Monday, 30 January 2012

Bishops bully Bullingdon boys

If I was Rowan Williams I think I would be rather flattered by the picture published by The Sun today. Rowan is portrayed as a Lenin type figure from the old communist propaganda posters and comes across as rather dashing in a The Matrix meets Dr Who sort of way.


The picture accompanies a rather silly article by Trevor Kavanagh in which he claims that the bishops have bullied the Government by opposing its proposed welfare cap legislation. Kavanagh is The Sun’s former political editor and the piece is fairly typical of the fare he churned out throughout his time at the newspaper. Here’s a taste of what he wrote:

WHEN unelected bishops use the House of Lords to bully an elected government, it is time to wonder not just at their monstrous cheek, but why they are there at all.
Last week, they sabotaged a £26,000-per-family welfare cap on the grounds that it was "too harsh".

Millions of Sun readers would give their eye teeth for an income like that — equal to £35,000 before tax. Indeed, since many struggle to bring up kids on a far smaller income, they want to know why the cap was set so generously high. So do respected anti- poverty campaigners including Labour MP Frank Field, despite party leader Ed Miliband's opportunistic bleating.
Parish priests, poor as church mice on £22,000 a year, also ask why their prelates are so generous with other people's money…
But the point is not simply that plump, well-fed bishops are so out of touch with modern Britain.
Anyone witnessing the empty pews on a Sunday morning can tell the Church of England has long lost its moral compass. It has abandoned the moral codes that bound its congregations, choosing to "understand" transgressors rather than upholding the Ten Commandments. It has nothing significant to say to 21st Century Christians about jobs, education or the economy. Rather than confront these crucial challenges, it ties itself in knots with sulphurous rows about gay marriage and women bishops.
Under Marxist Arch Druid Rowan Williams, the Church has deserted the ecclesiastical battlefield and surrendered to muscular Islam.
Kavanagh was not the only one to attack the bishops and he refers to an ill judged piece written for the Daily Mail by George Carey former  Archbishop of Canterbury. Last week Carey opined:
When the Church of England bishops voted against the Government’s proposal to cap welfare benefits at £26,000 a year, I have no doubt they did so because they believed it was their duty to speak up for the very poorest in society — especially those voiceless children who, through no fault of their own, might suffer as a result.
As the bishops pushed for an amendment to the Government cap which means that families can still claim £50,000 a year in benefits, they must have known the popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers. They also knew that the case for welfare reform had been persuasively made, even if they didn’t agree with it. Yet these five bishops — led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds — cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground.
I say ill judged because both Carey and Kavanagh have chosen to ignore one basic fact; the bishops did not oppose the Government’s proposal to cap welfare. What the bishops did do was propose an amendment so that Child Benefit was not included in the cap. In an excellent piece written in The Telegraph Tim Stevens the Bishop of Leicester responded to Carey’s criticism:
Though he ceased to be Archbishop of Canterbury nearly a decade ago, Lord Carey, as a life peer, is entitled to express his opinions on issues of national importance. But the point of debate in Parliament is that we listen to each others views before making up our minds. Many Peers last Monday were persuaded to support the Bishops’ amendment by the power of the arguments they heard. This makes it all the more disappointing to me that Lord Carey was not present to hear them.
Yet much of what Lord Carey had to say this week accords with the views of the Bishops. Firstly, I and most within the Church have supported the principle of a reduction in the welfare budget. We have listened carefully to the arguments that a cap on benefits is necessary, even if we retain concerns about its application.
Secondly, we did not vote against the cap itself, even if we have questions about the principle. We agree wholeheartedly that work is the best route out of poverty and that reducing state dependency is an overall necessity. On all that we agree.
However, I disagree profoundly with the Government’s and Lord Carey’s view that our action in the Lords was about prolonging a culture of welfare dependency, or the implication that increased material poverty for some is a price worth paying to alleviate what some have described as the poverty of aspiration. Like others in the Church, I see the real effects of poverty on families and communities in my own diocese on a regular basis.
Child Benefit has always been a benefit paid to working and non-working families. It has not previously been means-tested and is payable to the main carer, to help with the cost of having children. For many it is a lifeline. And like access to the NHS, it has long been a central plank of this country’s universalist approach to social security. That universalism is now being eroded.
Much has been made of the principle of fairness in access to state support. But is it fair to children that a two earner family of any size with a household income in excess of £80,000 a year could still receive Child Benefit from the Government, yet under the welfare plans a child born to a large family with a benefit income of £26,000 would receive no financial support?
The Bishops’ amendment simply sought to exclude Child Benefit from the cap, to ensure that some financial support is still provided for each of the estimated 220,000 children who might otherwise be adversely affected.
Exempting Child Benefit will help prevent many children falling into serious poverty and could protect against family break up, or even homelessness.
This is hardly the raging of a group of Marxist militants seeking to destroy an elected Government. It is the reasoned argument of a small group of bishops who persuaded a majority in the House of Lords to support their amendment. Of course this has not stopped Kavanagh and his mates in the press railing against the bishops despite the fact that their basic premise is false, but then when has The Sun and The Daily Mail allowed the facts to get in the way of a good rant?

