I have had an overwhelming response to an article I wrote this week on the government’s proposed benefit caps. As I stated in the article the initial proposal was defeated in the Lords thanks in no small part to the vocal opposition of a group of Bishops led by the Bishops of Ripon & Leeds, the Right Reverend John Packer. This, in turn, has sparked a mini debate about the role of the clergy in modern politics. Justin Parker, a political reporter for the BBC, asked the following question:

…is it right that unelected men of England’s established faith should seek to change the law?

It appears that these men have the same rights and entitlements in terms of voting as any other member of the house. They are known in political circles as the ‘Lords Spiritual’ , are not affiliated to any particular party and have been, apparently an ever-present force in the chamber dating back to the 14th Century (with a little break during the English Civil War, I understand :)) Read here for more details on this group and their role within the House of Lords. According to the CofE,

They “provide an important independent voice and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House and, while they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians”. In 1847 their number was restricted to 26. With 44 dioceses in the Church of England, this means that places are reserved for the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops Durham, London and Winchester. The other 21 go to the remaining bishops who have served the longest time in office. A “duty bishop” – worked out on a rota system – leads daily prayers in the chamber.

There are many groups opposed to the Anglican group and feel that the House of Lords would be better served by spiritual diversity but the Bishops maintain that they do not merely represent the Christian faith. From my perspective, and the perspective of this current debate, there is certainly a range of views from ‘Christians’ across all parties, the Lords and, indeed, Christian denominations.

As widely reported this week, Lord Carey has spoken publicly of his disagreement with the Bishop’s actions in voting against the proposed benefit caps. Here’s what he wrote in the papers:

Considering that the system they are defending can mean some families are able to claim a total of £50,000 a year in welfare benefits, the bishops must have known that popular opinion was against them, including that of many hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers. Yet these five bishops – led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds – cannot lay claim to the moral high-ground. The sheer scale of our public debt, which hit £1trillion yesterday, is the greatest moral scandal facing Britain today. If we can’t get the deficit under control and begin paying back this debt, we will be mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren.

His comments have been criticised by the Bishop of Leicester (read the full article here), writing in the Telegraph and quoting the Bishop of Dudley:

As the Bishop of Dudley has recently written: “Sadly there is much evidence now that attitudes in the country are hardening against the poor. Paradoxically the fewer jobs there are, the more we seem to be ready to blame those without work for their own plight. At the same time, the rhetoric of the debate on the Welfare Benefits suggests that we would rather see ten innocent people impoverished and humiliated than allow one to milk the system.

Perhaps my most favourite response has been from the ever balanced and never hysterical Daily Mail, who in response to the Bishops opposition ran the following headline:

Take a leaf out of Jesus’s book: Slash the cost of your luxury palaces by a quarter, senior bishops told

Warms the cockles of your heart doesn’t it to see such fair and balanced reporting? I think what worries me most is that this is turning into some sort of Anglican’s against the world type of debate in certain parts of the media. Yes, they spoke out against public opinion but they did it fairly and with the right motivation in terms of protecting the vulnerable. I’m not an Anglican but I applaud them for standing their ground on this one. Good on Lord Carey for speaking out and giving his view and good on Iain Duncan Smith for trying to come up with some workable solutions to our current benefits crisis. We don’t have to agree with them, and each other, all of the time but what it does is bring it out into the open so that it can be debated sensibly (Daily Mail aside).
I suppose my real question is: where is the evangelical church on this issue? Where are the major denominations and church groups, who speak for many hundreds of churches in the UK? Who is speaking out in Scotland? Should we be speaking out or just getting on with gospel work? That’s great in many places, but the majority of those we are reaching out to here in Niddrie are on benefits of one kind or another. I would really welcome any sensible dialogue on this one.
mez@niddrie.org – I won’t respond to trolling. Thanks 🙂
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