Comments: Bishops slam David Cameron's welfare reforms

Legitimate case, but kind of makes you wonder why St Pauls was so reluctant about having us pitch a few tents in exactly this cause (or they could even have asked us *in*).

First Aid Tent
Occupy London

Posted by Susannah Clark at Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 9:51pm GMT

I'm interested to know whether the Bishop of London has a view on this? He's not listed as a signatory, but is there no poverty in London? There may be a reason he didn't sign, like illness or absence of some kind. Or political allegiance. Or a desire to remain 'apolitical'.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 10:10pm GMT

Anyway, concern for the poor is a right and proper thing, because God is clearly concerned for the poor:

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice,
And untie the cords of the yoke,
To set the oppressed free
And break every bond?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -
When you see the naked, to clothe them,
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

Isaiah 58:5-7

Each one of us can be indicted by these verses, I know I can.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Thursday, 20 February 2014 at 11:34pm GMT

It’s good the bishops are showing concerns for the poor but this does not take away the fact that their pastoral statement on same sex marriage is more of a foreign policy to please Global South bishops and has done more damage than good in England. Food for all is a basic human need, one does not have to be a bishop to know and preach that.

Posted by Davis Mac-Iyalla at Friday, 21 February 2014 at 8:16am GMT

as Nick Baines says in his post:
"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."

Posted by Erika Baker at Friday, 21 February 2014 at 9:02am GMT

Since the compassion of the Bishops is so selective, it's hard for me to take them seriously.

Posted by FD Blanchard at Friday, 21 February 2014 at 2:07pm GMT

I don't believe, as some do, that this is a cunning plan either to distract attention from their 'Pastoral Statement' or to show that they are really nice people after all. But I do wonder whether they have any idea that their caring words on this issue this week, sound hollow in the light of last week's and that any credibility or influence they might think they have on government or society is fast disappearing down the drain. There is very little left now. Most people just think it is more wind. And as they say 'fine words butter no parsnips'.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Friday, 21 February 2014 at 8:16pm GMT

It's nice to see the bishops interested in something other than sex.

Perhaps this will start a trend.

Posted by JPM at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 3:36am GMT

It's taken the C of E twenty years (or is it a hundred) to get to the kind of gender inclusivity all the main political parties achieved decades ago. And it hasn't even got there yet.

Now we have the "pastoral statement"---following all the research that shows the gap between the bishops' position and that of many of their own flock (see some of the speeches in the House of Lords debate on the Equal Marriage bill to see that this is not just from younger people.)

Up and down the country there are unoccupied and under-occupied clergy houses. See also comments by Charlotte Leslie MP in Daily Telegraph about Lambeth Palace.

So, what moral authority has this pronouncement got? A stopped clock is right occasionally ... but the problem is that you can't tell when.

Posted by Turbulent priest at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 6:54am GMT

For heavens sake! This posting isn't about the CoE bishops and their wretched "pastoral" letter; its about the scandal of up to half a million people in this rich country having to rely on food banks. Its so much easier, though, to condemn the bishops rather than think about those less fortunate than ourselves. They're not the only ones who are selective in their sympathies.
Incidentally this letter was signed by senior representatives of the Methodist and URC churches as well as the Quakers and 2 Church in Wales bishops - and no, they aren't CoE. As for Charlotte Leslie,she is a Conservative MP, so she would defend the Government, wouldn't she (and she also thinks religious organisations should be free to deny same sex marriage BTW). Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian writes rather more to the point.

Posted by Helen at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 9:44am GMT

I completely agree with you.
Not that there is much that can be said about the letter itself. It is right that it should have been written and I have immediately signed up to the campaign. There is not really much controversy and uncontroversial topics don't generate comments on TA.

But the other thing this is showing is how much the bishops have written themselves out of the picture. Even when they act in a morally responsible way, all people remember is that big unresolved issue of immoral discrimination they are guilty of and all the other signatories are tarred with that same brush.

I noticed that when the bishops were sent anonymous letters containing a Humbug sweet even Alan Wilson received one!

Alan himself pointed this out several months ago when he said that fewer secular charities are able to work with the church because they cannot work with organisations that do not comply with modern equality policies.

