March 1, 2021

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The Conservatives think the Church of England can fill all welfare gaps. We can’t | Fergus Butler-Gallie

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The Church of England (C of E) was once referred to as “the Tory party at prayer”, which remains the case in the emptying pews of the rolling shires. But in the vicarages and bishops’ palaces, a quiet revolution has long taken since taken place. Openly Conservative clergy are an endangered breed, and openly Tory bishops have gone the way of the dodo.

Institutionally speaking, the C of E and the Conservative party have been engaged in open warfare since the days of Margaret Thatcher. It was then, memorably, that Alan Webster, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, conducted a piece of high-end trolling by proposing that the Lord’s prayer be spoken in Spanish at the Falklands war victory celebration service.

However, in recent years this fraught relationship has taken an even more invidious turn. For the latest episode of Toryism’s religious psychodrama isn’t being played out among the marble colonnades of St Paul’s, but witnessed in small church halls around the country. The Conservative party might currently appear to be run by horny, malign Beano characters, yet Toryism’s mutation from shire-reaction to libertarian front is an episode with religion at its core.

It all goes back to the foundation of state care for those in greatest need. In 1915 William Temple, who later become archbishop of Canterbury, wrote: “The first task of the Church is to inspire the State, which after all very largely consists of the same persons as itself, with the desire to combat evil; and the second is to counteract the one great difficulty which the State experiences. When the State takes up such work as this, there is one thing which we all fear: ‘Officialism.’ What is ‘Officialism’? Simply lack of love; nothing else in the world. It consists in treating people as ‘cases,’ according to rules and red tape, instead of treating them as individuals.”

Temple was the man who popularised the concept of a “welfare state”. In the early to mid-20th century, the C of E began lobbying for a more compassionate face to government. It invested in housing projects, clinics and food programmes – models it actively encouraged the state to imitate. One of Temple’s best friends was William Beveridge – he of the report, which was the blueprint for the modern British welfare state. The rest is history (or, at least, soon will be).

Speaking about the rise of food bank use during a radio discussion in 2017, Jacob Rees-Mogg perfectly summarised the new Tory relationship to the church, while providing a clear model of the “lack of love” that Temple identified a century or so before: “[The state] provides a base of welfare … but on some occasions that will not work, and to have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good compassionate country we are.”

In this vision, the church is a convenient vehicle for respectable altruism that can, if stretched far enough, cover those areas which the state has decided it is no longer worth its while to engage with. Rather uplifting indeed!

The church of course, is stuck in a Catch-22 situation. The government knows full well that it will support society’s poorest as best it can. It is, or ought to be, against the church’s very raison d’etreto refuse to help. So the government can make a very cynical calculation about what aspects of the church it can bolster. Of course, plenty of other faith groups and secular charities are involved in frontline provision of services, but the C of E’s presence across the whole of England (and, in a different, disestablished form, across Wales too) and the weird, obsessive energy the Conservative party gives off in its dealings with it, means that its involvement is often more coordinated, more political and can seem more personal as well.

In the churches I have been attached to or involved with in Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford and London over the past decade or so, the following initiatives, among others, have been launched: lunch and breakfast clubs; food bank collection and distribution; grants of cash to cover heating and electricity bills; social spaces for pensioners, lonely people, refugees and asylum seekers; reading clubs and in-school volunteers sent to plug gaps in defunded literacy programmes.

All of these might reasonably be described as constituting parts of “a base level of welfare” – which it is claimed should be provided by the state. In very considerable areas of this country that is manifestly not happening. And the church is stepping in.

It’s clear how we’ve got to this situation: the shift to universal credit, the hostile environment for those within the Home Office’s immigration system, the gig economy, the vast regional inequalities that have emerged in the post-industrial economy, the cutting of local authority funding – the list stretches on and on. All flagship policies for the last decade of Conservative rule, all creating a greater level of work for the church.

Interestingly, all have been opposed by bishops in parliament – each time drawing a howl of “get religion out of politics” op-eds, tweets and rants in parliamentary bars by Tory backbenchers who consider themselves unimpeachably “sound” on the historic principles of their party. As the famous mixer of Anglican religion and Tory politics, Jonathan Swift, once observed: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them unashamed.”

In essence, the wider structure of the welfare state is being treated by those in power as an elaborate game of Jenga – relying on forces, such as the C of E, to keep an increasingly fragile structure standing while any state support that can be removed is quietly and carefully taken away. The question is, of course, how long can that continue before the whole thing collapses?

The C of E has enough on its plate with congregational challenges, internal fights, a clergy retirement time bomb and so on. But it also faces one grim fact. In helping to birth the welfare state, it surrendered a considerable part of its infrastructural ability to deliver the exact services it’s being called upon to deliver today, time and time again. On a local level, amenities that had come about through the great efforts of brash, confident Victorian religion – wash houses and housing projects and poor schools – were, by the merits of the welfare state, no longer needed. They are now trendy apartment conversions or Wetherspoons or rubble.

Put simply, the Church of England is no longer the Tory party at prayer, but is also no longer the confident religious hegemon it was even a century ago. It is less confident in its own ability to deliver the goods, and it has good reason to be so. The church didn’t think it would be required to do so again.

At root, the clergy are desperate not to have to run food banks or nursery schools or anti-loneliness initiatives. Anyone who has worked on them will know they are often very far from being “rather uplifting”. William Temple’s vision, that the church should counteract the “lack of love” found in the structures of the state is still, for many, the ideal approach. But as that lack of love strips those structures away, a weaker, less confident church is being relied upon – not least by those in power – to step into the breach. How long it can stand there is another question.

A version of this piece was originally published in The Fence

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