February has so far been a big month for the Christian church. On the 2nd February BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme looked into the value of Christianity, and specifically the Church of England, as a moral voice for the British public in the modern day. They questioned the Church’s relevance: with an ageing congregation and a socially conservative reputation, they asked whether the Church of England represents, or even understands, the popular mood.
An important contribution to the debate on the UK Church’s relevance was made later in the month as the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, made waves in the media with his comments on the government’s welfare reforms (see article here http://tinyurl.com/p66tpf2).
Archbishop Nichols said that two things are happening in terms of welfare reform: the “the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or destitution has been torn apart” and that the methods of applying for assistance are becoming increasingly “punitive”.
This serves as contemporary evidence for the credible and profound voice Christian authorities in the UK continue to have particularly when it comes to issues of welfare and supporting the most vulnerable. The credibility of this voice comes from the well informed social engagement of the most senior leaders such as Livability’s President Archbishop Welby and Archbishop Nichols combined with the daily engagement of local churches and Christian charities as hubs for inclusion and hope at the heart of the majority of neighbourhoods. Archbishop Nichols’s comments made such an impact that the Prime Minister himself felt the need to reply on the Daily Telegraph (see article here http://tinyurl.com/pejtn2s). The Prime Minister need not risk writing such an article if those who he is responding to are irrelevant or do not represent a much wider public mood. Indeed at a time when voter turn out remains low and apathy about the UK political system remains high, the church would appear to be connecting and understanding where our political system itself can often feel irrelevant and elitist to the wider public.
The relevance of Archbishop Nichols’s comments is also clear from other events which have panned out over the past couple of weeks. The national protests against Atos, the ‘fitness to work’ assessor, on Wednesday (19/02/2014) are a highly tangible public illustration that the Archbishop’s comments about “the administration of social assistance has become more and more punitive” do indeed represent public mood. With social inclusion and fighting for justice being intrinsic aspects of Livability’s “DNA” we were keen to support this particular debate at the time (see our statement here http://tinyurl.com/pkxfr7e) and are pleased to see that Atos are seeking an early exit from their contractual agreements with the government (see article here http://tinyurl.com/pp8udy6).
As Chief Executive of a Christian disability charity I would echo the thoughts of Archbishop Nichols on welfare and encourage the church as a whole to continue making relevant comments such as these and provoking debate which can create real change. Moreover, I would continue to endorse the vital contribution the Church continues to make positively to the health, wellbeing and equality of our communities across the UK and of course the globe. Livability has been involved with supporting such work for well over 160 years since the pioneering of Lord Shaftesbury and John Groom who took radical and courageous steps to put their Christian faith into action to challenge inequality and injustice experienced by their contemporaries.
We remain committed to supporting the church in fulfilling its profound role at the very heart of public life in the UK and are greatly encouraged by the renewed and wise interventions of the most senior Christian leaders such as Archbishop Nichols.