Rowan Williams: Chapter and verse on caring society

Christian Aid Week, writes Rowan Williams, offers a chance to reflect and take action to combat global poverty
Edinburghs book fair is a long-established favourite fixture in Christian Aid week. Picture: Ian GeorgesonEdinburghs book fair is a long-established favourite fixture in Christian Aid week. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Edinburghs book fair is a long-established favourite fixture in Christian Aid week. Picture: Ian Georgeson

THE 1960s, when I was a teenager, was a time of expanding horizons; the perspective of a world much bigger than my immediate environment was starting to dawn on me. It seemed to me that the vision of Christian Aid, of a world transformed by people striving to end poverty and injustice, was part of what it was to be a Christian and to be a citizen of the world. So, many years later, when I was invited to take on the role of chairman of Christian Aid I was delighted.

That global perspective stayed with me while I was Archbishop of Canterbury, overseeing the Anglican Communion around the world. In my last few years at Lambeth Palace, my work on international development was something which particularly engaged and energised me. As the internet and other technology makes us increasingly aware of how interconnected the world is, it also reveals the impact our actions have on others, both for good and ill. The ground upon which we stand may still be our home country but we now know that where we spend our money, to what we lend our voice and how we choose to live, affects our neighbours around the world.

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That’s why Christian Aid Week, which begins on Sunday, is a vital opportunity for us to think and act beyond our own immediate confines. Not only does it allow us to meet our immediate neighbours, the volunteer neighbourhood collectors, it also gives us the chance to do something for our neighbours around the world who don’t have food, personal safety or power over their own lives. As part of that I’m here in Scotland today and will visit the famous Christian Aid book sale in Edinburgh which raises such vital funds for our work.

What we’re seeking to do is to hold up before our society a vision of a world given in trust for one another. In the same way that I have a duty of care as chairman of Christian Aid and previously as Archbishop of Canterbury for the people that came before and will come after, we all have a duty of care for our world and those we share it with. This vision turns the language of debt on its head and asks us, “What do we owe to those who are most destitute, most struggling?” Ultimately, we want to mirror the kind of generosity and love we see modelled by Jesus.

Jesus constantly identified and respected the inherent dignity in others, something we must emulate. One of the biggest mistakes development organisations can make is to think hand outs to the needy are the answer. We’re not about treating people as victims. Effective development work does not stop at aid.

It is about challenging those structures which create that need in the first place. It’s about equipping people with the tools for their own thriving and, in turn, being open to what we can learn from them. That’s why Christian Aid works in partnership with more than 500 local organisations around the world and uses their expertise and knowledge in the struggle to end poverty.

This approach is a great witness for the Church. Christian Aid is the development arm for 41 different church denominations including the Church of Scotland among others. Although Christians are not always portrayed in the media as the most radical of people, in my time as archbishop I have seen countless Christians be significant agents for social justice. It was the evangelical MP William Wilberforce in 1807 who helped bring an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Baptist minister Martin Luther King who fought for civil rights in America. Christian Aid and churches here in the UK campaigned for an end to apartheid in South Africa.

We are in this business because we’re not prepared to sit down quietly and accept a system which seems unjust, pushing people out of the way for the sake of profit. We’ve seen how powerful countries and companies have damaged the environment through carbon-intensive industry at the expense of those now facing climate change. Likewise, the secretive offshore tax dealings of many multinational corporations rob many of the poorest countries of much needed revenue. If our own tax collectors at HMRC can’t keep on top of the taxes owed to the UK, just imagine the difficulty for developing countries which are short on tax lawyers and accountants.

This is why Christian Aid has joined with more than 180 other organisations to put pressure on the governments of the G8 to bring an end to tax dodging. It seems perverse that, despite there being enough food for everyone in the world, one in eight people goes to bed hungry every night. This year’s G8 meeting on 15 June takes place in Northern Ireland and the Enough Food For Everyone IF campaign is requesting that the UK government, as hosts, pushes for greater transparency around the actions of both companies and governments.

So how are we going to end poverty? There are no easy answers – but Christian Aid Week is a chance for all of us to do our part. Life here in the UK is not as easy or comfortable as some years past; but Scots are known for the breadth and boldness of their global awareness and we have much to be thankful for when our lives are put side by side with most people around the world. Small gifts given here go a long way over there.

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Only if we have a vivid sense of how we belong together and what we owe each other can we enable other people to grow and give to the world and to ourselves.

• Rowan Williams is chair of Christian Aid and a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

• Christian Aid Week book sale at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, Edinburgh, opens at 10am on Saturday.