Three issues in one day: Bishops still have much to say

The image people often have of bishops is of white haired men who have retreated to the ivory towers of their Cathedral spires, with little or nothing of importance to say about the real world and the issues real people deal with daily.

And yet for the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, John Davies, his words, opinions and presence are so highly sought after on so many issues that this Saturday he had been triple booked for events on poverty, racism and economic justice.
It had been announced to the press that Bishop Davies would be attending a protest rally in Cardiff opposing the Social Sector Size Criteria, better known as the 'Bedroom Tax'.

An address he had planned to deliver to the protestors was quoted by Wales Online as saying that the bedroom tax "disrupts lives, breaks up families and divides communities".

"It cuts people adrift from important bits of their personal and family story," the planned address stated.

"Cutting their benefit if they stay put achieves nothing just. It simply creates more poverty and risks deeper social problems.

"A government which seeks to serve must take proper account of these roots and those needs, as well as simple human dignity, before it decides to effectively turn people out of their homes and communities. They should think again."

In the end, owing to diary conflicts, he wasn't able to join the protest, which was also to be attended by Labour MP for Ogmore, Huw Irranca Davies, Plaid Cymru Assembly Members Bethan Jenkins and Jocelyn Davies, and Labour Assembly Member Mick Antoniw.

Although he was not there in person, it is an issue that he feels very strongly about. He senses that the tax is being implemented without any regard for the "rootedness" of people in their communities.

It's a matter of people having to move where they don't want to go.

"There is a great risk of being uprooted from communities where they've spent most of their lives, where they've brought up families, and where they may also have other members of their family living who provide a network of support to help them out," he says.

That doesn't mean though that he is unsympathetic towards the ones in power who are faced with the unavoidable reality of shrinking budgets. Choices are hard.

"I've never believed anyone goes into public life to penalise people. I'm also realistic enough to see that budgets, whether they be national budgets, local government budgets or personal budgets are very tightly squeezed at the moment."

The bedroom tax was introduced in April 2013 and reduces housing benefit for people who live in properties with available spare rooms. These cuts can be as much as 14 to 25 per cent depending upon the number of rooms.

The idea was to encourage people to move into smaller houses to free up larger ones for those who most need them.

In this regard the policy has been unsuccessful. A recent BBC investigation looking into 331 social housing providers across England, Wales, and Scotland, revealed that only 6 per cent of those affected by the tax have moved house.

As Bishop Davies points out: "While I think it would be a good idea to provide more suitable accommodation for people who need more space, the other accommodation for people who are already there to move into doesn't really exist in a lot of places."

The investigation also revealed that 28 per cent of those affected have fallen into arrears for the first time in 12 months, and 3 per cent have had legal action, such as evictions, taken against them.

A 2013 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that 1,822 social housing tenants in Cardiff are worse off under the tax, and 44 per cent of council tenants in Wrexham and Anglesey and 38 per cent in Swansea have fallen into arrears.

Apologising for his absence, the bishop thanked protesters in a written message for taking the time and trouble to be present and to draw attention to what he says "may be a well-intentioned, but ultimately unjust policy".

Another equally deserving cause that the bishop was called upon to address was a counter demonstration opposing a white supremacist rally being planned in Swansea.

Opposition to the National Front event is strong but the local council is powerless to prevent it from going ahead because of free speech laws. They are legally oblidged to provide a site for a demonstration, should they request it, regardless of the group's ideology.

The notion that whites should be superior over non-whites is "inconsistent with the Gospel which seeks to affirm the dignity and equality of all people and which demands life in all its fullness for all", the bishop says.

It is, he says, an ideology that dehumanises people of other races and denies their freedoms to the detriment of everyone.

"[White supremacists] foment discord and division in society which all too easily spills over into violence.

"The Christian Church has a duty to promote that dignity, to seek that equality and call for conditions which make for that life."

With immigration such a sensitive topic in Britain at the moment, the bishop is keen to stress that any response must be based on the intrinsic value of all people and their equal worth.

"Governments have to take a measured and just approach to sensitive issues such as immigration, but any movement which openly promotes the stigmatisation and denigration of people of other races and backgrounds is to be deplored," he says.

"Such movements, in a free society, have a right to voice their opinions peacefully and within the boundaries of the law, but robust and just responses must be made."

In the end, Bishop Davies attended an event in support of fairer credit for those who need it. While payday loans companies may make borrowing look convenient, for some it is resorted to in desperation and ends up being a poverty trap when the loan cannot be repaid and the interest piles up.

"Borrowing at any price, sometimes seen as a quick and easy way out of poverty leaves people vulnerable, sometimes desperate and open to being taken advantage of by others," he says.

"Debt mounts upon debt; interest piles up on interest in a vicious cycle form which there seems sometimes no real escape.

"Preying upon the vulnerable, often driving them into even deeper debt, is thoroughly un-Christian, deplorable and to be discouraged by whatever legal means are available."

Instead, Bishop Davies calls for financial institutions that embraced "generosity in lending" and at rates of interest which are fair to both lender and borrower.

"This ought to be possible through traditional means such as banks or, increasingly nowadays, through credit unions."
These kind of actions are at the very heart of the Christian message, and therefore, according to Bishop Davies, something that church leaders should all be speaking out about.

"The Christian Church, faithful to the Gospel, has a duty to speak out and, if possible, act in favour of the poor, the needy and vulnerable.

"Furthermore, it has a duty to speak, in the name of the often voiceless poor, to those in authority who, as well as being in a position to put in place mechanisms which enable the poor to access fair credit.

"They also must call out to those with the legislative means to outlaw the disgraceful activities of those who perpetuate the demeaning and life-denying practices of those which impact so negatively on so many of the vulnerable in our society."

The Church is often accused of being out of touch with the rest of society, but in the case of Bishop Davies at least, it seems those fighting for justice understand that the Church is on their side.

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