In the absence of any effective opposition to the Tories’ ineffective government, it was a relief to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury take a stand on social justice issues.
Justin Welby’s TUC tirade on zero-hours contracts, Universal Credit and corporate tax avoiders contained all the fire that has been sucked out of Labour’s belly by relentless internal fighting.
I didn’t find it offensive that he was invoking a God in whom I no longer believe; when you hail from a Church that continues to be obsessed by sex and money, it’s refreshing to hear a religious leader take a moral stand on the issues that most matter to his flock, like poverty and exploitation. And though “evil” is a word I generally shy away from, it’s hard to argue with his assessment of the social inequality that grows year on year.
Universal Credit has been a blight on society’s most dispossessed; last week cabinet papers revealed one in six claimants were not being paid on time. Tax avoiders are depriving the Treasury of much-needed funds and – despite claims to the contrary from Tory MPs – zero-hours contracts are creating a Precariat: a new class of workers who live from month to month, with no long-term security.
These – among others – are the Conservative policies that have driven a rise in homelessness and food banks. The extent to which Welby’s speech, with its angry rhetoric, answered a need could be seen in the standing ovation it received.
Pre-empting the flak he feared would come from other quarters, he reposted a piece he had written about the obligation the Church has to take risks and represent the vulnerable. His suspicions were well-founded. At first the backlash was merely related to his activism. A week earlier, he had backed a think tank report proposing tax rises for the rich. But commentators such as Simon Jenkins argued religious leaders had no right to strike ideological poses or to co-opt God’s support for the left or the right.
Traditionally, of course, the Church of England has been pro-establishment, but the Jesus of the New Testament was a socialist, surely, siding with the down-trodden and abused. It is certainly easier to match the champion of outcasts with the values of Welby than those of the American Evangelists who back Trump, borders and Prosperity Theology: the belief among some that financial wealth and physical well-being are the will of God for them. After all, what is the point of any religion if not to be a catalyst for change and a defender of the weak against the powerful?
A much more serious problem for Welby is that it turns out the Church of England is ensnared with some of the companies and practices he criticised. It didn’t take long for those who viewed the archbishop’s words as a personal attack to go rooting round the accounts and discover that Amazon Inc – a company renowned for its low corporate tax bill and its poor working conditions – is one of its top 20 global equity investments and that at least two of its cathedrals were advertising zero-hours contract jobs.
To compound the embarrassment, it isn’t even the first time this has happened. A couple of years ago, Welby pledged to put pay-day lenders out of business by expanding credit unions – only to discover the Church invested indirectly in Wonga.
Last week, the cries of double standards were immediate, brutal and, up to a point, deserved. But those who shouted loudest often had their own agendas. The Conservative MP Ben Bradley, for example, who said: “It’s hypocritical when [he] condemns zero-hours contracts while his churches are advertising zero-hours jobs.” Days earlier, Bradley had been praising Universal Credit and arguing it was inappropriate for Welby to parrot Labour’s position.
At the same time, a minister from another denomination, who worked on a zero-hours contract in a Cathedral bookshop, was highlighting the Church’s failure to put his own house in order. “What the Most Rev Justin Welby did not disclose was how many of his cathedrals are zero-hour contract employers and how many cathedral employees have no job certainty, no sick or holiday pay, and no maternity cover,” he said.
The minister is right. There is no way Welby can retain credibility without confronting this head-on. The “collegiate” structure of the Church may, as some have claimed, prevent him from exerting direct managerial authority over cathedrals and churches, but he can clearly express his own disapproval, especially given the Church of England made an 18.6 per cent return on its investments in 2017.
In particular, the Church’s current stance on Amazon – that it is more effective to seek change as a shareholder than it is to jettison its investment – is unsustainable. Unless, of course, anyone can remember the bit in the Bible when Jesus set up his own money-changing table in the Temple “because it was easier to force them out from the inside”.
A far better course of action would be that pursued in the wake of the pay-day loan company fiasco, when the Church quickly sold around £75,000 of shares. Having shed its Amazon investment, it could then commit to scrutinising the rest of its portfolio.
Before we pour too much contempt on the Church, however, it’s worth remembering how much work it does in alleviating poverty. Like most faiths, its congregations are declining, it can be administratively haphazard; the left arm doesn’t always know what the right arm is doing. But at grassroots level, it is on the front line supporting those hit hardest by welfare reform. Along with other religious denominations north and south of the border, it runs food banks and night shelters and soup kitchens.
In addition, Welby is now to lead a not-for-profit attempt to buy the £400m Wonga loan book after the company collapsed into administration (albeit by rallying investors and charitable funds, not with the Church’s own money). Along with his secular counterpart, actor Michael Sheen – who launched the End High Cost Credit Alliance – he seems determined to take on the forces that are making so many ordinary people’s lives miserable.
So, by all means, hold him to account for his Church’s double standards; insist that he brings pressure to bear. But don’t dismiss him as a hypocrite, a political interloper or an irrelevance. That would be to play into the hands of the Tories.