Good grief. The debate about foodbanks continues in the UK media, sometimes getting distracted by stuff that misses the point.

OK, the Daily Mail has no alternative but to ridicule the bishops and bang its particular drum. The Times goes a bit weird by suggesting that the bishops are out of touch with their congregations who, according to a poll, are right behind the need for benefits reform. This raises two points: (a) our congregations are also pretty solidly behind reform of banking and tax fraud by the rich, but that is being missed; (b) bishops aren't there to parrot the views of parishioners, but to tell the truth regardless. There is plenty of debate within the church about such matters, but the bishops are not simply the mouthpiece of particular constituencies.

This has always been the vocation of church leaders. As the Germans found out in the 1930s and '40s, church leaders are there to describe reality and not to collude in whatever view the masses are led to believe.

But, this week's golden exclamation mark must go, once again, to the Independent. Are they employing five year olds to write their leader editorials? I had a go at a silly piece some months ago, and here they are again with the same old brain-dead nonsense. To think this stuff is crass, but to publish it as intellectually credible is unbelievable. I obviously wasted my words last time.

Try this from today's anonymous editorial:

If the facts are undeniable, though, the right of the Church to meddle in politics is absolutely not. Not only do religious leaders come by their public podia by dint of a historical influence at odds with modern secular democracy, but their claims of moral authority are also hardly as absolute as they seem. It is difficult for an archbishop’s remonstrances on the subject of the poor and hungry to be anything but the final moral word, and yet they are subject to the same limitations as any other political perspective… But anecdotal evidence metamorphosed into an unassailable moral position via an institution that no longer represents more than a tiny fraction of the population does more harm than good. David Cameron’s assessment is back to front. The bishops’ facts are fine. Their belief in a divine right to be heard is not.

Where to start?

1. Who does have a right to 'meddle in politics'? Unelected newspaper editors? Everyone but bishops? Muslims? Atheists? Every citizen has a right and a duty to meddle in politics. Can the Independent please expose and explain the assumptions (prejudices?) that underlie this repeated nonsense? Who else should be removed from public democratic debate?

2. Bishops do not come by their public podia by dint of historical influence. If the writer wants to bang on about bishops in the House of Lords, then let him/her say so and we can have that debate. But, this latest bash isn't about that and didn't emanate from bishops in Parliament. Does the editor really believe that bishops should simply keep quiet about anything in the public square? What does he/she think a bishop is? And, again, who else should be kept quiet in the public democratic debate? Or does 'secular democracy' really mean that only people with a non-religious world view should be privileged with access to that public square? And who said?

3. Can the writer show us where the bishops made any claim to 'absolute moral authority'? They told a story and argued a case. By all means, knock it down, if it not true or if the story is selective. But, where is the claim to absolute moral authority? This, again, simply amplifies the unarticulated and uncritical prejudice of the writer. A five year old would be embarrassed to still be trotting out this stuff.

4. 'Unassailable moral position'? Which century is the writer living in here?

5. Doesn't a democracy assume that even the tiniest group with the most hesitant voice has a right to be heard, a right to be involved and a right to be thought potentially right? Anyway, bishops do not represent a constituency as an MP represents his or hers. The independent might not like this – and obviously doesn't – but it will have to find a better intellectual ground for its prejudice than this spurious ex cathedra put down.

6. What 'more harm than good' does the writer actually think has happened here? Again, unexplained, unarticulated and worthy of an unelected, morally superior elite who can pass judgement without accountability.

7. When did the bishops assume a 'divine right to be heard'? This is a joke, right? Just journalese gone a bit too far? Surely?

Clearly, more dangerous than bishops telling a story and arguing a case in the public square – on the basis that they can articulate their case effectively (sometimes…) – is a 'neutral' newspaper arrogating to itself everything it will deny of citizens-with-a-religious-world-view. But, really, this is just a joke. The Independent should do better than this. It could start by owning up to its prejudices, subjecting them to informed debate, and identifying who it is who keeps writing this stuff.

Before I went to Kazakhstan for the first time in 2003 I had little idea of its post-independence history. I knew it quite well (from a distance and in a bit of a weird way) as a Soviet republic, but after the collapse of the Soviet empire and its unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1991, I had lost track and lost interest.

So, 2003 was only twelve years after this massive change. I learned that Russia immediately cut off every economic or financial lifeline to the new Republic of Kazakhstan and left it – the dumping ground of the old USSR – as a polluted and poverty-stricken cast-off, ready to sink into oblivion. Twelve years later, however, the country was developing its economy, shaping its identity, carving out its place in the international political community, and building a confident new nation. Yes, there was also corruption and some very unsavoury things were happening in parallel to all this.

But, the common fact in every conversation about the country – with both old-hand politicians and young media people – was that the first five years were unutterably miserable. I was told by many people that “people starved and died in the street” – a combination of no work, no food, extreme cold and no shelter. The infrastructure had collapsed and had to be rebuilt bit by bit. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was acclaimed, even by serious opponents among my interlocutors, for holding to the discipline of getting a strong economy – the only way to build a long-term future for increased wealth, public services, education and business. The cost was consciously tolerated.

Now, why am I remembering this today – especially as I am in Basel on study leave and supposed to be reading theology? Well, this morning a letter was published in the Mirror newspaper, signed by 27 Church of England bishops. The letter drew attention to food poverty in England and called on the government to change its policies that are deemed to be driving people and families into destitution. (This letter follows the RC Archbishop of Westminster's condemnation of the effects of welfare reform as a 'disgrace' and its rebuttal by the Prime Minister in terms of moral purpose. I doubt if the timing is any more than coincidental.) Today the bishops are taking a bit of a bashing.

First, it has been suggested that if only 27 signed the letter, then 74 did not: draw your conclusions. Well, the 74 were probably not approached – not because there was selective ideological bias involved, but simply because in such cases only a number of bishops is usually approached for signature. I was not approached, but would have signed, had I been asked to do so. In similar cases where my signature has been added to a letter, most other bishops weren't approached. Many bishops aren't online most of the time, many are slow to respond to requests, and some refuse to sign anything on principle. No conspiracy here – and probably no fine strategic organisation – but, as usual, a bit random.

Secondly, when asked to sign such a letter you have to look at the general drift and not argue about every word – although I have refused to sign one or two open letters until certain assumptions were checked or details changed. However, agreeing every detail by disparate committee guarantees only that the letter will never be agreed or published. So, signature signals assent to the content whilst recognising that each individual might have preferred to have written it differently.

So, why write this now? And why the stuff about Kazakhstan?

Bishops have better things to do with their time than enter into ideological arguments that serve no purpose other than political point-scoring. To accuse signatory bishops of simplistic or malicious political bias is silly. Whatever their political views – and there is a range of opinion on welfare cuts and their effects – they are in touch with real people in every community of this country. So, when hearing government defences of the 'moral intent' of policies that directly affect the communities the churches and their clergy serve, they cannot remain silent about the realities on the ground. They might respect the moral intent – and even agree with it – whilst seeing the devastating consequences of that policy on the people we meet every day. The proliferation of food banks, coupled with the evidence that many, many poorly-paid working people are having to use them in order to feed their family, is a reality that poses a challenge to the moral effectiveness of the said policy.

Any why Kazakhstan? Well, I am NOT comparing post-independence Kazakhstan with England. The question that this raised in my own mind this morning, however, was whether the open recognition of Kazakh policy in the 1990s is preferable to the muddled attempts to add moral justification to an English policy that the government just don't want to admit is so brutal? Should the government just say clearly: we are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.

Harsh? Yes, but honest. And at least we would know what we were dealing with. The churches would continue to care as best as possible – and without discrimination – for poor people. And bishops would continue to tell what they see and hear of the human cost of political ideology and question its moral basis from a Christian ethical perspective. And debate would rage on. But, at least it would be clear what was going on.

 

The newspapers variously report today on the debate in the House of Commons about foodbanks.

OK, make allowances for the natural party-political hype and journalistic attribution of motive to anyone with whom they disagree, but this still makes anyone with an eye on our future social stability worry. There might be very good reasons why Iain Duncan-Smith left the debate early and refused to speak in it; and there might be reasons why the government benches laughed while stories of poverty and serious hardship were being related from the benches opposite. I wasn't there, wasn't able to follow the debate (I have a day job), and am not in a position to judge.

However, the existence and proliferation of foodbanks should be a source of shame and shock, not an excuse to score political points. We shouldn't turn our horror at the impact and implications of austerity onto mocking IDS as he leaves the chamber early. This isn't about him; our focus should be on constantly holding before him and those with power the consequences of the value systems driving policy at present.

I wonder if anyone referenced Fr Timothy Radcliffe's recent Romero lecture. If not, they should have done. It should be read in full (despite the alarming number of typos). Poverty, especially as experienced by the young, will infect generations to come, and influence their identity/solidarity with wider society. When George Osborne asserts that “we are in it together,” there will be a generation of cynics who will wonder what the 'it' was.

… “forgive me for being vastly oversimplistic. The poor suffer violence in our society too. Everywhere food banks are opening because ever more people in Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, simply cannot afford to eat. Children arrive hungry at school every morning. Millions of people, especially the young, see no future, no hope. Cathy Corcoran from the Cardinal Hume Centre said to me: ‘If you are a long term street homeless person in the UK your life expectancy is mid- 40s max – if you have an intravenous drug issue on top then it comes down to the mid-30s.’ People disappeared from the streets of San Salvador because they were murdered by death squads. They disappear from our streets because they die. Our country is afflicted by a vast, hidden violence on the poorest. If we do not open our eyes to it and respond, then it will surely erupt and destroy our society before long.

Our blindness to this violence is not just due to ignorance. The way that we see the world filters out the dramas of their lives. The French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu says that every society has a cognitive map which silences some people. They disappear into what he calls ‘social silences.’

This is for at least two reasons. In our world everything is quantified, measured, administered. David Graeber writes that it is ‘money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic’ which justifies ‘things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene.’ Of course statistics matter. I am a great fan of the admirable Office for National Statistics. It keeps politicians truthful. But if numbers shape our cognitive map, then the poor will disappear and we shall not register the violence that they endure.” (Fr Timothy Ratcliffe)

 

Yesterday an open letter from thirty church leaders in Yorkshire and Humberside was published. Addressed to the Prime Minister and copied to the Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, the letter aims to highlight concerns about the impact of welfare cuts in the part of England we serve. It was timed to preempt the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement due tomorrow.

The thing about church leaders is that we have people in every community, from every stratum of society, and of a huge diversity of origins and backgrounds. Perhaps we are unique in that respect. Our reach goes deep and wide – and the pictures we build are not fabricated according to ideology, prejudice or even theology.

The letter caught local headlines, but managed to omit reference to a crucial paragraph in which the potential for getting people off welfare and into work is applauded. However, we also have to maintain a concern for those who cannot work, cannot get work or who fall through all the nets. Churches (among others) are currently and quietly providing night shelters for homeless people, running food banks, caring for people (and families) whose life has been radically changed for the worse.

The letter adds the voice of thirty church leaders (on behalf of those who tell us their stories of grassroots experience) to others attempting to inform the Government how its proposals are impacting on people (in our case) who live outside London; welfare cuts are having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. We still see the poorest people getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.

The letter, accompanying a study entitled Am I my Brother’s Keeper? A Christian Overview of Welfare Reform and Cuts in Public Spending (Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber), reads as follows:

As Church leaders in the North of England, we would like to express our concern over the way that cuts in public spending and reforms to the welfare system are beginning to play out in the communities we serve. We commend to you a policy paper written by the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber, Am I My Brother’s Keeper, which offers an informed overview of welfare reform and cuts in public spending in the context of the values that have driven welfare since the inception of the Welfare State.

We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society. We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, “scrounger” and “feckless” to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families and the communities in which they live.

We express support for those aspects of Universal Credit which make a genuine attempt to address longer term problems within the welfare system that can act as a deterrent to work. Indeed, we agree that work is the best route out of poverty for many people. However, we would also wish to draw your attention to the need to ensure that full-employment remains a policy aim for the Government in support of a system that sees welfare as transitional assistance for those that are capable of work.

We are especially troubled by welfare reforms that time-limit benefits at a time when structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.

We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarizes the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and “feckless”. Our view of the good society as interdependent and of people as fundamentally of equal worth, makes it impossible to support that polarization.

We wish to confirm our support for:

  • The Welfare State
    • As a mechanism for remedying the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism
    • As a way of addressing social inequality
    • As a safety net for those who are temporarily, or permanently, in need
  • A system of taxation that encourages responsibility among the wealthy to share their good fortune with other members of the society to which they belong
  • A work ethic which encourages all people towards employment and the duty to care for themselves and their own families in the first place, as they are able and when economic life permits
  • Full-employment as a policy goal that allows the Welfare State to function properly

Finally, our experience in the North underlines the need to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South – and especially the South-East – and the North. This would enable people in northern communities to deploy and benefit from their skills and abilities and thus contribute to enhancing the productivity of the country as a whole.