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General Synod digest: UK ‘being tested’ by cost-of-living crisis

17 February 2023
Max Colson/Church Times

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council)

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council)

THE General Synod unanimously carried a motion on the cost-of-living crisis which called on the Government to recognise that the resilience of the nation, its communities and its people, was limited.

The motion, debated on Wednesday, also called for “policies that offer generous support to those who are falling into poverty and the organisations dedicated to supporting them”.

The Church is a “political actor”, a briefing paper says. “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.”

It also warns: “It is important to plan for the long term. Economic cycles do turn around in time — but not rapidly enough to prevent considerable human suffering. That is why potentially costly public interventions are necessary now.”

The paper goes on to say: “The lack of long term planning during previous periods of comparable prosperity partly explains present suffering.”

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

Whatever the Government did to reduce inflation would not undo the damage done; nor had the country seen the worst of it yet, John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) told the Synod in his introduction to the debate. “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 Synod was not debating the factors that had created what Mr Spence described as “the perfect inflationary storm”, nor the steps that the Government had taken to reduce inflation. It was addressing the here and now, including the “dreadful post-Covid harvest”. The continued commitment to prayer expressed in the motion was, therefore, absolute.

The Synod dealt first with five amendments, all of which, Mr Spence indicated in advance, he was happy to accept.

Robin Lunn (Worcester) wanted to replace the word “families” with the word “people” in the opening sentence so that it read “That this Synod, mindful of the deepening cost of living crisis on ordinary people.” He also wanted to remove a specific reference to Ukraine as one of the external factors deepening the crisis, describing it as both unnecessary and misleading. “It’s a bit too convenient and plays into a narrative that, without it, everything in the garden would be rosy,” he said.

Max Colson/Church TimesRobin Lunn (Worcester)

Lynn Nichol (Worcester) agreed that “families” didn’t capture the diversity of household situations. The crisis affected everyone.

The Revd Kate Wharton (Liverpool) described herself as “part of a church that has no money, a community that has no money, a city that has no money, and a diocese that has no money”. Singleness was her calling: “We lose out often on economies of scale” — and the language of “families” could be excluding.

The Revd Alex Frost (Blackburn) expressed disappointment at empty seats in the chamber for the debate. “I’m embarrassed to be part of a Synod that gives so little importance to this matter,” she said, and drew attention to recent figures on the percentage of children in the UK living in poverty.

The amendment was carried, as was Helen King’s (Oxford), to add “individuals” to the commitment of “dioceses, parishes and worshipping communities, to do all we can to support the most vulnerable . . .”. She said: “The amendment is intended to make the point that people in need do not always ask for help.”

An amendment from Peter Adams (St Albans) sought to add “schools and chaplaincies” after “worshipping communities”. This was “born out of a desire to say more about what we do in our own area, extending the scope of the call to the wider Church of England realm”.

The Revd Jack Shepherd (Liverpool) agreed: 93 per cent of people in Skelmersdale had been identified as struggling to eat and stay warm. “Church groups are our biggest provider, but we don’t do it in isolation,” he said.

This amendment, too, was carried.

Clive Scowen (London) wanted the Synod to resist Mr Lunn’s amendment on Ukraine, arguing that the war was “an enormous external factor, contributing to much higher fuel costs. It’s not sensible to remove from consideration something that is so powerful.” The Revd Dr Susan Lucas (Chelmsford) also deplored the “tendency to use the awfulness of Ukraine as a fig leaf. . . This risks us actually condoning use of the fig leaf.”

Max Colson/Church TimesLynn Nichol (Worcester)

An amendment from Luke Appleton (Exeter) sought to add a paragraph calling on 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”.

Stephen Hogg (Leeds) commended work being done by the clergy, some of whom were facing poverty themselves: 18 per cent of clergy had received help from the Clergy Support Trust for everyday things such as car and spectacle repairs, and basics, such as heating costs. “Let’s put our own house in order, look at what more we can be doing to support clergy in poverty . . . a scandal in itself,” he said.

This amendment, too, was carried.

The Synod returned to the main motion as amended. In a maiden speech, the Revd Angela Hannafin (Leeds) said: “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.

Prebendary Rosie Austin (Exeter) spoke of 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 bus journeys 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.”

Max Colson/Church TimesThe Archbishop of York

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 re-set 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 Nicki Pennington (Carlisle) had four parishes on the west coast of Cumbria and had seen the life-limiting effects of the crisis. She had experienced an increase in 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.

The motion as amended was carried by 301 nem. con. It read:

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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