Welfare and poverty: why are church leaders out of step with their flocks?

leadership.jpgIn recent weeks Church leaders of many different denominations have raised their voices about the rise of food banks and the poverty and destitution inflicted on the most vulnerable through the government’s welfare reform as reported by Church Action on Poverty's Niall Cooper and in the Church Times. 

At the same time research by Professor Linda Woodhead based on a you gov survey reported in the Church Times and the Daily Telegraph suggests that the majority of lay Christians take a much more pro government line on welfare reform. In fact the analysis suggests that Christian laity in general and Anglicans in particular are somewhat more negative about benefit claimants and poverty issues than the general population and non religious. The main tables giving the breakdowns by religion on two statements on welfare cuts and welfare dependency are found on p 44 of this document A theos poll reported in the Guardian suggests the same findings. 

Now it could be possible to critique the survey and the data analysis on technical grounds, (and I have corresponded with Linda about this). For example one could question the wording of the statements that were used in the survey, and the categories used for defining nominal adherents and churchgoing active believers, or for denominational labels. Or there is the possibility that the correlations between social class, age and gender of church attendance mask the effects of religion on its own. However the statisticians who worked on the survey have taken this into account and the main pattern cannot be denied. Church goers in general, and Anglicans in particular are slightly but significantly more hostile to the workless poor than the general population, and well out of step with what bishops and other church leaders have been saying in their critique of government policy. 

On the other hand there are signs that the public, and the Christian public are more charitable towards the poor than the survey suggests. Christians are at the heart of the charitable response through food banks, soup kitchens and job clubs with the essential donations of food, money and unpaid voluntary work that keeps them going. In a 2012 survey of  1237 evangelicals   (p10-11) 92% agreed “it is every Christians duty to help those in poverty” and 77% that “the government should make sure that the richest people in the country should pay higher levels of tax.” However, in the same survey 68% agreed that “too many people have become dependent on state benefits and could do more to help themselves”. Christians may well be personally generous and even egalitarian in outlook, but the majority do seem to have accepted the common narrative about the supposed problem of welfare dependency. 

As someone working for the churches in the promotion of anti poverty programmes I take it for granted that the bishops are on the side of the angels in this debate, and that the immoral, cruel and misguided policy to cut holes in the welfare safety and to discipline the unemployed (and unemployable) by destitution and dependency on food banks must be resisted. So howchurch-blocks1.jpg come the church leaders “get it” and the public, including the Christian public, do not? 

I think we should consider  at least five possible reasons why which church leaders are untypically wise about poverty in the UK today. 


  • They see through the ideology and spin of the media. 

Over many years the majority of the media, most of which is controlled by and serves the interests of capital has been promoting the neo-liberal project which aims to transfer wealth and income from the poor to the wealthy elite. A discourse has been constructed which frames welfare claimants as scroungers, the undeserving poor who have become hopelessly dependent on state handouts. Whether it is the tabloid papers linking workless families with horrendous crime as in the case of Mick Philpott, or the TV programmes that have been described as “poverty porn” such as C4’s Benefits street, the poor have been portrayed as deviant. Labeling and victim blaming are commonplace.  In contrast church leaders still have a critical faculty, and have the ability to carry out their own policy research which provides an alternative narrative. We frequently pray for church leaders to have the spirit of wisdom and understanding so is it a surprise that they are able to discern the  differnce between truth and lies.?  http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty/ 


  • They are more in touch with the poor 

Unlike many in the professional classes many clergy and church workers remain in day to day contact with the poorest in society. The Church of England, the Church of Scotland and to a lesser extent the Roman Catholic Church maintains a parochial and pastoral presence in every neighbourhood in the land, including the most deprived communities. Methodism and the Salvation Army have intentionally sought to maintain their ministry among the least and the lost. Even in more affluent areas the church is seen as an organization that will help those in need when no one else will, and people in great need turn up in church or knock on the vicarage door. Ministers of religions are trained to listen to people’s stories, and for the sake of Christ, and/or the reputation of their church will help as they are able. And even though bishops and senior leaders may be more removed from the life of the streets, they will hear stories and reports of what the church is doing locally, and be asked to represent these realities to the public, and to the government. 


  • They have a theology and reading of the Scripture which is deeper and more serious than that of the laity. It is a theology that recognizes that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ consistently exercises and demands a preferential option for the poor. 