This is hugely regrettable, I agree. But it is a direct consequence of the conduct of the CoE. And it's helpful that this is coming to light more and more. If an appeal to decency will not make the church change its thinking, then maybe realpolitik will.

In the meantime, I would hope that most of us here are already deeply concerned about foodbanks and the welfare reforms etc. and that no-one needs to be persuaded about this.

Posted by Erika Baker at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 11:02am GMT

I agree with your basic point Erica about the CoE's loss of credibility in certain areas and the reasons for it. But it appears from a trawl of the media sites referenced above that the bishops have not written themselves out of the picture: if you get approving write-ups from the Mirror, Guardian, Telegraph and FT, as well as TV news, you can assume that you're still being listened to. It's noticeable too that it's the bishops who get the/headlines: Quakers, Methodists and the URC, despite having much more civilised gender policies, just get a footnote.
I suspect the general public are a bit more realistic about the mixed nature of human beings than some TA contributors: the bishops can make complete asses of themselves over sex and gender, but they can still contribute relevantly to the poverty debate.

Posted by Helen at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 2:02pm GMT

thankfully, you're right that not all of the media are unable to see that bishops can legitimately say something about poverty while being wrong about equality questions in their own church.

Although some of the comments I've read from columnists and on the online comment threads of some of those reports, those who don't want to accept what the bishops are saying, or even their right to say it, are increasingly saying that you should not intervene in the democratic process with moral statements when your own organisation is not democratic and immoral. This is a growing trend.

But my real point was that here on TA we don't tend to comment much on things that are not controversial for us. So non-controversial threads often become places for other conversations. And as most people here are up in arms about this pastoral statement, it may be forgiven if people mention that they sometimes struggle to see how people supporting immoral policies within can have moral credibility in the public sphere.
We might not agree with that assessment but it's legitimate to state it.

As I said, I sincerely hope that it is not a dismissal of the actual points the bishops are making with regard to food banks and the effects of the welfare reform.
Indeed, knowing some of the contributors here personally or from Facebook, I can confidently state that they are indeed very concerned about welfare.

Posted by Erika Baker at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 4:35pm GMT

Of course it's legitimate Erika, but knee jerk reactions can be disappointing if the forum is labelled "thinking". The comments were rather more forthright than you suggest.
Also, it wasn't just the bishops in England who were raising concerns. I'm used to the Anglo-centric assumption that Wales=England, but signatories included also the URC, whose consultation on SSM has been aired in this forum and the Quakers, who campaigned for SSM. So yes, a bit more thinking about that would have been welcome in my view.
I'm not sure who "we" are. Or indeed "most people": many familiar names have responded to the notorious letter, but does that include "most people" who read this forum? "We" has a slightly exclusive feel about it.

Posted by Helen at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 8:11pm GMT

Ruth Gledhill writes a column in The Times today which reports the claim the bishops had been conned into supporting a left wing ruse.
A side bar article takes the bishops points one by one, gives a source and variously casts doubt on the claim in each.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Saturday, 22 February 2014 at 11:07pm GMT

"A side bar article takes the bishops points one by one, gives a source and variously casts doubt on the claim in each."

Unfortunately, there is very legitimate debate about the claims that are made about the use of foodbanks. There is a depressing cycle in criticism of governments which runs as follows (for the example of poverty, but it operates mutatis mutandis for accusations about poor healthcare, poor education, etc).

1. A genuine problem exists, for example people being thrown into abject poverty by sanctioning, withdrawal, bedroom tax, whatever.

2. Charities find "good" examples which are publicised, in which the injustice is obvious. Charities aggregate the number of cases they're seeing and extrapolate to give national number. The charity publicises the problem.

3. The good cases turn out to be more complex than it at first appears and a case which looks obviously outrageous starts to look a lot more nuanced.

4. It transpires that the charity was operating in a hot-spot, so scaling up to a national level wildly overstates the scale of the problem.

5. Points 3 and 4 allow the government to undermine 2, and therefore give the impression that 1 is not true. A campaign that started out to highlight a real problem ends up providing ammunition for people who claim the problem doesn't exist.

