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The Church, the welfare state and the future

The Church, the welfare state and the future

Nick Spencer writes a longread on the future of the church and the future of the welfare, encompassing three recent books on topic. Turn off your phone, make a cup of tea and allow yourself to be provoked.

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The language that graced the development of the British Welfare State in the second quarter of the 20th century smelt suspiciously theological.

First, there was the episcopal coining of the very phrase Welfare State (albeit hyphenated) by William Temple in his Henry Scott Holland lectures in 1928. Then there was talk of institutionalised “brotherhood” and “fellowship” throughout the 1930s. Then there was William Beveridge’s famously Bunyanesque “five giants” in 1942. Then there was the eager anticipation of the “appointed day” in 1948, sounding like a secular St Paul on the Areopagus. And then, most famously and most tellingly, there was the widely–used phrase “New Jerusalem” to describe the new state, so popular that, sixty years later, David Kynaston saw fit to title his multi–volume social history of post–war Britain “Tales of a New Jerusalem”. When Clement Attlee encouraged his party to close their 1951 Conference with a rendition of Blake’s Jerusalem, he was singing what could well have been the Welfare State’s – indeed, the country’s – unofficial national anthem. All in all, an alien or stranger would be excused for thinking this was a deeply religious moment in the nation’s history, one of near–eschatological significance.

There are two ironies lurking in this vague theological framing of the incipient Welfare State. The first lies in specific phrase, New Jerusalem. The phrase originates in the Revelation of St John, specifically in the book’s climactic penultimate chapter, when John, like his prophetic predecessor Isaiah, sees “a new heaven and a new earth.” The first heaven and the first earth, John tells us, had passed away. In its place, he “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” The strange image is one of immaculate and uncorrupted newness. “The old order of things has passed away”. The one seated on the throne says, “I am making everything new”.

Irony no. 1, which Chris Renwick’s Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State (2017) spells out, is that as an image for the British welfare state, this is about a wrong as it can be. While some on the left might like to imagine the Attlee settlement as entirely de novo, descending to earth from the incorruptible heavens of socialist theory, it is rather more accurate to see it, as Renwick does, as “a new entity composed of old elements”.

Concern for public welfare was not, of course, in any way new. The Church had been in this space for quite some time. Nor, however, was the belief that this was, in fact, the state’s responsibility, rather than that of religious and other voluntary organisations. As John Cooper (2017) provocatively but rightly intimates, The British Welfare Revolution took placed from 1906–14 and not 1945–51. For the best part of a century before then, ever since an industrialising nation came to realise that the Elizabethan Poor Laws were no longer fit for purpose, Utilitarians and radicals and nonconformist church ministers and a number of Anglican clergymen and one–nation Tories had fretted and reported and campaigned for ever greater government intervention, softening the hard edges of political economy and rescuing those crushed under its wheels. The result was a bewilderingly complex landscape of voluntary aid, mutual societies, cooperatives, National societies, and direct state intervention.

In the final decades of the 19th century, informed opinion, aided by the nation’s first social scientific studies of poverty, came to the conclusion that current provision was inadequate and that order needed to be imposed on the mess. This informed opinion – specifically the activity of what he calls a ‘counter elite’ – forms the backbone of Cooper’s forensic study of this welfare revolution. Recruited from university settlements, women’s organisations, adherents of the social gospel, the Fabian Society, and the nascent London School of Economics, these thinkers, writers and activists coalesced around the need for centralised social reform, and helped effect the translation of classical to New Liberalism, in which the state’s primary duty was to secure positive rather than negative liberty. The people needed to be ‘free to…’ rather than ‘free from…’ How poor, cold, hungry, unsheltered or sick people were was now deemed a statutory matter, rather than simply a voluntary or private one. The impact was immense in virtually every area of social policy: pensions, education, child welfare, health and unemployment insurance, taxation, etc.

The newly–augmented state, cemented into place by the First World War economy, was rather larger, if no more tidy, than that from which it emerged, and the interwar decades – in spite of their reputation for failing to build homes for heroes, the Geddes Axe that slashed public spending in early 1920s, and the woefully inadequate response to the 1929 Crash and ensuing depression – remained a period of state growth. A second wartime economy, more efficient and more total than the first, again showed what ‘we’ could do if we all pulled together, and a determination to win the peace as well as the war set the nation up for its second welfare revolution in the later 1940s, in which the Attlee government compromised and reformed just as much as it commanded and transformed. The result was that, for all its newness, actuarial confidence and popularity, the welfare state that the Attlee government implemented, in extraordinarily unpropitious circumstances, was less a spotless bride than a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from pre–existing provision and institutions. New Jerusalem was not so much a new build as a prefab, made up from some suspiciously familiar materials.

