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Arguments against Archbishops

Arguments against Archbishops

Nick Spencer examines the arguments often levelled against the contribution of Archbishops to economic debates. 11/09/2018

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The cartoon shows a banker leaning over a font. He is baptising a baby. The caption runs, “What does the Archbishop think about this?” The date is a few days after the then Primate of all England has given a rather provocative address to the City of London. The year is 1944. Plus ça change…

Yes, the tradition of mocking Archbishops for engaging in politics is not a new one. William Temple, the prelate in question, was about as respected an Archbishop as the Church of England boasted in the 20th century. 1944 was a much more respectful time. And yet… What else should Archbishop Justin Welby’s have expected for his comments on the UK economy last week?

Theos has a whole report – yes, a whole report! – on the political interventions of recent Archbishops of Canterbury. It’s by Daniel Gover, it’s called Turbulent Priests? and it is very good. You can download it here. It’s still well worth reading.

Alas,the report was published long before Welby was elevated to Canterbury but the next edition (Deo volente) will have no shortage of material for the new era. Thus, it might include a reference to the tweet posted by the Tax Payer’s Alliance which read 

Or it might talk about the tweet sent by the programme Have I Got News for You? which read 

But then again, maybe it won’t, because such tweets are not really worth more than a sigh.

Let’s take the first (and start by ignoring the fact that the context of the verse quoted is precisely about the legitimacy of paying tax): does anyone really still think that theology does not incorporate political questions? That God is indifferent to what Caesar does?

Every time I imagine we have moved on from this question, I read a tweet like this one (though my favourite still remains the piece by a Sunday Times reviewer who once opined:

“Jesus’s main concern was healing the sick, comforting the poor and preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God. He had no interest in politics, revolution or theology.”

– apparently unaware ‘kingdom’ is a political term, ‘God’ is a theological term, and preaching about the ‘coming’ of both was a ‘revolutionary’ act).

At first, I thought that the TaxPayers’ Alliance tweet might have been a spoof, or a kind of Dead Cat Strategy. Others assure me it wasn’t. If they are right, Theos’ work on earth is clearly not done. If you do think theology has nothing to do with politics read this or this or, if you’re very brave, this or this. Or better still, read the Bible. It’s better written than all of the above. If you come away thinking it’s not interested in how we exercise power and money, you should read it again.

And then there’s the second one. This is less Dead Cat, more Professional Foul. Let’s not pay attention to what the Archbishop is saying because – ta da – the Church is really, really rich. Which means it’s hypocritical. Which means it’s wrong or at least not worth paying attention to.

In reality, the £8.3 billion figure is as complex as it is big, generating around £225m per annum (£226.2 in 2017 to be precise) which provides funds for mission activities, for the ministry costs of poorer dioceses, for bishops’ ministry, for some cathedral costs, for the future of closed church buildings, for clergy pensions for service prior to 1998, and various other costs. If you are really interested in understanding how it breaks down and is used you should read this or this.

The really bad news for the church–is–rich–therefore–hypocritical is argument is that not many vicars or youth workers are raking it in. The average vicar’s stipend is £25,750, a diocesan bishop receives about £43,500. The Archbishop of Canterbury earns around £80,000. It’s not riches.

There have been intelligent responses to Welby’s IPPR intervention in this debate, some appreciative, others critical. But they too often get lost in the narratives of “God not Caesar” or “rich therefore hypocritical”.  Neither works.

So, once again: God is profoundly interested in what Caesar does. And the Church’s massive “value” a rather less meaningful figure than the Church’s rather less than massive salaries. I wonder how much those who work and appear on Have I got news for you? earn each year. I bet it’s more than £25,750.

 Image by Getty. 

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently 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). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Posted 11 September 2018

Bishops, Christianity, Churches, Economy, Taxation

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