The recent row between Churches and state over welfare policy shows how the power of the clergy is waning, argues Paul Goodman

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THE Church’s report was seen as an attack on the Government, and the counter-assault from the Conservatives came quickly. “Pure Marxism,” said a Cabinet minister. A Tory MP added that it had been produced by “a load of Communist clerics”. The Prime Minister complained to a friend that the document contained “nothing about self-help or doing anything for yourself”.
The indignant vigour of that last sentiment gives the game away. The report in question wasn’t The Lies We Tell Ourselves, the recent attack on the Government’s welfare reforms produced by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland, and the offended prime minister wasn’t David Cameron. It was Faith in the City, issued in 1985 by a special commission to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and the leader in question was Margaret Thatcher.
Mind you, comparing and contrasting the two rows should indeed bring Karl Marx to mind. After all, they provide yet another reminder that he was wrong. For today, history is repeating itself as farce – without, as Marx claimed, repeating itself first as tragedy.
The contrast between Faith in the City and The Lies We Tell Ourselves is telling. Whatever one thinks of its conclusions – not least the idea that Thatcherism was to blame for the growing spiritual and economic poverty of Britain’s inner cities – the first was a serious and detailed piece of policy work, one capable of inspiring a follow-up report 10 years later. The second contains no recommendations. It is simply a plea on behalf of those claiming benefits – and therefore one on behalf of the benefits system itself.
Indeed, the entire dispute is artificial. The Lies We Tell Ourselves was published over a month ago. It seems to have been rehashed by the BBC over the weekend – on the verge of the Government’s changes to the welfare system going live. (Bias, anyone?). Whatever the background, the diminished vision of the report, and the muted reaction of ministers, says much about how Britain has altered.
Three big social changes have taken place since the rumpus over Faith in the City. First, churchgoing has continued to decline. Roughly 10 per cent of the population did so when that report was issued. Now it is under 5 per cent. While unvarnished attendance figures can be misleading, the long-term trend – and the ageing of congregations – is unmistakable.
Second, Britain has seen the rise of the new atheism – the polemical version mass-marketed by Richard Dawkins. The last census showed that the number of declared atheists has doubled to 14 million. The reasons for the rise are disputed, but one is unmistakable: militant Islamism has inspired a reaction against religion in general. So, too, have child abuse scandals within the Churches.
This has assisted the third cultural shift, and the biggest of all. There was no Human Rights Act in 1985, when Faith in the City was published. And there was no Equalities Act, either. Now we have both – and a human rights culture underpinned by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Religion may be a protected characteristic under this new dispensation. But when faith clashes with the new secularist ethos, the former tends to lose out. So it is that Catholic adoption agencies felt they had no option but to close rather than allow children to be adopted by same-sex couples, and Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar, lost in Strasbourg over her refusal to conduct same-sex marriages.
No wonder, then, that David Cameron is relatively relaxed about criticism from those in dog collars, whether it comes in the guise of those Reformed Churches campaigning against welfare reform or George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, complaining about same-sex marriage. These two strands of criticism combine in being reactionary, in the real sense of the word: both are reflexive protests against the way the world is changing.
Voters’ views about welfare claimants are hardening. The great wave of immigration that has broken over Britain since 1997, the largest in the county’s history, has much to do with that. Social attitudes are changing, too. On same-sex marriage, they divide between the generations. Mr Cameron’s gamble is that the Churches are often out of touch not just with opinion on the street but in the pew, too.
He isn’t always right. The bias in government childcare policy against single-earner couples risks an electoral penalty in 2015, and his backing of same-sex marriage – for which he had no manifesto mandate and for which there was no public pressure – has already cost him dear, given the scale of party resignations and defections to Ukip. And it can also be argued that the Prime Minister’s commitment to protecting Christianity’s place in the public square is shallow: appointing Sayeeda Warsi as Minister for Faith, sticking to his pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNP on overseas aid and sending out Christmas messages quoting St John’s Gospel doesn’t add up to a thought-through policy on faith.
But is Mr Cameron letting the Churches down, or vice-versa? The answer lies back in the early days of this Government, when Steve Hilton was in Downing Street and the Big Society was all the rage. Mr Hilton had a vision of clubs, charities, co-operatives and, yes, churches running public services.
To a degree, this has long been happening. Churches and faith communities have always been the Big Society in action – the “little platoons” that Burkean Tories revere. The Church Urban Fund, for example, supports 300 projects that tackle poverty directly.
The Cabinet Office, which contains a strong network of evangelical Christians, is funding evangelical-led projects such as the Cinnamon Network. “Christians on the ground know that Britain faces 10 years of austerity,” one church source told me, “and are bypassing the official structures, providing food banks and housing and employment advice on the ground.”
This raises questions about those “official structures” – in particular, those of Britain’s two largest ecclesiastical players, the Catholic Church and the Church of England. The former was suspicious of Michael Gove’s academies initiative. Although there have been changes at the Catholic Education Service, its energies are still directed inwards – towards preserving the Catholic ethos of its schools.
The Church of England is less centralised: the toing-and-froing between St Paul’s and the Occupy movement last year was but one small reminder of this. But like parts of the Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches, a large part of the bench of bishops harks back, in that reactionary way, to the Attlee government of the 1940s as its ideal, and to the welfare state as that government’s greatest achievement.
Mr Hilton – and the Prime Minister himself – thus have reason to be disappointed. The Churches on the Continent are not so tethered to an ageing model. In Germany, the Catholic Church runs more than 25,000 kindergartens, hospitals, homes and care facilities. Jeremy Hunt’s hospital reforms – a response to disasters such as Mid-Staffs – rely on new discipline from above and visitor pressure from below (with the latter probably to prove the more effective). Hospitals have failed elderly and frail patients because we live in a culture that doesn’t value age and experience. The ethos of the Churches contradicts that culture – indeed, it created our hospitals in the first place. There is a role here that they could revive.
We have grown used to political interventions from Rowan Williams and other churchmen that could double as editorials in the Guardian or New Statesman. But the truth is that until the Church of England and others reoccupy the ground they once held, they will be driven further out of people’s everyday lives. The more ground they are forced to abandon, the safer politicians will feel in ignoring them.