And ideas… for the Welfare State’s New Jerusalem was not the result of the kind of undiluted socialist ideology you see in certain cinematic hagiographies but rather a mashup of ideas, ranging from dampened Marxism, to New Liberalism, Keynesian economics, the ‘national’ Conservatism of Stanley Baldwin, and even a smattering of eugenics.

And, of course, Christianity, because, even beyond the theological register of “appointed days” and “New Jerusalems”, the generation of the Welfare State was profoundly informed by British Christianity. And this brings us to irony no. 2.


For all that Renwick and Cooper tell a good and well–evidenced story, the Christian landscape in which is takes place is all but absent.

More or less Renwick’s only mention of the Church, in his otherwise balanced and wide–ranging book, is the depressingly cynical reference to education reform in the 1940s, in which he said churches guarded their educational territories fiercely in order to create “a new generation of parishioners who would put their hands in their pockets when collection plates went round at Sunday services.”

He mentions a few figures usually in passing: Rev Prebendry H. Russell Wakefield, who stood alongside the indefatigable Beatrice Webb; Charles Masterman, who worked with Lloyd George and Churchill in the first welfare reform period; Keir Hardie, the Independent Labour Party’s first MP, and, on several occasions, the influential Christian Socialist R.H. Tawney. These, however, tend to be walk–on figures, whose motivating Christian convictions are largely irrelevant.

Cooper is less blind to ecclesiastical significance, pointing to the influence of the Christian Social Union in the development of his ‘counter–elite’ towards the end of the 19th century; of the quasi–Christian philosophy of T.H. Green, and, in particular, the influence of Canon Barnett and the Settlement movement – in each instant recognising the Christian basis of their motives and work.

The authors may object that they were not, in fact, writing a history of the influence of the church on the evolution of the welfare state, and this would be a fair objection. But the general passing over that influence suggests (at least to me) that such a history is almost completely unknown and needs to be written (I am tempted).

We need to hear about how, in the mid–18th century, Church of Scotland ministers Robert Wallace and Alexander Webster helped establish the first insurance fund based on actuarial principles, for widows and orphans of deceased ministers, thereby providing the basis for the historic Scottish Widows Fund and Life Assurance Society founded in 1815.

We need to hear about how Hannah More spent the 1790s founding schools in the Mendip Hills in which the children of farmers and labourers were taught to read, often against farmers’ and labourers’ wishes (and against those who were convinced that education made French–style revolutionary sentiments more rather than less likely), thereby paving the way for the foundation of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales in 1811, the country’s first nation–wide attempt at an education system.

We need to hear more about how Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, campaigned tirelessly throughout the middle–decades of the 19th century for the state to reform lunacy laws, and implement child labour restrictions, and regulate factory practice, and outlaw the employment of women and children in mines, and of children as chimney sweeps, and abolish the opium trade – thereby legitimising the heretofore heretical notion that such matters were the state’s responsibility and not those of individual mill, mine and factory owners.

We need to hear about how the Revd William Blackley became the first person to advocate a system of national insurance in 1878, his plan subsequently being urged on the House of Lords by the earl of Carnarvon in 1880, and becoming the subject of a House of Commons select committee inquiry in 1885. And about how the Church of England Temperance Society, would, via its volunteers within the court system, develop the country’s first probation service. And about how Archbishop Frederick Temple, addressing a deputation of trades’ societies in 1900, affirmed a scheme proposed by Charles Booth, that the state should pay a pension of 5s a week to everyone over the age of 65. And about the influence of the Rowntrees and the Cadburys. And about how (Arch)bishop William Temple did as much as any single person in inter–war Britain to change the weather of public opinion in favour of state intervention.

In short, while the history of the influence of the church and Christian thought on the voluntary ‘provision of services’ (as we would anachronistically call them) is vaguely known (if not fully written up: if anyone knows a solid, comprehensive history of this in the UK please let me know), that of the influence of the church and Christian thought on the emergence of the notion that the state had responsibilities in providing those services is almost totally unknown and, to the best of my knowledge, completely unwritten (again: correction most welcome).


Just as deafness to the ecclesiastical and theological influence in all this is ahistorical, so is the belief that the church has always been in favour of more intervention (as Boyd Hilton among others showed long ago). The history of the relationship between church and welfare/ state is a convoluted and winding one.

