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Faith Hope and Charity: Should the Church Engage?

14th November 2011

Although there has been confusion around the precise objectives of the Occupy protests worldwide, the demonstrators can’t be accused of any ambiguity in the tenor of their outrage. Their message all along has been clear: this is not simply an economic issue - a critique of the dangers of free market capitalism -  but a rage born of a sense of impotence at a world where greed and inequality can run rife, a rage questioning the morality of the global economic and social structure.   The fact that this 'Occupy' protest has literally arrived at the doors of the St Paul’s has changed the tenor of the debate and raised questions about the role of the church in bringing (or some would say blocking) social change.

It’s good to see the Archbishop of Canterbury recognising the bigger questions at the core of the Occupy demonstrations and addressing the concerns of the protestors on these grounds.  As the most senior cleric of the Church of England, his participation in the discussion is a clear acknowledgement of the Church’s desire to tackle these issues, in contrast to the mixed messages from St Paul’s of the last couple of weeks. His article demonstrated a desire to rise above the push-pull dynamic of the Occupy London movement “on the ground” as it were, focussing upon the one narrative that is binding the Occupy movement together globally –  a story of moral outrage and frustration (although it is also true that the Archbishop does not have protestors camping outside his doors).

Of course, there has been plenty of commentary on the intervention of the “Bearded Lefty” supportive and otherwise. There are plenty of detractors who see the Archbishop’s statements as yet another unwelcome intrusion of religion in the public sphere. Yet the debate has been framed within the context of ethics and morality for quite some time, with everyone from the protestors themselves to Terry Eagleton  asking, “What would Jesus do?”  

The fact that the Archbishop has an opinion as to possible ways to encourage economic growth (all of which have been suggested and endorsed by others before him), is hardly an over-stepping of the boundaries of clerical duty.  The ideas themselves may or may not have economic merit and raising the idea of a Tobin Tax is almost certainly a moot point if the wider economic community chooses not to embrace it, but the importance of his article lies in the acknowledgement of the moral sphere into which the debate has been positioned and the necessity of engagement and discussion as a way forward.

Whether Archbishop William lands any blows on policy or not remains to be seen, but the question this discussion provokes is whether the church should be in the ring at all.  In fulfilling Christ’s mandate from Matthew 25 to ‘feed the hungry’ and ‘clothe the naked’, should the church be looking to the state to help it fulfill its mission? How should the church respond to its calling to work for a good society, to seek the good of the cultures we find ourselves in? Whether you think it should seek justice and welfare through primarily localist, ground up, civil society methods or through advocacy and engagement with government, it is hard to deny that the faith voice has value as we seek a better society.

These issues will debated at a Theos event in Westminster this Thursday at 6.30pm entitled ‘Faith, Hope and Charity: Is the church addicted to the Welfare State?’ There are a few places available, to apply email hello@theosthinktank.co.uk.

Christine Gilland has recently completed an internship at Theos, and previously worked for CAP (Christians Against Poverty) in New Zealand. Kenny Primrose is currently an intern at Theos and will shortly be taking up a teaching post at Sherborne School in Dorset.

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