Sunday, 23 February 2014

Getting back to the purpose of welfare

This last week has seen quite a lot of activity about welfare with comments on the affects the changes are having on the poorest in our country.  First, the now Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster challenged what he called punitive changes removing safety nets and causing difficulties.  He was joined on Thursday by 27 Church ofEngland Bishops signing a letter making a similar challenge.  By chance these coincided with the Christian think-tank Theos publishing a collection of thoughtful essays on the future of welfare, written by men and women covering a broad spectrum of thought and perspective.  It provided an opportunity to go back to the beginning and look at what welfare is for and what its basis is.  It’s only when we have that clear that we can think about how it should be shaped; put the pounds and conditions in place.

Welfare is a toxic subject.    There is broad agreement on three aims: to get the cost down so that it is affordable and sustainable, to target the resources so that they meet the need and for it to provide incentives and encouragements to get people working and not breed dependency; to build a sense of connectedness and participation.  This is being referred to as the welfare trilemma and getting all three sorted is proving to be an intractable problem.

Our interest in this as a church comes from the first pages of the bible and everything that follows.  We heard this as our first reading (Genesis 1:1-2:3).  Human beings are created in the image of God.  That gives us all a fundamental dignity.  We are made for friendship, participation and interdependence and this is to be reflected in how we live in community.  Human beings are persons in community, they do not stand alone.  This means that we belong to one another and when we make moral decisions we are exercising responsibility for ourselves and for others.  Concern for the welfare of all creation is hardwired into who we are.

It is not long before the biblical writers bring in concepts of justice.  This is defined as how we provide and share the basics for life, how we enable everyone to contribute to and participate in our communal and political life so that the fundamental dignity is respected and honoured, enabled to flourish.  This is the ‘why’ of welfare and there is a need to restate it so that we are clear about it.  The ‘how’ is much more problematic and we are in a very different place to where we were when the welfare state was invented in 1940s.

In the collection of essays from Theos, the Labour MP, Frank Field, widely recognized as an expert in this area, points out that for 50 of the last 64 years there has been a budget deficit.  This is not a recent thing.  This deficit has arisen because successive governments have promised more than they could pay for.  This has created expectations that are now difficult to change.  We also live with the fantasy that we can have what taxes fund and yet long for lower and lower taxes.  The two don’t fit together.  Any transition in what we provide for – be it pensions, unemployment or for the sick – has to be carefully managed and where I agree with the bishops is that there are large gaps down which many seem to be falling.  That said, I also welcome the Bishop of Truro chairing an investigation into the rise of foodbanks and their use.  In short, how much is new hunger and how much is hunger we’ve just not addressed previously.  Five thousand people being admitted to hospital in this last year for malnutrition, which was reported this week, is a worrying development.  I know teachers who have added breakfast cereal to their weekly shop for years so that they could feed hungry students before beginning to teach them.  That is not new.  But we need good evidence so we can assess the extent to which we are now seeing a new scale, which seems to be the case.

Our General Synod debated welfare and the cuts being brought in through austerity last year in July 2013.  The background report for this debate offered three principles to judge or test our direction of travel in this:
  • ·      Is it fair? Does it look after the vulnerable;
  • ·      Is it generous? Does it embody our obligation to share our resources with the less well off;
  • ·      Is it sustainable? What are the medium and long-term implications of what is being proposed?

These remain good questions and ones to keep in front of us.  Cutting the costs is not the only test for welfare reform, but it’s not irrelevant either.

We are a rich country.  It is a shame on us that so many people are calling on foodbanks for emergency help.  The stories are repeated: benefits failures, low pay and debt, along with unexpected changes in circumstances.  There are injustices in the system and some of the fixes for old ones are producing new problems.  What we need is a new Beveridge or cross party, multiple agency commission to go back to the beginning and start again with welfare.  It has to be fair, it has to be sustainable and it has to encourage participation.  This should not be an insurmountable problem.  With the will the way will follow.  I actually think deep down that our elected politicians, when they stop posturing and scapegoating, care enough to sort this.  It is worth us all reminding them that it matters to do so because the basis for it comes from page 1 of the bible.

Our Gospel reading this morning doesn’t look very helpful at first (Matthew 6:25-end).  It shows that there are dangers in taking passages out of context.  The point of it is to trust God and the God of the Bible we are to trust requires justice, compassion and dignity.  So it does not offer any easy release from the obligations.  However it also asks what we really need and that is an important question when assessing the levels that welfare should be set at if it is to be just.

Welfare is a broad term.  It covers pensions, sick pay, health care and the safety net for those without work and those unable to work.  This all comes under the umbrella of ensuring fair access to sustenance and the basics for life.  But the basics of life are more than food and shelter.  We are persons in community and so access to participating in the community is also an important part of welfare and was in the minds of the original architects of the welfare state which is also the state’s welfare.  Handouts should foster connections between us too, otherwise alienation follows and that is destructive.

