Media reports today tell that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has urged for five days of prayer for the poor ahead of Brexit. Archbishop Welby acknowledges that it will be the poor and the most vulnerable who will suffer most in a time of political and economic uncertainty.
Perhaps the Archbishop might have said more about his own church’s contribution to the climate that created Brexit and offered a tangible response to demonstrate his solidarity with the poor.
The Church of England has spent most of the last generation arguing about the ordination of women and sexuality; it has torn itself apart over issues that the rest of society have long since resolved. Energies that might have been devoted to understanding the growing alienation of poor communities were instead spent on internal arguments.
The signs that white working class people were becoming angry at being the left behind, at being the unconsidered, were clear from 2004 onwards. The influx of cheap labour from Eastern Europe depressed wages and contributed to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The church upheld the Biblical call for a welcome to be extended to strangers, what was not heard was a demand that working people be properly rewarded, that immigration should not be at the expense of the poorest. The Church of England could have been a strong voice against the neo-liberal policies espoused by the European Union, instead such statements that were made were unheard by the people who were hurting. Archbishop Welby’s comments reported today talk of justice flowing like a river, it’s a pity that such justice took second place to the obscure theological wranglings that have caused such division that the Archbishop could not summon Anglican bishops from around the world to the ten yearly Lambeth Conference in 2018, nor is it likely he will ever be able to do so.
And what about a response? If the Archbishop is really concerned about justice, let he and his fellow prelates move out of their grand houses and move into something functional. Let the church sell the many period properties it retains, the deaneries and canons’ residences and rectories, and buy the sort of houses with which ordinary people might identify. The hundreds of millions raised might then be used on projects to re-engage with the poor communities the church has neglected.
Is it going to happen? Of course not. The bishops enjoy their elevated status. To the overwhelming majority of poor people, the church is a complete irrelevance; five days of prayer are not going to change things.