There was one journalist who went out of her way to stick up for the bishops. Victoria Coren wrote a piece in The Observer commenting on a Question Time discussion about the bishops and their amendment and commented:
The issue of the bishops blocking a benefit cap in the House of Lords was debated by everyone, on the panel and in the audience, purely in terms of whether or not they agreed with the "rebels". This reflects the way the story has been reported and discussed generally. It is as though the country has become so atheist, it has actually forgotten that bishops are men of God and the gospels.
They are talked about as rich men with no idea that £26,000 is a fortune for some, or leftie men being typically obstructive, or naive men who don't realise the coffers are empty, but never as Christian men who are perhaps just trying to say what they think Jesus would have said. I'm not saying I agree with them. I do think the benefits cap argument is riddled with false logic, and the surrounding debate pernicious when it encourages the working poor to blame their struggles on the non-working poorer, rather than, say, greedy banking practice and the governments that pave its way.
On the other hand, I'm as frightened as anyone by the idea of generations growing up who have never known waged income, or who might actually choose a life on welfare over an attempt to look for work. I'm not immune to a shudder at the thought of people sitting on their fat arses in front of Jeremy Kyle on the flatscreen, sharing a KFC bucket with their pit-bull half-breed, thumping their step-children and drinking my tax money.
But I'm not a bishop. It doesn't matter whether I think they're right or wrong; I think it's their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.
The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it's happening, they hate it. I think the problem they've got is that the New Testament, if read as an economic tract, is innately rather socialist. It's all sharey-sharey. Jesus wanted everyone to get a bit of bread and fish. He was all about the divvying up and the helping one's neighbour. So, if Christianity is going to make itself heard on tax-and-spend policies, it has got to lean towards spreading the spoils around.
There's not much the bishops can do about that. Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they'd really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.
Contrast what Coren wrote with Carey's pension padding piece for The Daily Mail. In summing up the debate I leave the last word with her:
For the health of the debate, and fully to reflect the range of national opinion, it is vital that some people argue vehemently for reductions in welfare, or even the complete abolition of handouts. But it would be bloody terrifying if the church were among them.


UKViewer said...

What I find so frightening about this comment and another in the Times is the apparent disregard for what the actual role of the Bishop's in Parliament is. They're there to provide a viewpoint from their position as Shepherds of their flocks within the Church. This must be based on the Gospel, or they shouldn't be there.

The ignorance of this displayed by the media (apart from Victoria Coren) be breath taking. Their stance is purely mercenary, as the media is all closely tied to one or other of the political parties and tend to echo their viewpoint.

As a former Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey is careless of his status as a 'retired Arch Bishop' who still holds that position within the Church. His political views are unrepresentative of a large number of the people of the country, and are uncharitable and unchristian.

Revsimmy said...

Although I would never claim to be a huge Victoria Coren fan, I must admire her for the way in which she actually listens to what the bishops are saying and for the way in which she "gets" that the Christian faith is not some abstract, private worldview but is intended to make a material difference in the real world.

And if George Carey is so concerned about the immorality of debt, I do hope that he is taking the opportunity to suuport CAP and other organisations who are trying to do something practical about it.

Revsimmy said...

BTW, do you think we could get the SUn to produce a full-size poster of this image? I'd like one for my study wall.