This is not a blue print of a new welfare scheme (the how), detailing what should be provided and what should not, but I have found myself being taken back to the foundations on which welfare provision is built (the why).  That takes me back to the first pages of the bible.  God made us in his image and we reflect that in fairness, justice, compassion and when we participate in the communal bonds that connect us.  For welfare to be welfare it must reflect and foster those.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd February 2014

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A spiritual presence in the city

There are a number of occasions when I wonder what as a church we can actually contribute to the major challenges that face us.  The scale of need is such that we can easily find ourselves just a drop in the ocean.  There are flagship projects like the food bank which has seen churches and others coming together to pool resources to meet emergency hunger.  These look dramatic and the scale they are able to operate on is impressive.  But often what we do is small scale.  Of course we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that, because lots of small-scale support does add up to a much bigger picture.  But it is easy for the picture to look overwhelming and our small contribution to look insignificant. 

What we offer is not always directly practical.  A lot of our world is focused on doing, on outcome measures and meeting targets.  But that is not all churches are here for.  Our first reading from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah58:1-12) gave us an impassioned cry for justice, for looking after the needs of the poor and vulnerable.  That is an important thread in the Bible’s picture of what it means to respond to God’s call.  But there are times when I find myself in a situation where there is no practical support to offer.  I can’t make it better; I can’t remove the problem.  When I sit with the grieving there are no words to take away the pain and often too many words are not helpful.  When I sit in meetings with council officers struggling to balance unbalancable budgets, I can’t wave a magic wand to take away what looks to me like an apocalyptic deficit.  Our council will be facing a budget cut of over £40m over the next few years.  That is a crisis.  There are no easy magic wands to make that an easy ride.

What I find though, that seems to be appreciated in ways that often surprise me, is that the presence of someone who stands for the bigger picture, a sense of the eternal, seems to bring a calm and comfort that I can’t explain.  It is not that we bring God into the situation, but we make that perspective visible.  And this church sitting in the heart of this city's public space is immensely important just for what it stands for.  And the more we can open its doors the better.  This church being here, being a place where God is worshipped and where prayer is visible matters enormously; far more than any statistics can reveal and far greater than the secular blogs would lead us to believe.

The think tank Theos has referred to this as spiritual capital.  What we offer is the working capital for the spirit and the soul.  The value of this is extremely difficult to calculate, but research shows that the presence of and engagement with these places, with their communities and the sacredness they represent, has a lasting effect that is hard to quantify.  This stems as much, if not more, from what we are than it does from what we do.  There is of course an exchange between what we do and what we are.

Our readings this morning were about precisely this.  They call us to look at what lies at the root of who we are.  Our second reading (1Corinthians 2) gave us that strange phrase at the end about having the ‘mind of Christ’.  No one knows the mind of God, except God.  Humans can be very arrogant at times assuming that they know everything that there is to know.  And we know a lot, a lot more than some of our ancestors knew, well about some things.  We’ve forgotten a lot too.  But faith in Christ, while it doesn’t tell us everything, provides a perspective, a lens through which to look and see something of the purposes of God, what we can cope with any way.  This is that God is the source of our life and its goal too.  We have no purpose outside of this beyond a few fleeting moments which in the grand span of time are but a blip.  That is what we stand for, which comes with the language of the eternal, the spiritual, a sense of purpose beyond the immediate.

Sometimes doing is not enough.  In fact we are completely powerless and stare into the abyss.  I do this when we face grief.  When the floods overwhelm, well there are things to do before, but once they have washed away all we know, there is a moment when we either have a spirit that looks beyond these, however fragile, or we go under.  And I don’t mean that we should send messages to those flooded out in the West Country that their suffering is just a blip in the grand scheme of things, if we do that we will deserve the punch that comes back!  But standing there alongside them with a faith that even when the world is flooded, trusts in God, can be a support.  Broken we might be, we know we are fragile, but we are not abandoned, even if it looks and feels like it at times.  Ultimately all of us will be broken one day and that is part of the mystery and wonder of life, of being mortal.

The 'mind of Christ' is the vision that God wills life and holds in store for us a life beyond this one.  These sufferings are passing; our ultimate fortune does not rest on goods and possessions, on our health or wealth.  Faith is not just for when the sun shines.  It must be for the storm too, otherwise it is of no use whatsoever.  What never ceases to amaze me is how much those in the thick of it, up against it, find that faith and appreciate those of us who represent it being around.  When there are debates about the sustainability of churches and projections of its long term vibrancy looking shaky in many places, we are taken back to what lies at the very core of who we are and what we stand for.  And that is quite simply God.  Without God we have nothing and are nothing.  With God, we have everything we could possibly need – individually, corporately and eternally.

This is the salt that gives sodium chloride its tang (Matthew 5:13-20).  Without it salt is worthless and pointless.  This is the light that we don’t hide under a tub, but let shine out.  This church stands for God or nothing.  Yes we campaign on issues of justice, peace and social care.  Yes we offer hospitality to all sorts of groups, to those who drop in and are an artistic venue.  But above all, in all and through all, we stand for God; we provide spiritual capital which can be invested in a myriad of ways and that offers hope without which we are lost.  This is God’s world.  We belong him.  So when the floods come we have a hope to hold our fragile and vulnterable life.  At these times what we are counts for more than what we do.  It is the distinctive gift we bring to the city: the spiritual capital.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th February 2014