Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, delivered a stirring call to action and criticism of government in his presidential address to the General Synod of the Church of England yesterday, focusing heavily on the way the dire economic situation has resulted in a new breed of 'working poor'.
He started his speech with a story of a visit to Canada to celebrate the centenary of the diocese of Edmonton. An encounter with the granddaughter of the Bishop of Edmonton provided a phrase that marked the theme of the speech. When Olivia, aged three and a half, discovered that the Archbishop was from another country, and was going on to spend two and a half days in the Rocky Mountains, she became very concerned about currency exchanges. "His money won't work," she said "How will he survive?"
It was the inability to survive despite financial resources that came up again and again in the speech. He spoke of a man named only as John who has been in a job for 13 years that paid £7.20 per hour, while the cost of living has continued creeping higher and higher.
This was not an isolated trend, Archbishop Sentamu pointed out, with prices having risen three times faster than wages for at least a decade.
The Archbishop did not leave the Government out of his sights, pointing out that the current statutory minimum wage made up only three-quarters of a living wage in London, and four-fifths in the rest of the country.
He also singled out the so-called 'bedroom tax' for criticism, noting that the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds had pointed out to a minister that pricing people out of council properties by mandating them not to 'over-occupy' was forcing them into private rentals that were charging them more.
He praised the Bishop of Derby for asking what incentives the Government was offering supermarkets to donate wasted food to food banks at the end of trading.
The Archbishop attacked the argument that Government decisions were motivated purely by a need for austerity, pointing out that if new legislation was passed that mandated the living wage as a required minimum, the Government would save £2.2 million a year through higher tax and insurance receipts while at the same time requiring less spending on benefits and tax credits.
The results of these situations have been bad health and general suffering, the Archbishop contended, as he quoted Professor Michael Marmot, one of the authors of a World Health Organisation review into a so-called 'health divide' in the European region. "Social Injustice is killing people on a grand scale," said professor Marmot, and the cases Archbishop Sentamu brought forward bore this out.
He said he was astonished that more than 27,000 people were diagnosed with malnutrition in Leeds in 2012. "Not Lesotho," he said "not Liberia, not Lusaka, but Leeds."
Adding to that, he referenced that 4,000 people were reported to be experiencing food poverty in North Yorkshire over the past six months, and he expressed dismay that this could be seen in a first world country.
The Archbishop voiced concern that it is no longer the case that having a job can insulate people from living below the breadline.
To combat this situation, the Archbishop highlighted two response strategies that the Church could employ in the form of needs based systems, which involve handing out resources to those who immediately need them, and asset based systems, which involve helping to create communities that could provide for themselves.
This would involve finding out what each individual could bring to the table and putting them in the best position to help in their capacity. Archbishop Sentamu declared that this was not an 'either or' proposition, but rather that they needed to use both these strategies to best effect. Using the famous phrase 'give a man a fish…' he pointed out that it was still necessary to give a man a fish first so that he had the energy to learn how to fish later.
Towards the end of the address, the Archbishop invoked the spirit of Beveridge, Archbishop Temple and Tawney, and their battle to face down the five giants of ignorance, squalor, idleness, disease and want. He said society needed to recapture the spirit of their efforts, but to remould it into a form that is realistic for current circumstances.
"We can do it, but we need the political will as well as ethical and religious conviction," said Archbishop Sentamu. He challenged the Synod to work hard to avoid what he called a "poverty of vision" in bringing about the changes people wish to see. To counter this, he cited Revelation 1:17-18 and invoked Jesus's call to "not be afraid".