It's very tempting for campaigners to slightly simplify cases to make them more obviously unjust, and inadvertently overstate the scale of the problem to stir up more outrage. Unfortunately, when that strategy is detected it lets governments off the hook.

For example, the Trussel Trust are operating more foodbanks, hence have more users. That doesn't of itself mean that more people are in need, rather that more people are having those needs met, which is not the same thing at all. Meeting the needs is a good thing, and that the needs exist is a bad thing. But that there are now fewer people whose needs are unmet is not _of_ _itself_ evidence that there are more people in need. Continued...

Posted by Interested Observer at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 9:42am GMT


And by the way, any campaign which ends up with the punchline being a defence of households where the total benefits are equivalent to two adults working in good jobs is almost inevitably doomed. There might be very good reasons, and intellectually the case for the benefits in question might be unassailable. But slap on the TV a non-working family with seven kids, a large house and 35 grand a year in benefits, even though those cases are incredibly rare, and the optics are hideous. You will get precisely zero support for the contention that cuts to benefits are unjust from that, no matter how sad-face the children. That charities and NGO persist is attempting to campaign based on such cases is shows that they don't pay any attention to how their campaigns play out.

Similarly, I suspect we will find that the 5500 people admitted to hospitals with malnutrition is a massive own goal, because a very large proportion of those will turn out to be unrelated to poverty, or only tangentially related. It will include elderly patients with dementia who refuse to eat because it's all poisoned, it will include anorexia and other eating disorder sufferers, and it will include people who for reasons of povertand poor education make catastrophic food choices. There will be some cases directly related to poverty, but not at that scale: it only takes a few counter-examples ("oh look, one of the 5500 is a rich girl from Twickenham who lived on waterbiscuits to lose weight for her Prom") and the real cases suddenly get lost in the haze.

Channel 4's analysis of the food bank situation ( is a useful and balanced piece. There is massive poverty in the UK, and a lot of it is hidden. Food Banks and other charities to vital and important work. But it's important to remember that we do have a welfare system that provides a safety net, and most cases which on the surface appear to be obvious injustices are more complex, and when unpacked may not prove the point they were intended to serve.

Posted by Interested Observer at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 9:45am GMT

Now this is the sort of thing that Bishops of the Church ought to be doing - rather than wondering what is going on in the bedrooms of the nation.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 9:54am GMT

when I said "we" and "most people" I was referring to all of us commenting on TA.

Posted by Erika Baker at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 11:40am GMT

I think yesterday's Times piece was a nice example of Ruth doing something she's good at, and I admire her for. She can work a new angle on a two day old story. I suspect the attempt to discredit the statistics was the work of one of her colleagues. It wasn't very good, to be honest, which is why virtually nobody else has taken it up since, and I've debated live and on air with several well known conservative pundits since then. I think they know well that if they get into a debate about numbers they won't win, so they try to keep it to generalities. In my view they still aren't winning. But then I'm not an unbiased (albeit interested) observer

Posted by David Walker at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 4:20pm GMT

The Trussell trust gives useful information on those referred to food banks. Nearly 30% of cases occur because of benefit delays. See
It is a commonplace that most of those receiving benefits are in work. On Sunday one of the points on which all participants agreed was the disastrous policy of replacing council housing with housing benefit- to the eventual benefit of private landlords. Add to that the huge inequality in the UK (see that enlightening book The Spirit Level), the rise in food and fuel prices, and the squeeze on wages and you have a problem which should concern all Christians.
As for malnutrition, I suspect this was something of an own goal. However, it is impossible for many families ( and no, I haven't any figures; this is anecdote) to eat fresh vegetables and fruit daily, never mind 5 portions. It's not malnutrition exactly, but it's poor nutrition.

Posted by Helen at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 6:22pm GMT

In the interest of the "Thinking" part of Thinking Anglicans, I wonder if the bishops or any of the signatories are working on the underlying causes of the hunger? Yes, of course, in the face of need the government should step up with the safety net. But are there underlying problems that can be addressed? For instance, here in the US the problem is low wages and so there is a movement to raise the minimum wage to a more liveable wage. (70 percent of Americans support it, but alas, we have an oligarchy that might prevent it from happening).

