And the poor inherited Blair

Witness: The Church and Politics

IT WAS the second anniversary of the coming to power of the Blair Government and the opposition was in something of a state of disarray. Not the Tories. This opposition was the unofficial one.

During the long years of Thatcherism and Majorism (if the latter merits anything so coherent as an "ism") you will recall that there was nothing much in the way of effective opposition from the "old" Labour Party. It seemed both riven by splits and bereft of ideas to combat the grand narrative of The Unfettered Market which the New Right had brought in. That, of course, was before New Labour decided that it was the only idea in town, and decided to pinch it.

In those far-off days, it was commonly said, the only real resistance to the tide of Thatcherism came from the Church. It was not that the Church had changed. It had merely stayed where it was, in the traditional English middle ground of decency, fair play and happy, non-ideological muddle. It was just that the political world had changed around it. Suddenly it found that its concerns - for the urban poor in its Faith in the City report, its insistence on praying for the Argentine dead at the end of the Falklands war, or its concerns for social justice in the Catholic bishops' Common Good document - left it as a rare voice of public contradiction.

But then came Tony Blair, with his Sunday Mass-going, his membership of the Christian Socialist Movement, and his conference speeches full of scriptural echoes about the dangers of a society passing by on the other side. Christian activists paused. All this was mixed into a policy agenda that sounded as tough in many ways as that of the Iron Lady predecessor for whom he happily proclaimed admiration. Should they back Tony Blair or criticise him?

For two years, the Church has hesitated, hopeful yet wary of abandoning the finely honed skills of opposition developed under 18 years of Tory rule. This week, the compromises of Blairism were never far from the heart of the discussion when 300 activists and theologians gathered at Newman College in Birmingham for a conference on the future of political theology, which was entitled Proclaiming the Gospel of Justice in a World of Global Capitalism.

"There is an increased tension and a growing mutual denunciation," Dr Ian Linden, of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, told the opening session, "between those who see the role of the Church as one of prophetic condemnation and those in favour of gradual, incremental political change."

It is focused around Tony Blair's decision to ask Church agencies and activists to help implement the government's "New Deal" welfare programmes. Those who say Yes are accused by the others of selling out the poor; those who say No are accused by Blair enthusiasts of being romantic dinosaurs.

There was no mistaking the level of suspicion. The choice was between being "the Church of the poor" or a "social-exclusion quango", said Elaine Graham, professor of pastoral theology at Manchester University, condemning what she called the "mad dash for relevance". "For Christian socialists, an attack on poverty was always an attack on inequality," she said. Equality had now been replaced by inclusion - but only for those who could be effective in the job market. One of the great problems of poverty is that it dehumanises the poor. New Labour's "whiff of coercion" would do nothing to counter that. The Church should not collude in the process of blaming the victims.

In the opposite corner were those such as Alison Webster, social responsibility officer for the Anglican Diocese of Worcester. It was true, she said, that those successful on the new training schemes often better themselves and then move out of the area - "which is great for them but does nothing for the community or those who are left behind". But the challenge was to discriminate between schemes that treat the poor as passive victims and those which allow them to become agents of change in their own lives. "Instead of tools of opposition, we need new tools of critical engagement."

There is, of course, nothing new in all this. The same debate is entrenched in the Hebrew Scriptures in the debate between the books of the Prophets and those of the Wisdom tradition. More recently, there are similar tensions in the approaches of Liberation Theology and Catholic Social Teaching.

The former, developed among the poor in Latin America, insists that theology must begin as the voice of the 1,300 million people in the world who live on less than $1 a day. "Being a Christian starts with taking a position on that," said Jon Sobrino, a theologian from El Salvador who has put his body where his mouth is. He was abroad the day in 1989 when government troops entered his home and slaughtered the entire community of Jesuit priests and their staff. He immediately went back, in defiance, to live there.

The latter, developed mainly among the rich in Europe, insists on trying to find a balance between individualism and collectivism. It calls for reform not revolution; it points out flaws in existing social models but resists proposing alternatives; though it has a presumption in favour of making current systems work more effectively.

Which offers a better paradigm for modern Britain? The problem with Liberation Theology, suggested one activist, is that its two key principles seem incompatible in the West. The first is that theology must grow out of the specific context in which people live, rather than out of some abstract principle. The second is that it must start from the point of view of the poor and marginalised. In Latin America, that is the majority of people, said the London activist, but in Britain most people are not victims but those who profit, however unwittingly, from the unjust economic system that keeps the Third World poor.

The answer, said Jon Sobrino, is "to build on your best traditions". That means staying primarily focused on the local, said Ken Leech, an Anglican priest in inner London who insists that 80 per cent of his activity must be conducted within one square mile of his East End vicarage. It also means we have to make our own connections between the local and the global, said Denys Turner, a Roman Catholic Marxist who is soon to be a professor of divinity at Cambridge. "We have to engage in the same exercise of unpacking the structures of power and pauperisation," he explained.

Chief target must be the cynicism and weary irony of our post-modern culture - which late capitalism uses to undermine any values that question the right of the market to determine everything. Tesco ergo sum, as one academic wag put it.

"Capitalism rests on the perversion of desire," said Tim Gorringe, a professor of theology at Exeter. The present economic order promotes a lifestyle which, if adopted by everybody, would exhaust the globe, he said. "Only the spiritual mastery of greed can save us."

And if you're wondering how to do that, Dr Mukti Barton, an Asian feminist from Birmingham, offered a concluding tip, borrowed from Gandhi: "Consider the poorest person you know and ask whether the step you are about to take will be good for them," she said. She could, of course, have the precept framed and sent to Downing Street. Whether Tony Blair would hang it above his desk for the next three years is another matter.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living