Dominic Lawson: By attacking Labour, the Bishops show moral cowardice

Church commissioners hold substantial investments with a hedge fund manager
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The Independent Online

Not since the days of Margaret Thatcher has the Church of England attacked a Government with such sustained venom. Over the weekend a phalanx of Bishops preached variations on an identical theme. The Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCullough, described the New Labour administration as "morally corrupt... beguiled by money. The Government believes that money can answer all of the problems and has encouraged greed and a love of money that the Bible says is the root of all evil."

The Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, fulminated that "While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer. When a big bank or car company goes bankrupt, it gets bailed out, but no one seems to be bailing out the ordinary people who are losing their jobs." From the more prosperous Home Counties the Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, declaimed that "The Government hasn't done anything like enough to help those less well-off, particularly in terms of tax redistribution."

Following on from The Archbishop of Canterbury's pre-Christmas attack on the Government's attempts to get us to spend, spend, spend our way out of recession, this must all come as a bitter blow to Gordon Brown, son of the manse and a man who prides himself on his religiously-inspired moral compass.

Brown's parliamentary supporters have hastened to his defence, notably John McFall, chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, who questioned whether "At the Bishops' palaces there has been too much mulled wine passed around over the past few days."

Perhaps Mr McFall is a teetotaller himself, but I think it unwise for any member of the Palace of Westminster, which swims in a sea of booze – with more bars than any West End hotel – to attribute hostile external views purely to the effects of alcohol. Apart from anything else, such vulgar abuse – even if meant only half-seriously – suggests that the Government has no solid argument of facts to deploy against the ranks of Right Reverends.

For example, Mr McFall could point out that the Bishop of Durham is not telling the truth when he accuses this Government of making "the poor poorer". According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies – which has not shrunk from criticising Mr Brown's economic legacy – since 1997 the least well-off (which it calls the "bottom five per cent") have seen a rise in income of 13.5 per cent, over and above inflation. In other words, the poor have become less poor.

It is certainly true that the top 10 per cent have seen their income grow by more over the same period – by 17 per cent in real terms, according to the IFS. Yet the Bishop of Winchester's critique that the Government has been insufficiently redistributive is also highly questionable. According to the official Survey of Personal Incomes, the top 1 per cent of earners receive 11.6 per cent of total income and pay 22 per cent of all income tax, while the bottom 25 per cent of earners receive 8.2 per cent of national income and pay 2 per cent of the total income tax. Again, the IFS pointed out – before Alistair Darling announced that those earning over £100,000 would pay a new top income tax rate of 45 per cent – that the Government is already perilously close to the marginal top rate after which tax returns would actually fall, and therefore there would be less to redistribute.

When the Bishops criticise the Government for being "beguiled by money" I take it that they have in mind the encouragement Gordon Brown gave to the City of London in its competition with New York and Tokyo as a financial trading centre. Yet Brown did not offer such encouragement as an end in itself, as the Bishops seem to think. He was aware that the taxes paid by the City – amounting to about £20bn a year – were essential if he was to continue the increase in funding of the public services to which he was committed. In this respect, he saw it as a giant recycling exercise, which is perhaps why the Bishops had not seen fit to criticise the policy when the going was good.

It is true that a number of the banks have now had to be bailed out, at great short-term cost to all taxpayers; the Government, however, is charging the banks a 12 per cent annual coupon for the state's preference shares, so it is anything but a free ride for the "rescued" shareholders. The Church of England's commissioners will know this only too well, as they hold substantial investments in some of the banks which were the most aggressive and improvident lenders, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS. Indeed, the Church had also invested heavily in the country's largest hedge fund manager, Man Group – which regularly engaged in the "short-selling" now anathemetised by the Archbishop of York as the behaviour of "bank-robbers".

The Church Commissioners also sold a mortgage portfolio for £135m last year, which does not sit entirely easily with the Archbishop of Canterbury's strictures against trading debts exclusively for profit. Meanwhile Dr Williams' critique of the spending culture needs to be set against the fact that the gigantic shopping mall known as the MetroCentre was entirely funded by the Church Commissioners (which subsequently sold 90 per cent of its interest for a very decent profit).

The Established Church of England is an organisation which would have seemed peculiar to the founders of Christianity, as the learned Dr Williams would know, probably better than anyone else alive. He and his colleagues are doubtless trying to cleave close to the originator of the worldwide Church, St Paul, who in his First Letter to Timothy, declared that "The love of money is the root of all evils."

I am no theologian, but I seem to recall that St Paul was speaking specifically about those who preached for money, and allowed this to corrupt their message. It was a particular warning to Timothy, an inexperienced pastor in charge of the important church at Ephesus: "As for you, man of God, shun all this."

After all, it is clearly not true that love of money is the root of "all" evils. Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot – to name but three mass murderers – were not interested in money at all. They were austere individuals with no great fascination for personal possessions; they were fascinated by power. This is a much more dangerous "false god" which, perhaps, is what Samuel Johnson meant when he said that "there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money."

It's not for an atheist to criticise sermons on theological grounds, but I do wonder why the Church of England's Bishops think it right to criticise the economic policies of the Government, rather than their own parishioners for falling for any alleged encouragement they might have received from Mr Brown to spend too much money. Moral behaviour, after all, is a decision of an individual; it – or indeed what Christians call salvation – cannot be handed down by a beneficent government.

Just to criticise the Government is to hit at the easiest target. In addressing their lectures to Mr Brown, rather than their own errant flock, the Bishops are moral cowards.