Full time ministers and ordained clergy can sometimes take for granted the immense privilege of their theological and spiritual formation. Not only will they have had an opportunity to read and reflect upon the whole of Scripture that is rarely given to the most avid Bible reader in their congregations. They will have been given a framework which provides a grand narrative, a big story of salvation history. Within that framework it is almost impossible to avoid grappling with questions of wealth and poverty, justice, compassion and solidarity which are major themes in Scripture and Christian tradition. For those who studied theology or trained for ministry since the 1970’s the influence of theologies of liberation will have been encountered and have made their mark. Yet in many churches the average person in the pew has not appropriated a theology or a practice that goes much beyond some simple foundations. For many the gospel boils down to a couple of sentences, which are unlikely to include the word “poor”.. God loves me and forgives my sins.  In return  I am expected to try to love God and my neighbour as myself, and as a result I will go to heaven when I die.


  • The clergy  are more communitarian than the laity 

While perhaps the majority of the population has accepted the neo liberal definition of the person as an individual consumer, church leaders for social as well as theological reasons tend to resist this heresy. They are by definition committed to an institution (the Holy Catholic Church) which spans the centuries and embraces people of every tribe and nation, social class, age and gender. Relationships are central, modeled theologically on the Divine Trinity, the church as the body of Christ, and the foundation that “I am indeed by brother or sister’s keeper. While an ordinary citizen or church member can look after themselves, and maybe their family and choose their friends, a church leader has responsibilities towards a wider community. Some lay Christians behave as consumers of religious and spiritual products according to market rationality, and some churches, especially in the evangelical world have tailored their offerings to satisfy the market. However, for clergy who seek to minister to the whole community, in accordance with the charge and calling they have received, niche marketing is not so easy. There are expectations that they will speak up for and do good to the poorest and most vulnerable as representatives of Christ and the church.


  • Most Church leaders today are from an age cohort and possibly a social class background that has benefitted from the welfare state and lived their formative years through the Thatcherite revolution.. 

People born in the 1950’s or 1960’s are now in senior leadership positions in the main churches. They are the generation that took for granted the National Health Service, social security and free education leading to social mobility. Even if they themselves came from privileged backgrounds they were likely to have seen welfare provision as a noble thing, a national treasure. This was the generation of clergy who most likely did their training and curacies in the Thatcher decade, in the ferment of debates triggered by the 1985 Faith in the City report. Many current bishops served their time in UPA parishes, and similar experiences were common in the Free and Roman Catholic churches. It is in the DNA of such leaders that they will not let social progress be destroyed by right wing politicians.


So the church leaders who are now speaking up courageously for justice are doing what is right, well founded in Scripture, and natural for them as a result of their formation. However, if  survey findings are correct, the great failure of church leaders is that over the last three decades they have not successfully taught or discipled ordinary church members to recognize the truth about contemporary capitalist society, or communicated the essential Biblical truths about community, social justice and the oppression of the poor. The challenge for church leaders is to move beyond the current bi-polar approach of preaching a domesticated gospel in church on Sundays and issuing prophetic calls for justice in the media and the House of Lords on weekdays, towards the effective communication of the whole counsel of God in word and deed so that the whole church can be involved in the mission of God every day of their lives. It will no doubt be doubly difficult, in an age where hierarchical authority is constantly questioned, and when the integrity, and progressive credentials of the mainline churches are often ridiculed because of the divisive debates and institutional politics over gender equality and sexuality.

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commented 2016-10-23 10:15:22 +0100 · Flag
Too true, Ruth! There are many (sadly) in churches today , clergy and members of congregations, who know and quote God’s Word but aren’t open to His gracious Holy Spirit.
P.S. Reading a wonderful book at house group at the moment called ‘The Prodigal God’ by Timothy Keller – it is certainly helping me examine my own heart.

