Another avalanche of media coverage emerged recently about a row between the Church of England and the United Kingdom government.
This time it relates to the refugee crisis. The bishops have accused the government of dragging its feet and not responding adequately to their offers to help mobilize the churches.
Stephen Cotterill, bishop of Chelmsford, said, “The mean-spirited response of the government goes against the spirit of our nation … This is a matter of real urgency. Winter is coming. It seems crazy that the government is not listening.”
Prime Minister David Cameron responded by criticizing the bishop’s letter for its failure to take into account the $1.53 billion (1 billion British pounds) in humanitarian aid the nation has provided for refugees.
Despite widespread assumptions of its decline, the Church of England continues to stand up against the government more effectively than any other institution.
And we should expect to see more and more disputes between church and state in the coming years.
This is for two main reasons, one political and the other theological:
1. Further public funding cuts and deepening austerity.
Virtually everyone agrees that the cuts have only just begun. On top of what has already been slashed, this summer George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, instructed all government departments to plan for cuts between 25 and 40 percent over the next five years.
Many are predicting that in the near future, local authorities will be running virtually nothing apart from the most basic elements of adult social care and child protection.
As the state rolls itself back to cover deficits and promote the ideology of small government, more and more people and communities will be left exposed.
Two of the most obvious indicators, food poverty and homelessness, will increase.
As there’ll be fewer resources to tackle it, volunteer-run food banks and night shelters will be busier than ever.
An example is the Day Centre for homeless people run by West London Mission, where I work. Every day, we see more and more street homeless people. (One day we had 114 come in for help.)
But, mainly due to cuts, we now receive no government funding. We have to organize events like the sponsored “Sleep Out” that my wife and daughter participated in to make up the shortfall.
2. The growth of Christian concerns for social justice.
In the last 20 years, there has been a marked increase in the amount of social action run by churches.
The vibrant faith of churches has provided the capacity to grow the network of food banks, night shelters, street pastors and Christians Against Poverty’s debt centers.
One element in this growth has been the shift in the social awareness of evangelical churches. Significantly, this is the part of the church that is growing.
The surge of activism has been backed up by a wide range of books, courses, initiatives and events that have embedded a biblical theology of social justice.
Increasingly, the traditionally personal emphasis of evangelical theology is being fused with a deep commitment to social justice. And this has affected political views.
Before the election last year, a major survey of U.K. evangelical Christians showed how different their political views were from the U.S. stereotypes. It found that Labour was the party most U.K. evangelicals would vote for.
And what did they feel was the single most important issue facing the U.K.? Poverty and inequality.
These views show how the church is reflecting theologically and politically on its social action.
The church cannot be dismissed as some liberal-leaning think tank. Rather, it is a vast network of people who know what is happening in their communities and feel deeply concerned about what they are seeing.
Running food banks, drop-in centers and night shelters is all about meeting emergency needs. It is ambulance work.
In the past, this kind of charitable work has been applauded by conservative governments. After all, it doesn’t use government money and represents “the Big Society” in action.
What rattles their cages is when people question why people are poor in the first place.
The words of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara are still relevant: “When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask, ‘Why are poor hungry?’ they call me a communist.”
It seems that the government wants Christians to be busy pulling drowning people out of the river. What it doesn’t like is when people start questioning who is pushing them in.
The church already does a huge amount to help those in crisis. And this is why it has a right and a responsibility to speak out about political and economic decisions that make the situation worse.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.