Doing the splits

Like Mr Rochester's first wife, the misogyny and homophobia of the Church of England's factions keep

Pity the poor old Church of England. Desperate in its search for relevance in the face of shrinking congregations and wider public indifference, the Established Church could not have chosen two issues more likely to make it appear institutionally decrepit among those it wishes to proselytise than its perceived discrimination against women and gay people.

Like Mr Rochester's first wife, the misogyny and homophobia of its factions keep leaping out of the attic to scare off decent folk. No use conservative evangelicals and high church Anglo-Catholics insisting the Church's interminable internal rows are all about obedience to scriptural authority and the protection of tender consciences. What the public sees is arcane debates, conducted with a ferocity more in keeping with the 1980s Labour Party than an institution founded on hope and charity.

Although the Church's General Synod in York eventually voted in favour of consecrating female bishops and developing a code of practice to protect those who cannot bear the idea, it did so in defiance of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and a phalanx of bishops who wanted stronger safeguards to protect opponents of the move. There were tears from some of the men, and the Bishop of Winchester - a figure of limited congruence with modern life - denounced the vote as mean-spirited and short-sighted.

These are Anglicans, for goodness' sake, tearing each other apart. If it was some wacky American sect, the rest of us could chuckle and pass by, but this is the Established Church, with a presence in every parish in the country, an institution whose bishops get chosen - ultimately - by the Prime Minister, whose regulations have to get parliamentary approval and whose 26 most senior representatives, including Winchester, sit as of right in the House of Lords.

What has happened in the past few weeks is that the usual compromises that kept a disparate church together have finally come apart at the seams. In Jerusalem a meeting of Anglican conservatives, mainly from equatorial Africa, but also with those in revolt against the supposedly liberal churches of the British Isles and North America and their acceptance of homosexuals, has insisted it will set up a pure, self-selecting organisation, unsullied by the wicked compromises of liberalism. It is called, with touching naivety about the nature of acronyms, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. They are indeed Focas, say their liberal opponents.

The General Synod may be the last body in this country that can seriously debate whether women should have opportunities equal to men's (the Catholic Church, of course, does not have such facilities for debate), chiefly through the prism not of how to help women themselves, but of how to help the men who cannot stand the thought of being liturgically touched by a female bishop.

It is a neat inversion that all the debate in recent years - and the women's ordination issue has been dragging on in palsied fashion for more than three decades - should be about the tender consciences of men who have not hesitated to bully and threaten their fellow communicants to get their own way. If they didn't, they said, they would decamp to Rome, a prospect that many English Catholics view with distinctly mixed feelings. Why should they get an easy passage into the Catholic Church merely because they have fallen out politically with their old one?

When women were first ordained in 1994, about 500 Anglican clergy left the Church, fortified with financial compensation, and Catholics also got the likes of Ann Widdecombe and John Selwyn Gummer. Now more clergy are threatening to leave, many of them already retired.

And it is political. There are some distinctly musty forces here. A couple of years ago I had to ring up Forward in Faith, the high church group opposed to women's ordination, which has kept up a sneering and patronising barrage against the monstrous regiment of female priests. When I announced I was from the Guardian, the voice at the end of the line muttered, "Bloody communist rag."

The anti-women coalition is a curious alliance: the High Catholics, who believe women simply cannot be priests because it is a male ministry - "a woman can no more be a priest than a goat can be a Christian", in the charming words of one former stalwart - and the conservative evangelicals, who insist the Bible tells them that women cannot be in "headship" of any organisation, in church, in business or in the family. Both these groups in the broad church of Anglicanism otherwise have so little in common that they would get the vapours if forced to attend each other's services.

The same goes for the gay debate. In Jerusalem, African evangelicals teamed up with the conservative Archbishop of Sydney (a man who won't have female priests in his diocese) and smells-and-bells American Episcopalians, rather higher than the Pope, leading an insurgency against their Church's socially liberal leadership. (In the United States the Episcopal Church has had women bishops since the late 1980s, and now even has a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.)

These are marriages of convenience, aimed at wresting the Church in their particular direction and fuelled by fear that the battle might be lost. If only the outside world would see things their way, congregations would flood back. There is another view: "We have a special relationship with the cultural life of our country and we must not fall out of step with this if we are not to become absurd and incredible." Words written by one Rowan Williams - otherwise known as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Stephen Bates was the Guardian's religious affairs correspondent from 2000-2007 and is the author of "A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality" (Hodder, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.