British cardinal Vincent Nichols leaves after the holy mass presided by pope Francis in St Peter's basilica at the Vatican on February 23, 2014.
Credit: Vincenzo Pinto

British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition government are hacking back Britain’s welfare bill. Now senior church leaders are speaking out, demanding welfare reform be reformed.

Church leaders of all denominations have spoken up.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, started the ball rolling earlier this month when he gave an interview calling the cuts “a disgrace.”

Nichols told the Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, that he understood that belt tightening to reduce the UK’s national deficit was necessary but, “The basic safety net that guaranteed people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart. It no longer exists. The administration of social assistance has become more and more punitive.” 

More people are using food banks, Nichols noted, and social assistance administration, he added, has become more punitive.

“For a country of our affluence,” he said, “that, quite frankly, is a disgrace.”

Then Thursday, in the tabloid Daily Mirror, nearly half of the bishops in the Church of England, the leadership of the Methodist Church and Quakers published a letter noting that half a million people had used food banks in the last year and 5,500 had been admitted to hospital for malnutrition.

The religious leaders called on the government to deal with the problem. 

Prime Minister David Cameron hit back saying getting people off welfare was a “moral mission.”

This prompted the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to weigh in. The church leaders were simply responding to “the upswell of feeling” in their parishes, he said. 

What is notable is that neither Welby nor Nichols is left-wing — quite the opposite. 

Welby is a former oil company executive and Nichols rose to prominence under the aegis of Pope John Paul II, as conservative a pope as a right-wing Catholics could hope to have.

If you have grown up in a country where the separation of church and state is a constitutional absolute it may be hard to understand just how big a stir these comments have created.

“There is a tradition of the church speaking out,” says Shirley Williams, aka Baroness Williams of Crosby. “This is due in part to the fact that the church has a constitutional role in Britain.”

Twenty-six Church of England bishops sit with Williams in the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK Parliament. These bishops are called “Lords Spiritual” and have the same power to scrutinize and suggest amendments to legislation as any other member of the upper house.

Williams, a Catholic and former head of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, says that this gives the Church in England significantly greater political power than “American evangelicals have” In the US.

Until the 1980s, these Lords Spiritual were pro-Establishment—in other words, conservative.

At the height of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Church of England published a study called Faith in the City, which looked at the increase in poverty as a result of her policies.

“The Church,” Williams points out, “has been more or less on the center or center-left ever since.”

Religion has been part of the discussion about welfare reform since Britain’s work and pensions secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, announced changes to the welfare system two years ago. Duncan Smith is a prominent lay Catholic and has often spoken of the moral case for welfare reform. Conservative journalists have described him as “messianic” when it comes to getting people off benefits.

But IDS, as everyone calls him, has run into harsh reality. “Catholic voters, vote to the left,” says Williams. So his own co-religionists disagree with many of the welfare changes.

Welfare in Britain has also been affected by privatization. Cameron’s government has hired a private firm, ATOS, to assess people claiming welfare benefits. ATOS has been notoriously harsh in assessing people’s claims. 

Finally, although unemployment rates are falling, many of the jobs being created are part-time and poorly paid. The result: more people turning to food banks and finding themselves homeless because they can no longer pay rent.

How far the church leaders’ public campaign will affect Cameron’s administration is uncertain. Melanie McDonagh, a conservative commentator, says, “I think the archbishop’s intervention has plainly stung the government.”

But McDonagh doesn’t think Nichols has suddenly lurched left.

“I don’t think the cardinal seeks to take on the government on the general issue of welfare reform, which has a good deal of public support,” she says.

Williams thinks the concerted efforts of various church leaders will have an effect.

“It’s a powerful message. Particularly at a local level. Conservative MPs will have active parishes, running food banks and they will be aware of the pressure to fix the system” they have put in place, she says.

These MP’s will also be aware of the calendar. They have one year until the next general election, and many will face tough battles for re-election. Don’t expect the cardinal, the archbishop or any other religious leader to ease their campaign to get welfare reform reformed.

More from GlobalPost: Pope Francis appoints clouded figure as financial reformer

Related Stories