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Crisis. Whose Crisis?

09:55 27/04/2020

‘This crisis will affect every single one of us.’ That was the message from politicians, health experts and community leaders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in those early weeks this did indeed seem to be a truly democratic pandemic. Amongst the earliest victims were senior Royals (Prince Charles), sports glitterati (Mikel Arteta) and leading politicians (Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock).

But as time went on, the truth gradually dawned. We realised that we only knew about the diagnosis of these celebrity victims because they had access to COVID tests, unlike care workers, supermarket staff, teachers and many healthcare professionals. It emerged that those from ethnic minorities, areas of high population density and communities characterised by poverty were disproportionately impacted by the disease. Whilst attention focussed on hospitals, we woke up to what was happening in the (often forgotten) care home sector, notorious for a culture of low pay amongst staff who were now risking their lives to care for the vulnerable. Those in the lowest paid jobs were largely untouched by Rishi Sunak’s furlough and loans schemes. And so a long established pattern has revealed itself. As is always the case, the rich and powerful will swiftly delegate the impact of crisis to the poorest.

The last example of this universal phenomenon came with the financial crisis of 2008. A colossal financial meltdown was caused by an elite of bankers and wealthy hedge fund managers who were creating financial products so complex that they themselves didn’t understand them. But as, in the aftermath, they returned to their well-paid jobs, the consequences of the crisis were delegated to the poor. It was they who had to endure ten years of crushing and unnecessary austerity, a culture of low-pay, the emergence of the gig economy, unprecedented levels of in-work poverty, the grotesque indignity of the foodbank, the decimation of the voluntary sector, chronic under-investment in social housing, the winding-up of Sure Start and most youth provision and the hollowing out of local government, all contributing to a rising anger of which the political consequences are still working themselves out.

Some argue that the outcome of the current crisis will be a new age of compassion in our national life as those who clap the NHS on Thursday nights realise afresh our inter-dependence and the need to make personal sacrifices for the common good. They hope for a new era of international co-operation in which the forces of populism and separatism are crushed by a fresh desire to protect the environment and take greater responsibility for the world’s poor.

I suppose it’s possible. I fear it is much more likely that a new and even harder time of austerity will begin and that, once again, a crisis for everyone will end up being a crisis delegated to those who have least power over their own lives.

But what of the Church of England? Will we also delegate this crisis to the poor? Or will we have the courage to act and think differently? The established church appears to have a habit of forgetting from time to time that Jesus declared as his purpose the proclamation of good news ‘to the poor.’ In ‘So Yesterday,’ a brief but devastating sabbatical report published in 2010, 25 years after Faith in the City, Bishop Adrian Newman analysed a number of reasons why the Church had forgotten this priority, naming amongst other things the triumph of the growth agenda with its desire to aim for the ‘low hanging fruit,’ in other words white, middle class graduates.

But since Newman published that report in 2010, there appears to have been something of a re-awakening. This has been led by the Church Commissioners who now insist that the subsidy given to Dioceses (Lowest Income Communities Funding or LICF) is seen to be tailored to the poorest communities and whose Strategic Development Fund prioritises populous urban areas. In February 2019, The Estates Evangelism Task Group, part of Renewal and Reform, successfully persuaded the General Synod to commit itself to a loving, worshipping, serving Christian community on every significantly sized social housing estate in the nation. Ministry Division has radically overhauled its discernment processes with the express intention of including those from previously excluded groups. There are some extremely exciting experiments in both church planting and the formation of urban leaders in many dioceses. We seemed for a while to be hearing the Nazarene Manifesto anew and responding to it.

But crisis changes everything and in the next few years every aspect of the Church’s life will come under the most intense imaginable financial pressure. There will be questions over the viability not just of parishes but of whole dioceses and funds targeted for pioneering and experimentation risk being the hardest hit. So as the church is forced to re-imagine every area of its life in the post-COVID years, who will lose out? Will we once again delegate crisis to the poorest?

The early signs are not good. Crisis reveals true identity like nothing else, and in the early stages of Pandemic the Church of England appeared to revert to its middle class default mode with an unspoken presumption that everybody has good internet access and a safe home in which to stay. As The Revd Alice Whalley wrote in the Church Times: The way that the C of E has responded to (government) advice, however, utterly betrays how middle-class its interests have become. Staying at home is wonderful — when you have a home, with electricity, and food, and a job, and access to the internet, and are computer-literate, and, ideally, have a landline to avoid some hefty mobile call charges. I flicked with dismay through the C of E Twitter feed to see how every post backed this view up — the assumption that everybody is in a safe and comfortable home setting, and, therefore, the only need to be met is a spiritual one.” (Church Times 24 April 2020).

And there is cause for more alarm as we look into the future. Already many Bishops and Archdeacons are greedily eyeing up the crisis as an opportunity to gain greater powers to re-organise parishes, close churches and move clergy and some have called for this openly, for example the Bishop of Manchester on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Programme (19 April 2020). He is right that we will need to rethink, but invariably such re-organisation disproportionately impacts ministry to areas of deprivation where financial viability is hard to achieve, where many faiths are present and where congregations are often small and struggling.

Now of course many would suggest that this doesn’t matter all that much, that a crisis is like a forest fire, sweeping away that which is not viable and allowing only the toughest (in this case the strongest churches) to survive. Such people argue that, whilst we may end up with a smaller church, it will be leaner, more focussed, more contemporary and fitter for mission.  

However, it will also have left the poor behind which means it will no longer be the Church of Jesus Christ. In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 when he declares his purpose as proclaiming good news ‘to the poor.’ That passage continues:

They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61, 4)

The ‘they’ in this verse is the poor. They are the ones who will bring renewal. That is why every significant renewal movement in the church’s history has been characterised by proclamation and service amongst the most vulnerable. That is why the early church fed the hungry and honoured slaves, why Francis lived with lepers, why Vincent de Paul went to the galley slaves and why the pioneers of the Oxford Movement served cholera victims on the streets of Plymouth and London.

We don’t minister to areas of deprivation as an act of charity or because we feel sorry for people in our most challenged communities. We do so because when Christian life is renewed in this nation, that recovery will spring from the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. It is not from moneyed churches in West London that renewal will emerge (though they will doubtless have a part to play). It is from Blackpool, from inner city Manchester, from the outer estates of the north-east and the tenement blocks of central London. It is, in other words, precisely in those areas from which a post-COVID church may be tempted to withdraw.  

So as we look to rethink the church after this massive global crisis we need three firm commitments.

First, that in the re-organisation of Dioceses and parochial structures, deprived communities must not be disproportionately impacted. Dioceses need to create mechanisms so that they can ensure that there remains vibrant Christian presence and ministry even in the poorest areas.

Second, that the Lowest Income Communities Funding and Strategic Development Funding distributed by the Archbishops’ Council and Church Commissioners must continue to be focussed on areas of poverty. It would be too easy to cut or re-direct such income streams in a time of crisis. To do so would be to undermine the urban church in a way that would fatally damage our mission to the nation.

And third, we must commit ourselves anew to the vision approved unanimously by the General Synod of having a loving, serving, worshipping Christian community on every significant estate in the nation. The best of these will have locally raised up, indigenous leadership much of which can be voluntary. To achieve this vision requires not vast cash assets, but Gospel imagination.

When the nation begins to delegate this crisis to its poorest, as Christians we must act differently and decisively. Because to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, a church that abandons the poor has abandoned God.


+Philip Burnley
24 April 2020

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley