The Bishop of Burnley on the growing gap between rich and poor and the radical action needed to address it

Jurgen Multmann, a great theologian, said, A‘ nation will be ultimately judged by the manner in which it cares for its most vulnerable and needy members’. In saying this he was joining a long list of other well-known figures from Dostoyevsky to Winston Churchill; from Pope Francis II to our Archbishops.

The poorest communities in the country, and particularly in our own Diocese of Blackburn, are being hit hardest in this time of austerity. 12,000 households in Blackpool will be affected by housing benefit reforms. Along with other changes there will be a loss to the town’s economy of some £82 million a year. Similarly in the East Lancashire towns there is a loss of £171 million and households throughout the Diocese are in the lowest group for disposable income in the country.

Becoming poorer

There is a growing body of evidence that the society in this country is becoming more unequal – the gap between the rich and the poor has widened considerably. The average income fell by nearly 4% between 2007/08 and 2011/12. At the same time the income for the top 10% on the income bands increased. This can only mean that the poor became poorer. I believe it is essential that the creaking welfare benefit system be reformed, but the philosophy underlying the present reforms needs to be challenged.

It cannot be right that the poorest are hit hardest. The Church of England, especially in this Diocese, has a long heritage of bias to the poor. This is scripturally based; just look to Amos Chapter 2 where the rich are condemned for exploiting the poor, and the teaching and action of Jesus who drew to himself the poor and marginalized.

The Church has continued in that vein over recent years. Together with the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Church Urban Fund we have given away nearly £30,000 in small grants to faith groups working with the poor and the marginalized. We are determined that those who fall through the safety of this outmoded welfare system are protected and enabled to grow in self-respect.

It is good news that the Church seeks to enact Christ’s love through Christian social action. The hungry are fed through the increasing number of Foodbanks, and increasing referrals to them. Night shelters provide solace to those who are homeless. Such action is led from the front by priests and people in our parishes.

A bias to the poor will require radical action. If some are to avoid the tragedy of pay day loans and debts that grow from them (sometimes with 5000% interest rates), then a fair and more just use of the universal benefits system needs to be evolved.

Playing our part

We need to realize that the breakdown in the present system is not the fault of those who are suffering from its breakdown. It is often said that most families are ‘two pay days away from being homeless’. Each and every one of us has a need to ensure a fair and just system and a part to play in developing a fair and just society. If the benefits system must be changed then we must also accept that the taxation system also needs refreshing.

Some years ago a church in the Diocese was facing a very large repair bill for a problem with its ceiling. The churchwarden stood at the front of the church and having told the congregation the size of the estimate for the work (and it was very large) announced, ‘The good news is – we have the money; the bad news is – it’s still in your pockets’. Having been told we are in a time of austerity, withdrawing support from the most vulnerable in society is neither fair nor just especially when we also find that the disparity between the rich and the poor is widening.

A fairer system

The Church is uniquely placed to be able to speak truth to power. Politicians of all hues speak of the ‘hard working people’ who need to be protected from the effects of the austerity measures. Yet it is the same ‘hard working people’ who are now reliant upon Foodbanks because their income has decreased in real terms and their fixed expenditure – housing, heating, etc. – has increased, leaving them with the choice of eating or heating.

We need to challenge those with power, authority and wealth to right the wrongs in society – whatever the cause of the wrong. We need to help them to establish a fair system from which support for those in need can grow from the benefits of those who are rich in comparison.

As well as challenging government and opposition, we as the Church of England need to look to our commitment of bias to the poor for unless we stand with the poor, ultimately we will be judged as not walking as Disciples of Christ. We need to ask what we can do, not ‘for the poor’ or ‘to the poor’; rather ‘with or alongside the poor’. For they are resilient and can teach us the love of Christ in action if only we would be brave enough to engage with them and humble enough to see Christ in them and their lives. ‘When did I feed you, or bring you drink or see you naked…?’

Hard issues for us and the politicians indeed, so we pray that by God’s grace we act well in the pattern of Jesus. ND