I don't know about all homeless people, but here in Denver, Colorado, something like 40 to 45 percent of our homeless actually have jobs. So again, the underlying causes are liveable wage and affordable housing. There is a civic/government role to play in the solutions.

I'm saying that the social safety net is important, but there may be avenues to pursue that are better solutions for the long term well being of all. I'm not sure if your conservatives are onboard with those solutions, either…

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 7:30pm GMT

are there data on how long people need use food banks for?

Posted by Erika Baker at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 10:12pm GMT

"However, it is impossible for many families ( and no, I haven't any figures; this is anecdote) to eat fresh vegetables and fruit daily, never mind 5 portions"

I would want to be very, very clear about the causes: money? Cooking facilities? Shops? Ability to cook? All we have is anecdote, and it's easy (but not entirely invalid) to get bogged down in "if they can afford to smoke they can afford to buy carrots". But from having had my children at a school with very high levels of deprivation, inability to cook is a substantial barrier, as is housing that makes it difficult to cook. Neither problem is fixed by the simple application of money.

Posted by Interested Observer at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 10:44pm GMT

Hi Cynthia. We're working nationally on the Living Wage campaign which would reduce benefits paid to those in work, and on credit unions. We are seeking to make the bedroom tax politically unacceptable. I've done stuff on reducing the public spend on interventions with the small number of families who have many expensive interactions with the state, whilst enabling the families themselves to thrive.

And of course, as we said in our letter, we need to get the system to pay what it is meant to when the money is due, and not to sanction except in extreme cases of non compliance.

It's a busy picture!

Posted by David Walker at Sunday, 23 February 2014 at 11:02pm GMT

It's my understanding Erika that you have to be referred to a food bank by eg social services and you receive food for 3 days only.
The issues you raise Cynthia are common to the UK too. Last year the Quakers worked with the New Economics Foundation to present an on line economics course. This was pretty challenging for my tiny brain, but the squeeze on wages emerged as a major problem as did the huge rise in house prices relative to incomes and,in the absence of new council housing, the knock on effect on rents. All this is the direct result of economic policy of the past 30 years.
I agree with Int Ob that basic skills can be an issue, but people are apparently now turning up at food banks asking for cold food because they have no means of cooking. Newspapers like the Guardian periodically track individual families (in work) and their shopping, and what emerges is how incredibly difficult is for the low paid to eat healthily. Jac, who did a blog in the Guardian showing how she fed her son and herself on the £10 a week she had left for food, was very inventive, but fruit and green veg just weren't there.
But in the end all this is probably not about welfare or charity. It's a justice issue about how much we value those who work for us and what sort of society we want. Every politician should read The Spirit Level!

Posted by Helen at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 8:37am GMT

The Jack Monroe Helen refers to above started out as a single mum trying to feed herself and her son on benefits. She began to publish simple recipes and acquired so many followers that she then became a very effective campaigner highlighting the issues facing people on benefits.
Her blog is
Her Twitter handle: @MsJackMonroe

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 9:12am GMT

A cartoon of the Tory version of Christianity is doing the rounds. Faced with the 5000 Jesus says, "I can't possibly feed all these people_- it will destroy their incentive to work".

Posted by Helen at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 12:28pm GMT

Thank you Cynthia, and + David in response, for broadening this debate from the unequivocal condemnation of the cuts, which has for too long been the only acceptable position amongst the liberal Christian intelligentsia. As + David says, many of the underlying issues which Cynthia mentions are also present over here. And there is another issue, also common to both countries, but which has not been mentioned in this thread, or in the bishops' letter - gross overindebtedness by the government.
Even after the cuts, which have generated such concern and hostility, our government is still spending each year over £100bn more than it is raising through taxation. That too, in my book, is grossly immoral, putting as it does a huge burden on our children and generations to come, and yet it hardly ever gets mentioned in Christian circles. In my view, you can't deal with the one problem without also confronting the other, and anyone who wants to condemn the cuts should be prepared to offer an alternative solution to how the government deals with its budget deficit.
Lest anyone should think that I am incurably right-wing, I should perhaps add that I am an enthusiastic supporter of our local foodbank, and my wife works there every week as a volunteer. Nor do I read the Daily Mail (or for that matter the Daily Mirror - why there, bishops?!)

