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Recognise, Organise, Vocalise

14:48 26/06/2020

It’s rare that the Governor of the Bank of England cites Lenin on the radio, but the quotation Andrew Bailey chose on the Today programme on June 22nd was an apposite one. ‘Sometimes nothing happens for decades. Sometimes decades happen in a week.’

Given the speed of events since the Coronavirus pandemic reached the UK and the previously unimaginable changes to our lives since lockdown, I was very nervous of writing an article in April that would not be published [in the hard copy of Crucible] until July (Crisis? Whose Crisis?).

However on re-reading it two months later I have only one real regret which is a poorly worded sentence about the Bishop of Manchester that could be read in a negative light. So before adding anything further, let me express my huge admiration for Bishop David Walker, a colleague I greatly admire and who has been heroic as an advocate for the poor throughout his ministry.

Inevitably there have been huge developments since I wrote the article and in particular it is worth drawing attention to the following.

First, the heart of my argument is a prediction that the impact of the pandemic will be for the most part delegated to the poorest. It brings me no joy to say that the truth of this claim is becoming increasingly apparent. Over the past three months the poorest have got into greater debt whilst the wealthy have increased their savings. Despite a government U-turn forced by the courageous Marcus Rashford, we now know that the social and economic impact on children from the most vulnerable families will be profound and long-lasting. The highest death rates have been in inner London and the most deprived parts of the UK. On an almost daily basis new research demonstrates that this pandemic is proving catastrophic for the nation’s poor.

Second, we have seen an extraordinary response from the local church. For many years it has been fashionable to write off the Parish as part of the furniture of ‘inherited church.’ Recent months have demonstrated the agility which has made Parish life the heart of the English church for so many centuries. Stories are legion of local clergy and lay leaders setting up and taking over foodbanks, feeding stranded students, visiting the lonely and isolated and dealing with human need wherever they see it. We should be proud of our parishes, their priests and lay leaders.

Third, we are beginning to see the true extent of the crisis facing dioceses. Due to the suspension of public worship, income has been collapsing with alarming speed and this has led to some large projected deficits for dioceses whose finances were often already shaky. Inevitably the biggest impact will be on those dioceses who are not sitting on inherited assets, and equally inevitably those are the dioceses that serve the most deprived parts of the country. A period of pastoral re-organisation seems inevitable and it can only be hoped that those least impacted wake up to their responsibilities to those most hit by the pandemic.

And fourth is has become fashionable to criticise Bishops for lacking an outward facing voice and for failing to get themselves heard. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair. If you look at the Twitter feeds and public statement of Bishops, most are speaking out regularly for justice and on behalf of the poor. But in a church whose influence has been in decline for many years, it is simply harder and harder to be noticed.

I would therefore want to reinforce very strongly the three commitments I call for at the end of the article so that church does not join the state in delegating this crisis to the poor. I would also be tempted to add one more.

If we want the Church and its leadership to be a stronger voice for justice, we need to learn from the methods of community organising. At the moment our contribution is too fragmented because it emanates from so many places – think tanks, charities, campaigning groups, individual Bishops, commentators, parish clergy etc. Perhaps now is the time to think of a strong Christian alliance for justice in which different voices, denominations and organisations can unite around clear campaigning goals.

The issues confronting our church and our nation are going to be vast over the next decade and it those who most struggle financially who will bear the burden. If we wish to be powerful advocates for justice and be more effective in sharing good news with the poor, maybe it’s time for a more united and cohesive voice.


+Philip Burnley

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley