So the bishops in the House of Lords supported an amendment that defeated government plans that would have limited benefits in such a way as to penalise the children of poor families. Predictably, the government didn’t like this. It feels like 1985 again, with ministers briefing that the ‘Faith in the City‘ report is Marxist.
Into this debate weighs journalist, TV presenter and poker player Victoria Coren. In a passionate piece in today’s Observer called ‘Attacking the Church is a Cheap Shot‘ (subtitled ‘Has everyone forgotten these are men of God? It’s actually their job to stand up for the poor), she puts it like this:
It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.
The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.
Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they’d really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.
And while the Stephen Hesters of this world, already paid 1.2 million loaves a year of arguably public bread, are being given fish factories as bonuses, the church can hardly join in with a move to reduce herring portions for the hungry. It would look ridiculous.
If this were X-Factor for journalists, Louis Walsh would be saying, “You nailed it.” The Bible calls us to be fair, but it calls us to a special concern for the poor. She therefore argues it’s unfair for the bishops to be criticised. They are only doing their job. Quite right, too.
However, it shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. Critique the powers that be and opposition will come. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus – all suffered. While being on the receiving end of criticism isn’t a guarantee of doing a good job, it may be a sign that the bishops scored a bullseye.
More worrying for me was the criticism by my former college principal, George (Lord) Carey. In an article in (of course) the Daily Mail, he seems to stereotype almost all people on benefits as being part of a dependency culture. Yes, some are, but overall – surely not! He knows all about growing up poor in the 1940s, but the pride of poor people he knew then in Dagenham still exists in many quarters, whatever else has changed. And yes, the national debt of £1 trillion is a scandal, but it was a scandal caused by the reckless folly of big business and a culture devoted to consumerism – a consumerism heavily promoted by the government that nominated him to the Queen first for Bath and Wells and then for Canterbury.
So well done the bishops, keep it up, whatever is thrown at you.