The idea that it is currently undergoing another one of its convolutions underlies For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare (2017), a short book by Sam Wells, with Russell Rook and David Barclay, which explores the past, present and future of how the church should engage with the state in the provision of welfare services. Wells notes that the level of church social action appears to have risen over recent decades, bucking the trends in affiliation and attendance. I say “appears” here because, having written at length about this in the Theos report Doing Good (2016) I think it’s important to acknowledge that the empirical evidence is not as strong as we would like it to be. All the indicators are that fewer ‘Christians’ are doing more with their Christianity, but at the moment there are insufficient indicators for us to be sure. Either way, the level of Church social action has not, we can say with confidence, declined.

What has been lacking, however, Wells rightly notes, is “a theology, a narrative and overall ethos behind that action.” Wells locates this in the idea of the ‘good’. Seventy years ago, he writes, the state became the church, educating, caring and supporting those previously tended as part of the Christian mission. This is something of exaggeration but it is a pardonable one, drawing attention to the most significant change to happen to both the church and the state in the 20th century, and becoming an engine of secularisation that dwarfed the impact of natural selection or even biblical criticism in the 19th century. “Deprived of the outward–facing and compassionate ingredients that consistently renewed their life and diversified their make–up, the churches gradually found their purpose and membership narrowing to an increasingly introverted and self–serving agenda.”

This is, again, a bit of an exaggeration. No–one could honestly call Faith in the City self–serving. But it nonetheless makes a valuable point. If the God of love was first encountered by the love of the godly, as he so often is, the godly’s redundancy at the hands of state services naturally generates a certain bemusement from those outside the fold. What exactly are you for? Corporate singing, a prayer or two, and a nice cup of tea and a chat are all well and good, but the world can probably carry on rotating on its axis without them.

The slow resurgence of church social action may be because more and more Christians are discovering the social implications of the gospel, although having written on centuries of Christian engagement with politics and society (Freedom and Order 2011) I suspect this is, in fact, an on–going discovery. Most Christian generations think they are somehow rediscovering the gospel’s true message, retrieving it from the blindness and ethical laziness of previous generations. Most of the time, they are really just regrasping and reframing the gospel, exploring its message so that they know the place for the first time. Christian social thought and action, whether Reformed or not, is always reforming.

The probable truth is that that resurgence is down to the fact that, for all its size, money and effort – vast by any comparison save that of recent years – the state is not managing to deliver all the goods. And this is where Wells’ idea of ‘goods’ comes in. The state, he writes, is good as addressing deficits, the kinds of want, idleness, ignorance, disease, and squalor of Beveridge’s report. It is not good at cultivating assets, securing relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy. The churches, by contrast, are not well–equipped to attack the giants of need, but much better placed to nurture the goods of a fully human life. “For the churches, the goal surely must be flourishing (not abolishing want); fulfilment (not abolishing idleness); inspiration (not abolishing ignorance); being a blessing (not abolishing disease); hope (nor abolishing squalor).”

Once again, one might cavil at the overly–schematised nature of this division, and it is far from clear where a deficit ends and a good begins, but as a heuristic device and a rule of thumb it is useful. Such a rule of “a goods vision” in place, Wells draws on three case studies and wider research to explore the what church social action has, does, and should look like in the future, steering a course between “the twin dangers of social action as surreptitious proselytism or bland volunteerism”.

The answer is helpfully flexible, the penultimate chapter of the book sketching out five models of church–state interaction – ranging from Contradiction, through Contrast, Complement and Collaboration, to Co–option – that churches could and indeed should adopt, depending on circumstance. “The sign of a healthy church may not only be in its number of its social action projects but also its flexibility in adopting the most appropriate approach to a given issues in a particular climate and context.”

This is admirably undogmatic. The relationship between church and (welfare) state cannot be straightforward and now, more than ever, once size won’t fit all. By adopting such a committed but flexible approach, we can expect to see a growing level of church social action – inside, beside and beyond the state – in the future, and that, in its turn, may help have up see once again how much there was in the past.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick

Chis Renwick’s Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State (2017) is published by Allen Lane

John Cooper’s The British Welfare Revolution, 1906–1914 (2017) is published by Bloomsbury Academic

Sam Well’s For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare (2017) is published by Canterbury Press

 Image by Kheel Center from available under this Creative Commons Licence

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 8 December 2017

Britain, Church, Social Action, Welfare


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