The Left can find a friend in Jesus

Written by: Bryn Phillips on 6 December, 2012
Filed under Economy

Now, some of my best friends are heterosexual – and while the same doesn’t yet apply to gays – I fully support their right to be married in the church. Of course, I’m being sarcastic. However, just because the church – like many other faith groups – is an inherently homophobic institution, does this mean we shouldn’t commend its more humane traditions? “What are those?” you might ask. Well, standing up for the poor is one of them.

It’s not that I want to make excuses for the church, since it is, after all, riddled with all kinds of prejudices, but it’s also an institutional paradox located at the heart of the English polity, which gives it an immense power. After the women bishops fiasco, some might cry this power in itself is reason enough that the church should be booted out of the House of Lords and sent packing to the strangers gallery. But I beg to differ. The unexpected intervention of the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury over pay day loans last week shows it has the potential to deploy this power in the service of the common good. So the question of whether economic justice will be figuring higher up on the churches list of priorities in the future, then, is an interesting one.

Let’s step back for a moment. Despite its many faults, it’s worth acknowledging that the core philosophy of the CofE is rooted in the idea of economic justice. In a way, the church reminds me of a beloved old great aunt of mine, who had some dreadful things to say about John Inman, but could always be relied up to donate to the homeless shelter. And remember Occupy? As Andy Haldane, former director of the Bank of England said recently: the issue of responsible banking would not be on the table to the extent it is today “If it had not been for the Occupy movement”. And there certainly would have been no Occupy London without the intervention of Christians.

However, if, like me, you had hoped a lefty lovey preacher in the style of Giles Fraser would be the next incumbent of Lambeth Palace, then a former oil executive, evangelical, and old Etonian (who is strongly opposed to gay marriage) may not have been your ideal choice as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Enter the Right Revered Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham. As recently as last week, many commentators feared his appointment would represent a step backwards towards the doctrinal conservatism of the Anglican faith. Indeed, when compared to his predecessor, Dr Rowan Williams, a social liberal who had worked tirelessly to prevent a schism over the issues of female and gay bishops, it had at first appeared to be a retrogressive step. But I’m starting to like him.

To be fair to Welby, I remember getting slightly irritated with Rowan Williams about 18 months ago. Christians are supposed to act on their beliefs, not just talk about them. So when I thought of how Jesus compared the rich to fattened cattle, accusing them of failing to pay their workmen and living in luxury and self-indulgence, I often wondered why the man libertarians call “a communist druid” was so lukewarm in his response to the coalition. After all, doesn’t the con-dem government wholeheartedly embody the character defects listed above? So when Welby decided to tackle the issue of Pay day lenders (shortly after his nomination was announced) his theology suddenly didn’t seem as frightening as many had supposed. In fact, to say that the coalition suffered a humiliating climbdown last Wednesday in the House of Lords as a result is an understatement.

But it’s not just his Christian credentials that matter. Welby’s corporate background has made him an authoritative critic of out-of-control capitalism. As was recently pointed out by the Independent newspaper, “His dissertation at theological college was entitled “Can companies sin?” in which he was critical of banks, saying they had “no socially useful purpose” and were “exponents of anarchy” prior to the crash. And yes, he’s probably a bit homophobic, but nobody’s perfect.

He’s certainly one to keep a beady eye on. And ironically, it isn’t just pay day lenders who should be glued to the screen from now on. Bookmakers, Ladbrokes, who up until a month ago were carrying bets on the identity of the new Archbishop, may now want to reappraise their expansion strategy. Betting shops are facing growing criticism over their practice of carving up the high street and propagating economic illiteracy amongst the poorest – leading to poor money management and problems with debt. So are pawn shops. It’s difficult to stay calm about this. If things carry on as they are, with unregulated lenders sucking the life out of the poor, we can abandon any hope of a good society emerging in Britain any time soon.

So although he probably won’t be pitching a tent outside St Pauls’ in the near future, I expect the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury to keep talking tough on money matters. Is this not remarkable? Not really. You must realise Welby is a man who believes the mission of the church is to deliver the oppressed from the power of the oppressor and that the financial sector needs to be completely rebuilt “from the ruins”of the crash. He is clearly no friend of the unmoderated financial interest – and this can only be a good thing. For as is often pointed out these days: markets need morals.

Accordingly, I can’t imagine right wing libertarians like Boris Johnson – or Louise Mensch, for that matter – getting too excited about ‘moral leadership’ coming from the church. Not like this. After all – the idea of defending the rights of the afflicted and needy comes about as naturally to the cronies of the Young Britons Foundation as brushing your teeth does to a swan. Even now, there are sinister interests on the right, mustering for a fight with those who hold decent values. A renewed balance of powers, that includes a church that acts upon its central values, would be for our mutual benefit as a nation. After all, it is the idea of the balance of powers, rather than separation of them, that underpins One Nation Labour. Bring it on.

One thing’s still clear though: at the end of the day, the church of England is a self governing institution. It needn’t listen to us about gays or women bishops any more than we need pay attention to them about abortion. It probably won’t and nor will we. So, we’re left with a choice: we could them attack out of defence of our sectional interests, or get over it and support the church in the interests of the common good. Frankly, as a gay person, when it comes to the plight of the poor, when it comes to financial exploitation, I’m happy to have a friend in Jesus. After, all it didn’t hurt pro-democracy campaigners in communist east Germany to make powerful friends with faith.

So while I don’t imagine Mr Miliband is losing any sleep over the appointment of this “quietly charismatic” individual, the coalition and those on the Libertarian right should heed the warning of Welby’s god from now on, because he follows Him to the letter:

“Woe to those who enact evil statutes…so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of their rights.”

Or, as the actress said to the Bishop: He’ll consume you with the fire of His wrath.