There is a delicious quip in the acerbic English comedy series, Yes Prime Minister in which the prime minister has to appoint an Anglican bishop and his assistant says the perfect choice would be combination of a socialite and a socialist. A cute comment on the tendency of Anglican bishops to either be “out of the top drawer” or pretending to be. From their palaces and limousines they love to criticize any government official anywhere who dares to attempt to reform Britain’s gargantuan welfare state.
The debate is going on now. Benedict Brogan at the Daily Telegraph reports on a perceived clash between bishops and the government over proposed welfare cuts.
You might conclude that the Prime Minister is facing a religious insurrection this morning. Vincent Nichols has let him have it over welfare, and now his brother bishops in the Church of England have joined in too. The Daily Mirror splash records the criticism of 26 Anglican bishops under the headline “Bishops slam Cam over UK’s ‘hunger crisis'”. There’s a two page spread inside – “Divine intervention” – detailing the complaints of bishops including Manchester, Sheffield, Bangor, Durham, Gloucester, Oxford and Wakefield. “Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy,” their letter to the paper says, “and yet people are going hungry.” It invites people to fast for Lent in solidarity. “Pray listen now, PM,” the Mirror’s leader advises.
Oh dear. You would have thought the English were starving in the streets. Pinched faces and begging bowls all around. In my memory of living twenty five years in England this is hardly the case. If any of the welfare recipients in England are going hungry its because they spend their dole money on ciggies, booze and lottery tickets. It’s just like the sentimentalist left wing bishops who’ve never experienced hardship in their life to go on a guilt binge on behalf of the poor.
What is interesting is that they are not exhorting their own people to rise up and serve the poor. They are not emptying their own coffers to fund more homeless shelters, food banks and orphanages. They are not exhorting the faithful to be involved in the work of feeding the hungry and evangelizing the needy. No. It’s Big Brother’s job. The remarkable thing is that Archbishop Vincent Nichols–the leader of Catholics in Britain is teamed up with the Anglican bishops thus betraying the Catholic principles of social teaching: solidarity with the poor and subsidiarity–the idea that initiatives are best taken and problems best solved at the local level–not the federal government level.
Lest I seem hard hearted about the needs of the poor, I write as pastor of a small, poor parish in Greenville, South Carolina. On our doorstep we have prostitution, gangs, drug addicts, drunks, homeless and desperate poor. I am not the Mother Teresa that I would like to be, but I can assure you that the problems of the poor are not solved by simply dishing out more freebies. The poor need far more than handouts. It should be the church’s role to be involved in local projects to help break the cycle of poverty–not perpetuate it with more and more handouts. The caring response is to roll up one’s sleeves and create new relationships and new ways of attacking the poverty problem. But of course this would require hard work, sacrifice and real transformation. It’s easier to squawk about how the government should do everything, thus encouraging the dependency culture that is killing us.
The other remarkable thing about the English bishops–including soon to be Cardinal Nichols–is their complete silence on a social problem that affects the poor more radically than reduced welfare payments. This is a problem that is literally killing their children, maiming their families, destroying their future, retarding their human flourishing and damning their souls: it’s called abortion. Abortion in England is provided on the taxpayer funded National Health Service. The English bishops–both Anglican and Catholic (with a few notable exceptions) are strangely silent on this holocaust of innocents.
Let us by all means plead for the poor and have a “preferential option for the poor” but let us not forget those who are most poor, completely innocent and totally vulnerable in our society: unborn children.