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The Living Wage: The £800m success story for the Church

The Living Wage: The £800m success story for the Church

The Rev Canon Dr Angus Ritchie looks back on the role that the church has played in the development of the Living Wage campaign. 05/11/2018

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In the aftermath of the financial crash and great recession of 2008, the news for the poorest communities has often made for grim reading. Homelessness is rising, personal debt is increasing, demand for food banks is at record levels – on any number of levels, life is harder.

One success story that has stood out during that time, though, has been the onward march of the Living Wage campaign. Begun in 2001, it has since seen around £800 million more paid to poorer people. Over 180,000 workers have had a pay rise because of the real Living Wage and over 4,700 employers have been accredited.

Indeed, the campaign was so successful that the previous Chancellor George Osborne stole its clothes and rebranded the National Minimum Wage as the Living Wage. The voluntary Living Wage or ‘real Living Wage’ campaign continues, though, and the new rates of pay per hour have just been announced.

At a brief glance, this might seem like a success for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party or a victory for trade unions. While politicians and unions have played their part, it’s worth remembering the Living Wage is at root a Christian concept, both in its theory and implementation.

Churches have been at the heart of the campaign in the UK since it was first mooted at a gathering at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine – a Christian retreat centre in east London – where leaders from local churches, mosques and unions in Citizens UK discussed the impact of low pay on their lives. Poverty wages were preventing their members from flourishing. Parents were having to choose between spending enough time with their children and having enough money to provide for them. Low paid workers had little or no time for participation in civic life, so the whole community was suffering.

One reason churches are at the heart of the campaign is that it affects their members’ lives. Yet there is a deeper motivation. The mainstream of Christian thought supports the institution of private property, but rejects its idolisation in the laissez–faire philosophy of libertarianism.

“The earth is the Lord’s,” says the Psalmist, “and everything in it.” On a Biblical vision, any human being’s ownership of property is always limited by the deeper reality that it is owned by God. The material world does not simply consist of commodities to be traded – the Christian understands it, first and foremost, to consist in gifts which are to be stewarded.

For this reason, Christianity must always stand opposed to the libertarian vision of philosophers such as Robert Nozick – on which human beings can acquire an absolute right to property ownership. For the mainstream of Christian social thought, property ownership is important (it creates a space for individuals and families to make free choices, independent of the overbearing power of the state) but also provisional. As St Thomas Aquinas made clear, a starving family did not need to wait for the charity of their rich neighbours before they could take their surplus bread: “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.”[1]

The right to property is grounded in the goods it makes possible, namely, the flourishing of families and communities. When the free market erodes those goods – by forcing workers to take on several insecure, low–paid jobs to make ends meet, leaving them without the time they need for family and community life – it is incompatible with Christian teaching.

As Krish Kandiah argues, a “mature Biblical theology of poverty and the family” will “respect and empower the poor rather than patronising them and creating dependency.” Kandiah gives the example of Boaz’s obedience to the Levitical gleaning laws that, “did not give grain to the widows and strangers but instead gave them access to the farmland and allowed them to gather what they needed for themselves.”[2]

Perhaps the most exciting feature of the Living Wage Campaign – and the one which resonates most deeply with the Christian Gospel – is that it is led by those who suffer most from poverty pay. As I have argued, this feature of community organising reflects the practice of Jesus, who did not build a Church with a heart for the poor, but one which had the poorest at its very heart.

Early in the Living Wage campaign, Citizens UK bought shares in HSBC, which enabled two of its leaders to attend the bank’s AGM. Fr Simon Mason (an Anglican priest whose east London parish was in the shadow of the bank’s new world headquarters) and Abdul Durrant (who cleaned the office of the HSBC Chairman, Sir John Bond) wanted to raise the issue face–to–face with the management of the bank. “Sir John,” Abdul said, “we work in the same office but we live in different worlds.” A year later, cleaners, caterers and security staff in his building were on a Living Wage, beginning a movement which has now spread nationwide. These victories have been won by and not just for some of Britain’s poorest and most marginalised citizens.

On both sides of the Atlantic, growing inequality between rich and poor has fuelled the rise of far–right populisms which set communities against each other. Pope Francis has argued another populism is possible – a populism in which “the people are the protagonists” and are “self–organised” rather than being the cheerleaders for “charismatic leaders” whose rhetoric divides and inflames. The Living Wage Campaign exemplifies this more authentic, inclusive populism. It is a form of politics rooted in the lives of some of the poorest citizens, drawn together from different faiths and cultures, recalling both the state and the market to the service of the common good. The Church is rightly at the heart of such a movement.

Image by Singkham via a Shutterstock licence. 

[1] Summa Theologiæ, II–II, Q66

[2] p35



Angus Ritchie

Angus Ritchie

Rev Canon Dr Angus Ritchie is an Anglican priest, Director of the Centre for Theology & Community and the author of the Theos publications From Goodness To God and The Case For Christian Humanism.


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Posted 5 November 2018

Britain, Christianity, Communities, Economy, Politics


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