Lifestyle & Belief

With new archbishop, Church of England exercises political power on welfare reform


The Most Reverend Justin Welby during his enthronement as the Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral on March 21, 2013 in Canterbury, England. He was enthroned in front of bishops and religious of the Anglican communion from around the world, the Prime Minister David Cameron, the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries.


Philip Toscan

LONDON — Last week the Roman Catholic church got a new pope. This week the Church of England got a new archbishop of Canterbury.

Thursday's enthronement of Justin Welby as the 105th archbishop was slightly less grand than that of Francis. But that's the Anglican way: understated, like good British tailoring. 

Pope Francis didn't have African drummers bring a bit of liveliness to the proceedings, but Archbishop Justin specifically added them to the ceremony to represent the time in his life when he was an oil company executive based in Nigeria.

What the two men seem to have in common is a faith-derived focus on the poor, a focus that if expressed by secular leaders would see them branded as liberals.

A key difference is that the archbishop is in a position to practically do something about it, not just in leadership of his church, but via the political process in Britain.

There is no separation of church and state in the UK. The  Church of England is the "established" church. Twenty-six of its bishops sit in the House of Lords where they play an active part in shaping the law of the land.

Forty percent of people in England consider themselves members of the ‘C of E,’ but only 1.6 million go to a Sunday service during the course of a month. This gives extra importance to the political platform of the Lords Spiritual to argue for their world view.

Two weeks ago, huge headlines were generated when The Sunday Telegraph — the Conservative establishment newspaper — ran a letter signed by 43 bishops criticizing the Conservative-led coalition government's welfare reform plans. 

The bishops claimed the plans would, "have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty."

"The letter represents a concern on the part of the Church for the society within which we live," says one of the letter's authors, the Right Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Prime Minister David Cameron froze child benefits (payments directly to families to help the cost of child-rearing) when the Conservatives came to power almost three years ago. They are proposing a 1 percent annual increase the next two years.

At a time when inflation is nosing around 3 percent a year, that means a real-terms cut of nearly 12 percent since the party came to power. The archbishop did not sign the letter — because of his office — but it would not have been written without his approval.

Justin told the Telegraph, "It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognizes the rising costs of food, fuel and housing. The current benefits system does that, by ensuring that the support struggling families receive rises with inflation."

He added, “These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the government.”

To what degree is the Anglican Church's activism on behalf of the poor a question of politics or belief? "It has to do with our faith as Christians," says Bishop Packer. "It's part of God's plan.  It comes out of a Biblical desire and command to serve those least able to defend themselves."

When the bishop debates in the House of Lords, however, he doesn't use such pulpit language. The arguments against the government's bill are wholly economic and political. He explains, "60 percent of savings fall on the least wealthy third, and 3 percent on the most wealthy third. This is not an appropriate division of pain."

The House of Lords is an anomaly. All power in the British political system rests in the House of Commons. Legislation originates there. The Lords can only "scrutinize" and make suggestions for amendments.

The Commons is free to ignore the Lords’ advice. They frequently do. The whole system survives on lots of gentlemanly back-channel discussions. It is not a way of governing suited for modern times: an over-powerful but elected Lower House and an unelected Upper House with no statutory check-and-balance authority.

The anachronistic situation effects the spiritual side of the church's mission. 

"I don't think it's the ideal way to express the relationship of church and state," says Bishop Packer. "But it comes out of our long history. Certainly no one would invent the system we've got."

But for an American for whom separation of church and state is like the Eleventh Commandment, it is fascinating to watch the "established" church argue in the political arena. Last month, the House of Commons voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Archbishop Justin was against the measure.

On the issue of poverty and welfare reform, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds admits the government also has the upper hand. "As for this current bill … I think it is likely we will get soothing words."

He doesn't sound terribly optimistic he will get anything more.