The front pages of today’s Daily Mirror and The Times carry the story of Archbishop Justin Welby’s address to the TUC conference, in which he drew attention to the evils of economic injustice and urged the trade unions – and the government – to confront the damage done by the gig economy, zero hours contracts, and tax avoidance by major corporations.
As is often the case when church leaders speak out on matters political, his words have received a mixed reception. Applause from some, accusations of interference from others.
The idea that churches should only be involved in ‘picking up the pieces’ when it comes to social issues, and should ‘keep out’ of debates about the structural drivers of such problems is theologically problematic for sure, but it also assumes a certain lack of intelligence on the part of the church. Underpinning such injunctions is an assumption that Christian leaders – and perhaps religious leaders more generally – lack the very basic insight that if you can tackle the causes of a problem, rather than just the symptoms, then this is likely to be a wise course of action.
Churches across England are actively engaged in responding to issues such as debt, homelessness, food poverty, and so on in local communities, but our research tells us that they want to get more involved in advocating for big picture change to reduce the suffering and injustice people are experiencing in the first place.
Most of us who have tried to tackle problems ‘at source’ – whether in our jobs, in our families, or in our communities – will have learned that this is not always easy. It involves learning and trying things out. It involves grappling with different views on what the causes really are. It involves courage, vulnerability, and the ability to handle conflict well. And very often it involves a substantial amount of perseverance.
Challenging though this kind of change may be, the facts do not afford us the choice of doing nothing. 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, more than half of whom are part of households where at least one person is in work. This means that at least 1 in 5 people are prevented from participating fully in society and from meeting their material needs in a way that many of us take for granted.
We find ourselves in a scenario where advocacy – for, with, and by those on the sharp end of such exclusion – is vitally needed. Yet there is also a need for sensitivity and wisdom in the way this is done. At Church Urban Fund we are committed to engagement in the public sphere that is both prophetic and pastoral, recognising the humanity of those who hold power as well as that of those their decisions affect.
As a step towards this goal, Church Urban Fund were privileged last week to welcome Adam Taylor, Executive Director of Sojourners, the US based social justice movement, who shared generously from his experience and insight about what makes for effective prophetic advocacy with more than 70 Christian leaders convened across different denominations, organisation, and parts of the country.
Highlighting the example of the Circle of Protection, an alliance of Christian leaders that works to protect the interests of the lowest income communities in the US, Adam expounded the biblical basis for being advocates for justice, drawing on the Old and New Testaments. Pointing out that ‘social service’ and ‘social justice’ are not the same thing, he encouraged us to reflect on what it means to engage with structural injustices in society in ways that are prophetic and pastoral, political but not partisan, and principled but not ideological.
Over the coming months we look forward to working collaboratively to explore how the voices and actions of the church – in its broadest sense – can most effectively contribute to building a society in which all can flourish. To pursue such a vision without addressing the social and economic structures that frame and shape our interactions with one another would be futile indeed, but doing so in a way that draws people in to a shared future, rather than exacerbating existing divisions, will require sensitivity, wisdom, and kindness, as well as conviction.