The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby riled the government by speaking out against the drivers of inequality this week.
In a speech at the TUC conference, he attacked the Universal Credit welfare system, Amazon’s tax affairs, payday lender Wonga, the need for food banks and night shelters, and called the gig economy and zero-hours contracts the “reincarnation of an ancient evil”.
“Dreaming” of governments putting church-run food banks “out of business” and achieving “empty night shelters”, Welby urged this government to stop rolling out its flagship benefit reforms “if they cannot get it right”. He highlighted that food bank use had gone up in areas where Universal Credit operates.
Inevitably, and predicted by Welby himself, Conservatives have responded by saying he should keep out of politics and stick to religion.
“There are a diversity of views as to what is best for the economy, but [he] only seems interested in presenting John McDonnell’s point of view,” grumbled Tory MP Charles Walker. His fellow Tory MP Ben Bradley tweeted: “Not clear to me when or how it can possibly be appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be appearing at TUC conference or parroting Labour policy.”
But this view of a suddenly Woke Welby, jumping on the Corbynite bandwagon, is wilfully wrong. Welby has been warning about corporate charlatans – and punitive government policy that exacerbates poverty – for years.
In his first political intervention since taking office as Archbishop in March 2013, he voiced his views on welfare cuts, warning against the government’s decision to cap benefits below inflation.
“It is essential that we have a welfare system that responds to need and recognises the rising costs of food, fuel and housing…” he said in a statement issued by Lambeth Palace. “These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the government.”
And just a few months after he became Archbishop in 2013, Welby used one of his first big print interviews to reveal he’d met with the head of Wonga and warned him that by developing credit unions: “We’re trying to compete you out of existence”. (“Well he’s gone!” he quipped five years on from this in his TUC speech, following the recent news of Wonga’s demise).
Tory politicians may disagree with his views but they can’t act surprised that he holds them – not least because his warning against Wonga paid off. As a former oil executive (he worked in the industry for 11 years before leaving for the church in 1987), he brings the nous of a business insider as well as ethics to his views on the injustice financial interests can cause.
Conservatives can’t really argue with his qualification to hold his views. Churches, particularly those in inner-city London and deprived areas throughout the country, have been filling in for where stretched government provision has left a vacuum.
Churches are often the location of food banks, night shelters for homeless people, and simply the only place to turn for companionship and some shelter for people living in poverty or suffering from mental health problems who have been allowed to slip through the net of every service that is supposed to help them.
While out reporting, I’ve heard from priests who have described their job as more like that of a social worker.
In fact, in 2015 the Church of England used this expertise to publish its first ever letter to voters on how to approach a general election.
This document accused society of treating “the poor and vulnerable as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed”, warned against “grinding the faces of the poor” while trying to reduce the deficit, accused the government of not “adequately protect[ing]” worse-off people “from the impact of recession”, and warned against the “scroungers” narrative against benefit claimants:
“ . . . when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state.”
Conservatives might not want to hear about the failings of their welfare reforms or the excesses of corporate greed and an unjust taxation system, but Welby and his workers are pretty well-placed to comment on the consequences.