Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Friday, 28 February 2014

Would you credit it?

Debt is one of the greatest curses of modern society. Our global capitalist economy is built on it and in 2008 crashed because the bankers mismanaged it. Easy credit, doorstep lenders, pay day loans and the Wonga wonderland blight the lives of many Britons, especially in the poorest communities.
Of course this is nothing new. The Scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths condemn usury, making it clear in numerous places that money lending at interest is against God's will. The OT law codes set up a principle for the forgiveness of debts in the Sabbath year and Jubilee year. Jesus highlighted the need to forgive debts in the prayer he taught us, proclaimed the jubilee and told stories involving loan sharks. We might be better as a society if we followed the Bible literally in economics, though I guess the economists would come up with all the arguments that would predict disaster if we did so.
Older generations of Christians were very reluctant to get into debt, perhaps because the consequences of doing so – destitution, shame and prison – were so harsh. In our family we still pursue that policy and apart from a mortgage on the house we never borrow at interest. We also learned long ago never to lend money to our friends who were always skint. It's much more honest to help them out with a gift, often repeated gifts, with no expectation of repayment or shame if they can't. That anyway is the way we read the sermon on the mount (Mt. 5;42) When we surveyed evangelical Christians in 2012 about money we found much of this ethos persists, especially among older people. 58% said they had no debts at all and only about 10% said they were at ease with borrowing money when they wanted to purchase something other than a house. Perhaps these figures reflected the relative affluence of this group of Christians.
It's relatively easy to preach against debt when we don't have any ourselves, But that has the tendency to heap blame and shame on the desperate and destitute, those who see little prospect of surviving without borrowing. The Christian call for justice must surely be directed against the lenders, especially the ones who profiteer by imposing astronomical rates of interest on the poor. Groups like Church Action on Poverty have campaigned for many years on these issues and deserve our support. Meanwhile many churches have teamed up with Christians Against Poverty to help get people out of the financial mess they have been seduced into by the power of marketing.
The Archbishop of Canterbury made a famous intervention in 2013 in what I like to call his Justin's Wonga Twilight speech By setting up a chain of credit unions to outcompete the payday lenders. It was rather embarrassing when it was discovered the church commissioner had some investments in Wonga. More significantly he has presented a bit of a conundrum for the church on the ground in deprived communities – How best can a parish with limited resources and capacity find the energy and resources to develop or support credit unions?
The Church Urban Fund has done some research and produced a briefing paper on what churches can do. Two of the five suggestions are around learning and education about credit unions and are not difficult or controversial. The third is about encouraging people to join and save with a credit union. This is no doubt a good and noble thing to do when you have some money, as it is an ethical investment, with a decent rate of return. It doesn't directly help the financially excluded or those who are already in serious debt. But it does provide some help to those who might otherwise get eaten by sharks.
The idea of volunteering to serve as a trustee of a credit union is also useful, but it can only apply for a few people who have the necessary business skills and time available, and you won't find many of them in the average church on a council estate in the North of England. The last suggestion is to make church halls available for credit unions to use. However, it's not clear to me that this is what today's credit unions actually want – in the 1980s credit unions operated in small amounts of cash with weekly collecting sessions, and with management boards from a local neighbourhood who all knew each other. Maybe it's a pity that sense of trust in the personal common bond has gone – but to be a viable credit union today you need economies of scale.
This week I heard a presentation from the Blackpool and Fylde Credit Union. They are working with Preston Council with a view to extending their field of operation into our city. They've only been going a few years, have over 3000 members and a turnover of several millions. They are more or less self sustaining now, with enough income to support seven staff and offer a 3% dividend on top of interest to their members. They have achieved this by scaling up and by operating without ever handling cash. Money can be paid in at post offices and Paypoint corner shops, or by standing order, direct debit or online, and taken out at cash machines. Lots of other workplace and community credit unions now work on these lines. And I can't wait till it gets up and running in Preston.
Now here's the rant. Sadly no credit union is going to make much difference to people who are financially excluded. Even a credit union has to take up credit references before it can lend to a customer, though it may be more generous than most. It's just not economic to offer short term loans of small amounts as the costs of arranging them can cost more than the loan itself. The best it can offer to people in serious debt is a payday killer product that will settle the debts with Wonga or the like, and pay off the capital at a much lower rate of interest. So the people in deepest trouble can't really expect much.
Destitution is growing as evidenced by the foodbank boom and is mainly driven by welfare reform especially benefit sanctions. What can Christians or other concerned people usefully do. Sometimes the best thing is just to be generous giving in money and kind and friendship and support to people who are in a financial mess. There is of course a challenge there to get to know such people personally – which is hard to do if you insist on living in the affluent white highlands. But there is also a cry to campaign for justice – we need laws that will put some cap on interest rates, and will tax until the pips squeak the ill gotten gains of the legal loan sharks. Finally we need planning laws that will enable local councils and communities to drive the payday loan shops (and the betting shops) out of the High Street. And if you are a preacher.. and you like a rant and believe the Bible… here maybe is your text for next Sunday. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. And of course supporting credit unions is an essential element of the gospel, for as Christians have proclaimed for nearly 2000 years, "JESUS SAVES".

Latest stats on benefits sanctions

The total number of sanctions imposed on benefit claimants in the year to September 2013 was 897,690 – the highest figure for any 12-month period since jobseeker's allowance was introduced in 1996 – according to figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions.
    and you wonder why food bank usage has rocketed..

Thursday, 27 February 2014

and a couple of recent book reviews

Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Public Theology in a Post-secular Age
Author(s): Elaine Graham

ISBN-13: 9780334045984 ISBN-10: 0334045983 Publisher: SCM Press Published: 31/07/2013 Format: Paperback RRP: £55.00

Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Public Theology in a Post-secular Age
Author(s): Elaine Graham ISBN-13: 9780334045984 ISBN-10: 0334045983 Publisher: SCM Press Published: 31/07/2013 Format: Paperback RRP: £55.00

Review by Greg Smith

Elaine Graham has produced this important and unique book which should become essential reading for anyone who wants to think deeply about how Christians can speak effectively and with integrity, truth and grace into contemporary public debates. It is a well researched and fully referenced academic text, yet easily readable by the non-specialist. She draws on an an amazingly wide knowledge of the theological literature but is able to ground her thinking in the realities of everyday politics and church life.

The first part of the book is a survey of how we have arrived where we are in terms of the relationship between religion and politics. Graham describes two contradictory trends, on the one hand the revival of faith-based engagement in public sphere, while on the other there is the continuing - perhaps intensifying - questioning of the legitimacy of religion in public life. She discusses how this shapes the environment which she and other scholars describe as post-secularity, a space where there are new opportunities and new challenges for people of faith to be involved in public life and social welfare. Yet for Christians to navigate their way through the rapidly changing currents, in a globally connected but locally diverse environment is far from easy – and this is the basis for her title suggesting we are caught between a rock and a hard place. However, she applies this metaphor in a variety of different contexts, which makes it somewhat frustrating to define what the rock and the hard place actually are. It might be more appropriate, to talk about being between Scylla and Charibdys (if only we all still had a classical education, though at least one can google it!) as public life today can seem more like the churning of breakers on the rocks on the one side and the vortex of a whirlpool on the other.

It's impossible in a short review to pick up on many of the theological themes and issues. Broadly speaking Graham critiques both liberal theology and radical orthodoxy as failing to provide a meeting place between the Scriptures and the Christian world-view with the political and public culture of our times. She advocates Christian realism, which draws on the Anglican social theology associated with William Temple as a more fruitful approach. She adds to this insights from Catholic Social Teaching, and Protestant thinkers such as Max Stackhouse and Luke Bretherton As a feminist theologian, Graham points out many areas where a gendered perspective offers insights and challenges to public theology, though I think she manages to steer clear of post-modernist approaches which would offer so many diverse perspectives on life, and so many idiosyncratic readings of the Bible that the whole notion of a public sphere would disintegrate.

Though Elaine Graham does not “come out” as an Evangelical she expresses some sympathies for those who she labels, “Classically Evangelical, World-Affirming”, and draws on our recent Evangelical Alliance research programme to present a balanced view of the depth, diversity and political spectrum of British evangelicalism. However, the chapter on evangelicalism starts off in the wrong place, with the title of “Crusades and Culture Wars”. This approach buys into the popular stereotypical narrative, that fails to distinguish fundamentalism from evangelicalism, and paints all Biblical Christians as clones of the American “moral majority”. In a book such as this it is appropriate, even essential, to describe and analyse the recent court cases and campaigns on marriage and sexuality . It is fair enough to critique the practice of “evangelical identity politics” and the evangelical tendency to “address culture – but not to listen to it” as ineffective, negative sounding, and perhaps counter productive. Indeed we need as evangelicals to grapple in depth with the issues raised here, if we are to speak both faithfully, prophetically and at the same time constructively in public debates. It would be too easy for example to continue as we did a few decades back when Monty Python's “Life of Brian” was dismissed by most Church spokesmen in the media as blasphemous, when perhaps what we should have been doing was enjoying the humour and laughing along with Cleese, Palin and co., exploring why their satire of false religion was so well targeted, and suggesting what a true Messiah could do for people in the present day.
The final chapters are hopeful ones as Elaine Graham sketches out a scenario whereby a commitment by Christians to public theology can become an effective form of apologetics. She draws on the New Testament, especially 1 Peter, and early church history to show how the first Christians spoke into the public realm. She then suggests that today's apologetics need to move on from defending propositional truths about God, the Bible and Christian doctrines to showing by debate and practice that Christian values, and the theological understandings behind them, are a solid foundation for community, economic and political life. To do this effectively across the many diverse areas of life, politics, the law, business, education, health, international relations etc. will demand not just a few church leaders who are media savvy, but a whole cadre of believers, who are theologically literate and able to apply faith-based thought, and make it explicit publicly in their own specialist fields. This I would suggest is what public leadership is all about. What may be more difficult, and I think Elaine Graham has not spelled it out in sufficient depth in the book, is to do this in a world of instant global communication. How do we as Christians counter the dominant narratives of the public media, which frame and circumscribe what we are able to say, and favour knockabout arguments to measured debate? Furthermore with multiple broadcast channels, and the rise of personally networked social media, how can we speak our public theology into a truly public space rather than just to our own friends, or within our own Church institutions. Another book on the public communication of public theology in a networked society of virtually or physically gated communities would be a worthwhile sequel.

