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Cost-of-living crisis: UK is losing the toothbrush test, says Archbishop of York

09 February 2023

Damage can’t be undone, nor has the country seen the worst of it, Synod hears

Max Colson/Church Times

Dr John Spence

Dr John Spence

WHATEVER the Government does to reduce inflation will not undo the damage done, nor has the country seen the worst of it yet, Dr John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) warned the Synod in a strongly delivered introduction to the cost-of-living debate on Wednesday.

He observed: “Once people are in a situation of deprivation, it is very hard to get out of it. We will live with this for decades to come.” The Archbishop of York later referred to it as “a spike on the top of a long-term trend”.

The Synod was not debating the factors which had created what Dr Spence described as “the perfect inflationary storm”, or the steps that the Government had taken to reduce inflation: it was addressing the here and now, including the “dreadful post-Covid harvest”, he said; so the continued commitment to prayer expressed in the motion was therefore absolute.

The motion — amended to reinforce the diversity of people feeling the impact of the crisis and to highlight the pressure on parishes, clergy, church staff, and their families — includes a call on the Government to recognise that there are limits to the resilience of the nation, its communities and its people. It calls for “policies that offer generous support to those who are falling into poverty and the organisations dedicated to supporting them”.

A briefing paper suggests prepared for the debate notes: “Civil society has realistically exceeded the point where its resources can meet the full extent of need emanating from the crisis; so continued government intervention and support is essential.

“The Church of England can play a particular role in highlighting the challenges Church and other charities have in funding with givers’ finances being increasingly squeezed.”

The paper quotes the Legatum Institute, a conservative think tank, which estimates that more than one million more people will be forced into poverty this winter, pushing UK deprivation levels to their highest for two decades — even if the Government freezes energy prices at current levels.

One Synod member, the Revd Alex Frost (Blackburn) was disappointed at the many empty seats in the chamber for this debate. “I’m embarrassed to be part of a Synod that gives so little importance to this matter,” she said. She drew attention to recent figures showing the high percentage of children in the UK living in poverty.

The Archbishop of York said that a symposium at Bishopthorpe in 2022 had concluded that the cost-of-living crisis was best understood as a spike on the top of a long-term trend, and that what was needed was “a narrative of hope: the prophetic voice of the Church saying, ‘This is not how it’s meant to be’. . . There are things that will reset the compass of our nation.”

He had been shocked by a report from the British Dental Association that 83 per cent of teachers in secondary schools reported handing out toothbrushes and toothpaste to students. “That’s how far we have come. It’s just appalling. We are offering a narrative of hope and we should be proud of it.”

The Revd Jack Shepherd (Liverpool) said that 93 per cent of people in Skelmersdale had been identified as struggling to eat and to stay warm. “Church groups are our biggest provider, but we don’t do it in isolation,” he said. Stephen Hogg (Leeds) commended work being done by the clergy, some of whom were facing poverty themselves — something he described as “a scandal in itself.”

The Revd Angela Hannafin (Leeds) reminded the Synod: “The Church is called to speak up for those who can’t defend themselves. . . We are salt and light.” The Bishop of Aston, the Rt Revd Anne Hollinghurst (Suffragans) highlighted the local collaborative model of THRIVE, where the Church, community, and local authority worked in partnership.

The Revd Prebendary Rosie Austin (Exeter) highlighted the particular challenges faced by isolated rural communities, often described as hidden. “Their resilience is being sorely tested,” she said. A foodbank here could be two buses away, and warm spaces were great, but only when there was community space still standing — often just the church. She pleaded, “Please remember the rural.”

The Revd Nicki Pennington (Carlisle) had four parishes on the West Coast of Cumbria, and had seen the life-limiting impact the crisis was having on people’s lives. She had experienced a higher number of funerals this winter.

“We are working collaboratively with other agencies; there’s an opportunity for faith communities to witness to a Kingdom in which justice and mercy flow down and all are valued and included,” she said. “We invite communities up and down the county to the upcoming time of prayer and evangelism, to raise our voices on behalf of those most in need in our parishes.”

Synod voted unanimously for the motion, in a counted vote that saw 301 members for, none against, with no abstentions.

The motion as amended: 

That this Synod, mindful of the impact of the deepening cost of living crisis on ordinary people, including many members of our congregations and communities, and recalling our Lord’s commitment to those who were hungry or lacked the essentials of life:

(a) continue to pray for those whose efforts help mitigate the human suffering of the crisis: including His Majesty’s Government, public servants and professionals in key sectors, the many volunteers in church and secular projects and everyone who puts their neighbour before themselves;

(b) commit ourselves, as individuals as well as dioceses, parishes and other worshipping communities, schools and chaplaincies, to do all we can to support the most vulnerable, even as many of our own members are falling into hardship themselves;

(c) call upon His Majesty’s Government, notwithstanding the external factors deepening the crisis, to recognise that the resilience of the nation, its communities and its people, is limited, and call for policies that offer generous support to those who are falling into poverty and the organisations dedicated to supporting them;

(d) commend the steps taken to date by dioceses and charities to relieve some of the pressure on clergy, church staff, and their families;

(e) call upon dioceses and NCIs to do all they can further to relieve pressure on parishes, clergy, church staff, and their families, recognising the leadership they offer to their communities.

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