of England owned 200,000 acres of land, some of which could be used for development, she said. While some was being used for affordable housing, there was a need to do more.

“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. What if, instead, we were driven by a vision of God’s Kingdom, which includes and embraces all people? . . . The challenge for us is to lead by example . . . using our assets to ensure those who are financially poor have homes that they can truly afford.”

This should include those in the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community who had nowhere safe to stay, she said. “It’s not enough to ask 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.”

Canon Tim Goode (Southwark) spoke of the “profoundly damaging two-way relationship that exists between poverty and disability”. Disability was a “primary cause of poverty”: disabled people came up against physical and cultural barriers that limited full participation in the legal, political, economic, and social life of their communities, he said. “These barriers in turn lead to further discrimination, abuse, social marginalisation and isolation, resulting in insufficient access to adequate employment, housing, healthcare, and credit.”

Professor Muriel Robinson (Lincoln) moved an amendment to insert into the motion: “(a) recommit 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 Archbishop of York welcomed the amendment. Quoting William Temple, he said: “My worth is what I am worth to God and that is a marvellous great deal, for Christ died for me. Thus, incidentally what gives to each of us his highest worth gives the same worth to everyone. In all that matters most are we equal.”

Archbishop Cottrell continued, however: “Of course we are not, and it is shocking to hear and to see the terrible and growing discrepancies between rich and poor across our nation.” The General Synod would be called “naïve” for the motion. “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 privilege to serve.’”

The Revd Graham Hamilton (Exeter) supported the amendment, but sought to remind the Synod that “We have a gospel message that challenges the rich directly. . . I hope, above all, that we will have in our churches around the country the courage to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the rich, including a costly call to repentance, of changed living and generous giving, to warn them of the risk of great wealth, and to command them to be generous.”

Dr Nick Land (York) said: “If we are looking at marks of mission that will make the transformational difference to our society, it is surely to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, because human hearts need to be changed. Most of us here will honestly admit that greed — that having not just enough, but more than enough — is part of our lives . . . It’s only when we can move from greed to generosity, as we discover the generous gift that God has given us in Christ, that our hearts can change and that the hearts of our fellow citizens will change.”

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, expressed his admiration for clergy and parishes who, despite a lack of resources, had committed themselves to serving poor people and poor communities, “because of their obligation to territory, which is the unique Anglican vocation”. He continued: “That obligation should not be taken for granted. It’s not just in the Gospel: it is in who we are as a Church, and if we cede that obligation, no one else is going to do it for us.”

The amendment was carried.

Continuing the debate on the motion as amended, the Revd Sue Lucas (Chelmsford) said that the background briefing referred to the economic liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and others in the Chicago school of economics, which was “the essential background, the atmosphere if you like, that has led to this great gap between wealth and poverty”.

The view that “distributional incomes are neutral, neither moral nor immoral, has actually taken root and has proven extremely difficult”, she said. Challenging “economic rationality as a moral rationality” was a “deeply theological task” that had been addressed by people including John Milbank, Adrian Pabst, and Lord Williams, but there had so far not been success in getting “a grasp on the public imagination”.

There was an “urgent need for a new public imaginary: one which actually puts not the economy, but oikonomia, the household, at the heart of how we relate to one another as human beings.”

Canon Dana Delap (Gloucester) highlighted the anti-poverty charter of the Life on the Breadline project.

Canon Andy Salmon (Manchester) spoke of the impact of inequalities on health and of the “devastatingly poor” air quality in cities. He also drew attention to the work of local authorities in supporting the poor, warning that, in recent years, they had been “undermined and under-resourced” and “attacked by national government”.

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 spoke of a connection between poverty and racism, including “poverty of mind”.

David Ashton (Leeds) admitted that he had a good pension and capital. He spoke of running a club for the elderly, affected by poverty.

Robin Lunn (Worcester), a financial planner, said that the cutting of interest rates widened the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest. He suggested that the Synod focus on one thing: “the enormous gap in some cases between what most well-paid person in institution is paid and the lesser paid”.

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Homes (Liverpool) encouraged the Synod to “refocus on the relative and inequality parts of motion rather than become distracted by issues of absolute poverty”. She also warned against becoming “too complicit with our, dare I say it, Enneagram 2 enjoyment of helping the poor”.

The Revd Alex Frost (Blackburn) encouraged the Synod to tell stories: people who were more affulent did not realise the extent of poverty in the country.

Andrew Gray (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) recalled his motion to establish a homelessness taskforce in 2019. While a “coalition of the willing” had been established soon afterwards, no homeless people had yet been housed. There was a problem at diocesan level: a lack of capacity, skills, and, in some instances, money. To make a difference, the Church Commissioners were going to have to help dioceses with knowledge, underwriting, and even money.

Canon Cartwright concluded with a plea for generosity, and the story of a woman who came to England as a persecuted Christian in Pakistan and had given all she had — £1 — to a person begging on the street.

The motion was carried by 342-2, with three recorded abstentions:

That this Synod:
(a) recommit 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; and
(b) call on Her Majesty’s Govern­ment (and all political parties) to adopt an explicit policy of reducing the wealth gap between the rich and the poor and the disadvantages) flow from it.

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