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Leading Churchmen in Britain call for a more equal and sharing society

15 January 2015

The Church of England has spoken out in trenchant terms about the extreme inequality that defines modern Britain, arguing today that moral principles and sharing should underpin the foundations of society.

In a new book of essays to be published next week, the archbishops of Canterbury and York warn that the poor are being left behind in a country that is increasingly dominated by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era. The church leaders caution politicians that they are selling a “lie” that economic growth is the answer to Britain’s social problems, contending that the fruits of growth should be distributed in a way that reduces inequality between the rich and poor.

The essay in the book by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, reportedly argues that conventional market assumptions such as ‘trickle down’ economics have failed, and rejects the idea that Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market will ultimately right social wrongs.

An interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper broadly outlines the leading churchmen’s views on the need for a more equal and sharing society. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, said that the book draws heavily on the writings of William Temple, the Archbishop of York and then Canterbury in the 1940s, which are credited with laying the foundations for a just post-war society and the welfare state. Sentamu quoted one passage of the book to the paper, in which Temple argued that the art of government was in finding ways to bring together the interests of individuals with those of society at large, such as through universal access to healthcare or education.

As Sentamus explains in the Telegraph interview: “Temple was right; you judge the well-being of any society by how it cares for those who are vulnerable. If it is the survival of the fittest that’s what I call living in the jungle and I don’t want to live in the jungle – this is supposed to be a civilised society. It seems to me if it is to do with the health of the nation and the well-being of the nation every citizen really ought to be at the same table and not some taking more.”

Arguing for a new and more equitable distribution of wealth in Britain, Sentamu adds that this has got “nothing to do with being socialist” or adhering to a prescribed economic ideology. “What it has got to with is: ‘Is this how God has created us?’ Has he created us to be people who go to Black Friday to fight with each other because they want the biggest bargain? No – that’s the rule of the jungle, we left that behind.”

In a short video accompanying the book, Sentamu likens the UK economy to a household and claims that no one member should have “too much” when another has “too little”. He says “it will be quite a pity if the powerful, the richest, are the ones that are thriving in our household and some are left behind. For me, therefore, one of the greatest challenges that faces our nation has to do with income inequality.”

He adds that as a household we need to “deliberate on how we must ensure that this income inequality is addressed properly so that everybody flourishes, everybody shares...” Hence the title of the book – On rock or sand – is intended to help us discover the firm foundations and principles on which Britain needs to be built.

This is not the first time that the Church of England has spoken out in defence of a society that shares its wealth and resources more fairly and equitably. In the short video, Sentamu begins by defending the Church’s involvement in politics which he sees as an essential part of public deliberations on how to create a society based on Christian and moral principles, although he stresses that the book doesn’t take a party political position. Sentamu also defends the Faith in the City report published 30 years ago that harshly criticised the Thatcher government’s policies, and explicitly argued for redistributive policies to reduce inequality.

Pope Francis has, of course, also strongly attacked inequality in recent years on a global as well as a national basis. In April, he tweeted that inequality is the root of social evil, and he has called on world leaders – together with United Nations’ agencies – to legitimately redistribute wealth to the poor in a new spirit of generosity to help curb the “economy of exclusion” that is taking place today.