We are living through a very significant historical change: the collapse of the historic churches which have shaped British society and culture. The Church of England, by law established, leads the way. Our YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates poll this year shows that in Britain today only 11% of young people in their twenties call themselves Anglican, compared to nearer half of over-70s. The challenge facing the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is to address this decline.
Providing care for the poorest in society has historically been an important part of the Church’s business. In the mid-twentieth century it joined forces with the state to nationalise this work. When the Thatcher government started to challenge the welfare consensus, the Church of England was quick to leap to the defence of the poor. Its 1985 report Faith in the City greatly irritated Mrs Thatcher, just as Mrs Thatcher’s “Sermon on the Mound” greatly irritated the clergy.
At the time I was near the heart of this, in my first job teaching in an Anglican theological college. In the wake of Faith in the City it had been decreed that the students should be bundled off to “urban priority areas” to “get alongside the poor” and win their clerical spurs. Despite good intentions, I found the whole thing patronising and economically naïve. Quite a lot of “the poor” didn’t seem to want to be got alongside. There was a very obvious gender bias: it was about male clergy supporting working-class men. And underpinning it all was a way of thinking that had lots to say about wealth distribution but gave no thought to wealth creation.
Fast forward to the last Archbishop, Rowan Williams, a self-confessed “beardy leftie.” Under his benevolent rule, the Church’s focus on social justice remained much the same as in the 1980s – despite the fact that the baggy and patronising category of “the poor” with its overtones of white and working class was in need of a serious rethink. Society has changed. The 2011 Census finds that 97% of houses now have central heating. In a privileged country with an increasingly complex class system and multiple inequalities, who are the poor today? What about asylum seekers? Single mothers? People in the country illegally? The focus of concern is no longer clear.
A further problem is that when church leaders stand up to defend the welfare state against cuts, they’re out of step with their own members, not to mention a majority of the British people. Turning to our YouGov poll again, even more Anglicans have “free market” than “social welfare” values than the general population – who are tilted in that direction too. Nearly 70% of Anglicans believe that the welfare system has created a culture of dependency – which is almost 10 percentage points more than the general population. And just under half of all Anglicans, churchgoing or not, think that Mrs Thatcher did more good for Britain than Tony Blair, compared with 38% of the general population (16% of Anglicans think Tony Blair did more good, compared with 18% of the general population).
What’s more, people see that the Church is not wholehearted about social justice. The Church is seen to have blocked full equality for women in its own ranks, and to have fought a losing battle against first civil partnerships and now gay marriage. One of Justin Welby ’s earliest contributions to public life as new Archbishop was to speak out strongly in the Lords against the legislation on gay marriage. But Anglicans opinion is now against him, and amongst young people overwhelmingly so. Our poll asked people under 24 who held negative views about the CofE why they did so, and the answer they favour is: “the church is too prejudiced – it discriminates against women and gay people.”
The problem is, the Church can’t claim to be pro justice and equality for “the poor,” but against it for women and gay people. It doesn’t compute. With the Church of England in crisis, there are more urgent things for it to worry about than augmenting the welfare state. It has to get its own house in order before it can speak credibly about social justice.
Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. She researches religion around the world, and is particularly interested in charting rapid religious change since the 1980s. She was Director of the £12m AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme (2007 to 2013) which commissioned 75 separate projects. Her most recent books are Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (ed) and A Sociology of Religious Emotion. Together with Charles Clarke, she founded and organises the Westminster Faith Debates.