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commented 2014-10-18 20:52:27 +0100 · Flag
You write some interesting points, some of which I agree with. I cannot believe that you referred to Tony Blair as a socialist, war criminal probably, but not a socialist. Heading a government that started the process of privatizing the health service would rather make him a hypocrite…..I am sure he and aneurin Bevan would have got on like a house on fire! As for food banks, I am sad that you see the left as scoring points on this. For the thousands of children and families reduced to starvation and the indignity of food handouts in a land of plenty the matter is far more serious….its a proven matter of life, health and death. When Jesus criticised those who caused hunger in Palestine I am sure he was not just scoring points!
There are very few people who sit back and hold out a begging bowl in this country….and this is a provable statistical fact which many right wing papers ignore as they don’t want it to get in the way of a good story…..with the emphasis on story….I’m looking at you daily mail. What is so sad is so many people believe these newspapers lies including some people, shock horror, in the Labour party.
When jesus met the beggars he did not ignore their need, and we are asked to love our neighbours….ALL our neighbours, not just the ones who are not migrants or who we think are not scroungers!
Who are these mythical taxpayers… because I am one and I am happy to love and provide for my fellow human who is in need in the knowledge that they will do the same for me if I am in need. As Jesus said, give and don’t count the cost, for what you give you will receive back in full measure shaken and pressed down.
Jesus did not say give unless you think it is causing dependency or you feel galled that you are being treated as a bottomless pit.
As for applying all of scripture we know that jesus fulfills the scriptures and that the gospel of Christ is about love. Jesus loved all without distinction, we are asked to do likewise.
God sets out his economic policy in Exodus when giving the Hebrew slaves manna. He said to them to take enough for need and no more. Those who did what the rich do and accumulated more manna than they needed found that it went rotten and contained worms. The reason we have the poor and needy is that some have taken more or too much from our society. In their selfishness they have left others with very little or not enough to feed themselves or their families. C of E priests make a sacred oath to seek out the poor and stand up for them and support them. This is not about cherry picking…… in faith and Scripturally it is right to do so.
commented 2014-03-02 16:38:54 +0000 · Flag
One of the bishops explaining the church leader’s letter http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/02/church-must-act-faced-with-poverty
commented 2014-03-01 15:29:05 +0000 · Flag
Greg – I truly apologise if I have misread you, but the tone of your article does give me the impression that you think the clergy have got it right and the laity are wrong. Like you I too believe in the Biblical truth of the priesthood of all believers, even though at this moment I am a lay reader in the C.O.E. I would say that I am a committed Christian but not “on the left” I stand a little right of centre. I really abhor the obscene bonuses that the bankers pay themselves and which neither the Labour party – 13 years in office – nor the coalition seem able to rein in. But bankers are not the only greedy ones, footballers , celebs etc are equally guilty of greed and the socialist ex Prime minister Blair is a very wealthy man indeed. The problem with poverty and the proliferation of food banks is the fact that it has become a party political matter, and the left take every opportunity to score points over the issue. Until the whole welfare system is taken out of politics and a fresh look at how to care for those in genuine need, as opposed to those who choose to sit back holding out a begging bowl, we shall never solve this problem. The reasons that people claim to be in need are not as simple as you imply. There are many reasons which must be addressed, low wages, and a cheap migrant work force for starters; handing out unlimited beneftits is not a solution, it just re-enforces the dependancy culture that has been allowed to grow during the last govt.s time in office. The present govt have the unpleasant duty to clear up the mess. I am not cruel or hard-hearted but it is galling that tax payers past and present are seen as a bottomless source of supply.

If as Christians we are to apply scripture to the problem then we must surely apply the whole canon of scripture and not cherry pick the bits that we find convenient.
commented 2014-03-01 12:08:09 +0000 · Flag
I think Ruth you are misreading me… To start with I am not clergy myself (I don’t even accept that ordination gives any different status in the church or Kingdom… just a vocation to serve by leading and managing). I don’t (and wouldn’t) use any of the words you use to describe lay people. I’m just setting up some possible explanations for the disconnect on this issue between church leaders and the Christian public which are empirically established by the surveys for people to consider. I sometimes think I’ve written tongue in cheek, but I’m not sure if I can always detect my own irony. At the end of the article I’m launching quite a devastating critique on church leaders who if they really believe what they say about social justice and political involvement have failed in the key apostolic commission of teaching and making disciples. (That is where I confess I may be arrogant!)

The question remains – how do we as Christians on the Left explain the different worldviews of Church leaders and the rest of the church / public – and what can we do to change it?
commented 2014-02-28 21:44:31 +0000 · Flag
Greg Smiths 5 possible reasons why the laity are not in tune with the clergys’ take on welfare really is arrogant. We the laity according the Greg Smith, are the ill informed, the ignorant, the scriptually unenlightened etc. etc. As a lay person I take great exception to this one sided article. Sorry Greg, but I am not ill informed, stupid, or ignorant and btw I do know my Bible very well, as do many of my friends. To suggest that the Clergy are somehow superior to the rest of us is absolutely insulting and far from the truth. Wearing a dog collar is sadly not a sign of great erudition or Godliness by any means.

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