The Church of England is plugging the gaps left by Tory austerity. Fergus Butler-Gallie explains how the party of religion split from its Church.
Asking what the point of the Conservative Party is has long been a dangerous exercise. What we can definitely identify – albeit with the aid of those pesky historians – is what it was for.
The Church of England (CofE) 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 Tory clergy are an endangered breed, and openly Tory bishops have gone the way of the dodo. Institutionally speaking, the Church of England and the Conservative Party have been engaged in open warfare since the days of Thatcher. It was then, memorably, that Alan Webster, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, conducted a piece of Premier League 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 the decrepit church halls of places like Burnley, Doncaster and Everton. 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. And it all goes back to the foundation of state care for those in greatest need:
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.
So wrote William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the man who popularised the concept of a ‘welfare state’. In the early to mid-twentieth century, the CofE began lobbying for a more compassionate face to government. It invested in housing projects, clinics and food programmes – models they actively encouraged the state to imitate. One of Temple’s best friends was William Beveridge – he of the report. The rest is history (or, at least, soon will be).
[The State] provides a basic level 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.
Thus spoke Jacob Rees-Mogg. His quote perfectly summarises the new Tory relationship to the Church, while providing a perfect model of that ‘lack of love’ that Temple identified a century or so before. 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 they will support society’s poorest as best they can. It is, or ought to be, against the Church’s very raison d’etre to refuse to help. So, the government can make a very cynical calculation about what aspects of the Church they can bolster. Of course, plenty of other faith groups and secular charities are involved in front line provision of services, but the CofE’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 co-ordinated, 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, inter alia, have been launched:
- Lunch and breakfast clubs to ensure at least one hot meal for people a day.
- Foodbank collection and distribution to ensure minimum nutrition for those on the breadline.
- Direct grants of cash to cover heating and electricity bills .
- Social spaces for those who are often forgotten: pensioners, the lonely, refugees and asylum seekers.
- Reading clubs/in-school volunteers sent in to plug gaps in defunded literacy programmes.
All of these might reasonably be described as constituting parts of ‘a basic 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. So, what’s going on?
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 Church of England, that can be taken as read, keeping an increasingly fragile skeleton standing while any support that can be removed is quietly and carefully taken away. The question is, of course, how long can that continue?
The CofE 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 birthing 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 she is also no longer the confident religious hegemon she 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. It didn’t think it would be required to do so again.
At root, the clergy are desperate not to have to run foodbanks 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.
Editor’s Note: In the weekend before Christmas, we visited St Matthew’s Church, Burnley, who have been doing so much to support their parish. Fr. Alex Frost asked us to help raise £10,000 to provide long-lasting essentials for the bitter months to come, and also to give professional mental health support to those desperately in need. We are very close to hitting our goal. Please do give what you can here.