Justin Welby will not be formally enthroned for another 10 days. But the new Archbishop of Canterbury – who was sworn into office in early February – is undeterred by such niceties. Indeed, he has waded straight into one of the more politically charged of social policy debates, giving public support to an open letter from 43 bishops that takes issue with the Government’s proposed squeeze on welfare payments.
The bishops’ concern is that the move to limit the increases in both working-age benefits and also in some tax credits to just a single per cent annually, for the next three years, will hit children disproportionately hard.
In support of their position, the new Archbishop issued a formal statement questioning the Government’s decision to stop protecting the poorest families from the effects of inflation, and stressing that a civilised society has a duty to support vulnerable people. “When times are hard, that duty should be felt more than ever, not disappear or diminish,” Dr Welby wrote, warning that as many as 200,000 children could be forced into poverty by the Welfare Up-rating Bill, which is to be debated in the House of Lords over the coming days. With his background as an oil executive and his outspoken role on Parliament’s feisty Commission on Banking Standards, Dr Welby was never likely to be behindhand in his engagement with the secular sphere. In fact, his worldly qualities were no small part of his elevation to the archbishopric, at a time when the Church is bitterly divided over tricky social issues, such as women bishops and gay marriage, and also struggling with steadily declining attendance.
There is a constructive role for the Church in the public discourse. And Dr Welby’s apparent inclination to speak out holds the promise of real progress in creating an institution more relevant to the modern world. Furthermore, the subject upon which the new Archbishop has chosen to make his foray into the maelstrom of public debate suggests that Lambeth Palace is to make poverty, particularly as it affects children, a top priority.
There are potential pitfalls, though. Broadsides on matters of social policy are allowed to distract from the thorny internal problems facing the Church. Taking a clear stance on issues affecting people’s daily lives is, of course, part of the work to be done in dragging the Church into the 21st century. But so, too, is healing the deep divisions over homosexuality and the role of women. Until these questions are answered, the Church will remain outside the mainstream of modern British life – no matter how apposite its pronouncements on the world outside appear to be.
On the specifics of cuts to benefits payments, Dr Welby is right to be concerned with the impact – on children and adults, both. Where this newspaper parts company with the Archbishop is in his implication. Benefits are not the only way to tackle poverty. Nor can they be exempt from the necessary retrenchment of public budgets. While welfare payments have risen strongly in recent years to keep up with inflation, the wages that are taxed to pay for them have largely stagnated, leaving many households painfully squeezed.
To quibble with the Archbishop’s reasoning, however, is not to query his entitlement to take a stand. Dr Welby has made a promising start.