I'd encourage you to read “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”. However, one has to say it is scandalous, and an inexplicable practice of the academic publishing industry to price this volume at £55, especially when the text could have been posted online and made available to a much wider audience at almost zero cost. So I can't encourage you to buy the book – if you have that sort of money to spare in these austere times it would be better to donate it to TEAR fund or your local food bank.

Military Chaplaincy in Contention

Edited by Andrew Todd; published by Ashgate ISBN 978-1-4094-3158-9) joint review with Anthony Riley.. published in Crucible autumn 201

a couple of other recent rants

Just published this...and got a response from Clifford Longley..

Greg Smith, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation issues a challenge to advocates of common good: is it as a theology adequate to meet the radical changes of our time?

And another piece I've written, just published on the Church Action On Poverty
Blog. Benefit Sanctions - immoral and ineffective


Welfare and Poverty ... Why Are Church Leaders out of step with their flocks?

 by Greg Smith... Honorary Senior Research Fellow, William Temple Foundation

In recent weeks Church leaders of many different denominations have raised their voices about the rise of food banks and the poverty and destitution inflicted on the most vulnerable through the government's welfare reform as reported by Church Action on Poverty's Niall Cooper and in the Church Times.


At the same time research by Professor Linda Woodhead based on a you gov survey reported in the Church Times and the Daily Telegraph suggests that the majority of lay Christians take a much more pro government line on welfare reform. In fact the analysis suggests that Christian laity in general and Anglicans in particular are somewhat more negative about benefit claimants and poverty issues than the general population and non religious. The main tables giving the breakdowns by religion on two statements on welfare cuts and welfare dependency are found on p 44 of this document A theos poll reported in the Guardian suggests the same findings.

Now it could be possible to critique the survey and the data analysis on technical grounds, (and I have corresponded with Linda about this). For example one could question the wording of the statements that were used in the survey, and the categories used for defining nominal adherents and churchgoing active believers, or for denominational labels. Or there is the possibility that the correlations between social class, age and gender of church attendance mask the effects of religion on its own. However the statisticians who worked on the survey have taken this into account and the main pattern cannot be denied. Church goers in general, and Anglicans in particular are slightly but significantly more hostile to the workless poor than the general population, and well out of step with what bishops and other church leaders have been saying in their critique of government policy.

On the other hand there are signs that the public, and the Christian public are more charitable towards the poor than the survey suggests. Christians are at the heart of the charitable response through food banks, soup kitchens and job clubs with the essential donations of food, money and unpaid voluntary work that keeps them going. In a 2012 survey of 1237 evangelicals (p10-11) 92% agreed "it is every Christians duty to help those in poverty" and 77% that "the government should make sure that the richest people in the country should pay higher levels of tax." However, in the same survey 68% agreed that "too many people have become dependent on state benefits and could do more to help themselves". Christians may well be personally generous and even egalitarian in outlook, but the majority do seem to have accepted the common narrative about the supposed problem of welfare dependency.

As someone working for the churches in the promotion of anti poverty programmes I take it for granted that the bishops are on the side of the angels in this debate, and that the immoral, cruel and misguided policy to cut holes in the welfare safety and to discipline the unemployed (and unemployable) by destitution and dependency on food banks must be resisted. So how come the church leaders "get it" and the public, including the Christian public, do not?

I think we should consider at least five possible reasons why which church leaders are untypically wise about poverty in the UK today.

  • They see through the ideology and spin of the media.