Posted by Malcolm Dixon at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 2:24pm GMT

A few suggestions Malcolm...
Reassess our spending on arms eg the new aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft we are in the midst of ordering. I forget how many billions that would save. It goes without saying that we should reconsider Trident.
Increase income tax for higher earners. A lot of us, even those of us on middling incomes, have done very well out of successive governments' policies. Maybe we need to give something back and have our expectations adjusted.
Introduce a mansion tax.
Introduce a new tax on properties that are empty for over, say, 2 years.
The government to introduce sustainable, green and socially responsible community training and employment schemes into which those of us with spare cash could invest.
Expand allotment provision big time.
Any other ideas people?

Posted by Helen at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 4:18pm GMT

"Any other ideas people?"

Most importantly, stop the rhetoric that all these people are lazy and not wanting to work. The public support for all those cuts is largely due to so many people thinking that there are thousands of recipients of welfare who lead a cushy life financed by the hard working tax payer. They really don't see the genuine hardship that is caused.

You just need to look at Jeremy Clarkson's piece in the Sun: "The Bible is basically a blueprint for Marxism. In Luke 16:19-31 we are told that those who work hard and buy nice things for themselves and their families will burn for all of eternity in hell. And those who sit about doing nothing all day will go to heaven."

And in response to the Bishop's letter some immediately warn of the dire consequences of welfare dependency.

But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about people having to wait for weeks for the support they are due. We are talking about people needing help to survive until they find the next job. And we are talking about humane support for those who really cannot look after themselves.

It's about time people looked closely and realised who is in need of help and why. Unless we can generate better understanding and more compassion, those policies Helen suggests won't be vote winners.

Posted by Erika Baker at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 4:44pm GMT

Thank you Helen for your suggestions. Commenting on them risks being seen as political rather than faith-related, and the moderators might not allow it, but then it wasn't me that started this thread!
Stopping half-completed projects probably wouldn't save much, but we certainly shouldn't be starting expensive new ones, e.g. Trident replacement, HS2. Many of your other suggestions come under the general category of 'taxing the rich'. Doing this 'until the pips squeak' didn't work out too well for Denis Healey in 1976, I recall, and if you want to see how well it works in today's global economy, just look across the channel to France.
No, if taxation is to support today's level of public spending, it would need the basic rate to be raised from 20 to at least 25% (where it was when Thatcher left office) or even to 33% (where it was when I started working). I'd be up for it, but I don't think many voters would. And most economists say that it would destroy our economy, and leave us all, especially the poor, much poorer.
If they are right, then the only solution is to significantly reduce public spending, which is where we started.

Posted by Malcolm Dixon at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 9:42pm GMT

Well you asked Malcolm! But not all economists agree with you. The balance between cuts and tax rises is certainly being discussed outside government circles, and even the government is somewhat exercised about tax avoidance. If you look at OECD national debt figures, you will see that UKDebt has risen dramatically under the present government, but there are some countries, notably Germany and some Scandinavian countries where it hasn't. So there may be alternative economic policies worth exploring.
Going back to your previous comment, I'm not sure that anyone criticising the cuts should have to offer an alternative. We don't have access to research teams! But if we become aware that any policies bear disproportionately on the poor, how can we accept them and still remain faithful to the gospel?

Posted by Helen at Monday, 24 February 2014 at 11:22pm GMT

"It's a busy picture!"

It is indeed! And I wish you all very well with yours as we work on ours. It strikes me that we are working on the same fundamental issues of livable wages and taxes (and unnecessary wars in which we collaborated).

I guess the role for the church is to advocate for justice and the well being of all of God's children. Sometimes that's handing out food, and sometimes it is political advocacy.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 25 February 2014 at 4:24pm GMT

This story is still running with a front page story by Ruth Gledhil today ( Tuesday) reporting George Carey dissing his fellow bishops for, amongst other things, being facile and getting this wrong.

Then The Times first leader also says the bishops got it badly wrong.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Tuesday, 25 February 2014 at 11:33pm GMT
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