Over many years the majority of the media, most of which is controlled by and serves the interests of capital has been promoting the neo-liberal project which aims to transfer wealth and income from the poor to the wealthy elite. A discourse has been constructed which frames welfare claimants as scroungers, the undeserving poor who have become hopelessly dependent on state handouts. Whether it is the tabloid papers linking workless families with horrendous crime as in the case of Mick Philpott, or the TV programmes that have been described as "poverty porn" such as C4's Benefits street, the poor have been portrayed as deviant. Labeling and victim blaming are commonplace. In contrast church leaders still have a critical faculty, and have the ability to carry out their own policy research which provides an alternative narrative. We frequently pray for church leaders to have the spirit of wisdom and understanding so is it a surprise that they are able to discern the differnce between truth and lies.? http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty/

  • They are more in touch with the poor

Unlike many in the professional classes many clergy and church workers remain in day to day contact with the poorest in society. The Church of England, the Church of Scotland and to a lesser extent the Roman Catholic Church maintains a parochial and pastoral presence in every neighbourhood in the land, including the most deprived communities. Methodism and the Salvation Army have intentionally sought to maintain their ministry among the least and the lost. Even in more affluent areas the church is seen as an organization that will help those in need when no one else will, and people in great need turn up in church or knock on the vicarage door. Ministers of religions are trained to listen to people's stories, and for the sake of Christ, and/or the reputation of their church will help as they are able. And even though bishops and senior leaders may be more removed from the life of the streets, they will hear stories and reports of what the church is doing locally, and be asked to represent these realities to the public, and to the government.

  • They have a theology and reading of the Scripture which is deeper and more serious than that of the laity. It is a theology that recognizes that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ consistently exercises and demands a preferential option for the poor.

Full time ministers and ordained clergy can sometimes take for granted the immense privilege of their theological and spiritual formation. Not only will they have had an opportunity to read and reflect upon the whole of Scripture that is rarely given to the most avid Bible reader in their congregations. They will have been given a framework which provides a grand narrative, a big story of salvation history. Within that framework it is almost impossible to avoid grappling with questions of wealth and poverty, justice, compassion and solidarity which are major themes in Scripture and Christian tradition. For those who studied theology or trained for ministry since the 1970's the influence of theologies of liberation will have been encountered and have made their mark. Yet in many churches the average person in the pew has not appropriated a theology or a practice that goes much beyond some simple foundations. For many the gospel boils down to a couple of sentences, which are unlikely to include the word "poor".. God loves me and forgives my sins. In return I am expected to try to love God and my neighbour as myself, and as a result I will go to heaven when I die.

  • The clergy are more communitarian than the laity

While perhaps the majority of the population has accepted the neo liberal definition of the person as an individual consumer, church leaders for social as well as theological reasons tend to resist this heresy. They are by definition committed to an institution (the Holy Catholic Church) which spans the centuries and embraces people of every tribe and nation, social class, age and gender. Relationships are central, modeled theologically on the Divine Trinity, the church as the body of Christ, and the foundation that "I am indeed by brother or sister's keeper. While an ordinary citizen or church member can look after themselves, and maybe their family and choose their friends, a church leader has responsibilities towards a wider community. Some lay Christians behave as consumers of religious and spiritual products according to market rationality, and some churches, especially in the evangelical world have tailored their offerings to satisfy the market. However, for clergy who seek to minister to the whole community, in accordance with the charge and calling they have received, niche marketing is not so easy. There are expectations that they will speak up for and do good to the poorest and most vulnerable as representatives of Christ and the church.

  • Most Church leaders today are from an age cohort and possibly a social class background that has benefitted from the welfare state and lived their formative years through the Thatcherite revolution..

People born in the 1950's or 1960's are now in senior leadership positions in the main churches. They are the generation that took for granted the National Health Service, social security and free education leading to social mobility. Even if they themselves came from privileged backgrounds they were likely to have seen welfare provision as a noble thing, a national treasure. This was the generation of clergy who most likely did their training and curacies in the Thatcher decade, in the ferment of debates triggered by the 1985 Faith in the City report. Many current bishops served their time in UPA parishes, and similar experiences were common in the Free and Roman Catholic churches. It is in the DNA of such leaders that they will not let social progress be destroyed by right wing politicians.

So the church leaders who are now speaking up courageously for justice are doing what is right, well founded in Scripture, and natural for them as a result of their formation. However, if survey findings are correct, the great failure of church leaders is that over the last three decades they have not successfully taught or discipled ordinary church members to recognize the truth about contemporary capitalist society, or communicated the essential Biblical truths about community, social justice and the oppression of the poor. The challenge for church leaders is to move beyond the current bi-polar approach of preaching a domesticated gospel in church on Sundays and issuing prophetic calls for justice in the media and the House of Lords on weekdays, towards the effective communication of the whole counsel of God in word and deed so that the whole church can be involved in the mission of God every day of their lives. It will no doubt be doubly difficult, in an age where hierarchical authority is constantly questioned, and when the integrity, and progressive credentials of the mainline churches are often ridiculed because of the divisive debates and institutional politics over gender equality and sexuality.