Spiritual - and political: For those who question the Church's relevance to society, a resounding answer is provided this Christmas


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The Independent Online

If there is one time of year when the Christian Churches can reasonably expect a hearing, and a little attention, it is surely Christmas. This year promises to see a radical twist to the usual rituals.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are now led by two men whose instinct for social justice is as strong as their faith, and who are not shy of speaking out and risking controversy. It is a novel turn of events, to see religion collide with politics in this way, and raises a number of questions as to how faith nowadays fits with society.

In the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, we have a figure who not only voices his anguish about people undergoing stress and hardship, but who has experienced them himself. Though privileged in many respects, Justin Welby’s recent accounts of his childhood, and particularly of living with his alcoholic father, suggest that he has a better understanding of what it is to be lonely at Christmas time.

The Archbishop movingly described spending one Christmas effectively alone when his father simply refused to get out of bed all day: “I did think this was a pretty bad day. I went out once or twice, but everything was closed. I don’t really remember, I suppose I watched a bit of telly, scrounged around the fridge for something to eat … that was a grim, grim day.”

Sadly, it will be grim, too, for families unable to afford a decent meal any day of the week, let alone a grand turkey for Christmas lunch, and the Church’s initiatives with food banks do help counter what the Archbishop called, earlier this month, the hunger that is stalking large parts of the country.

It is not particularly political to want to see an end to the colossal waste of good food that we have become so blithely accustomed to. As the Archbishop says, the big names in the food business do have a moral obligation to communities, and we do indeed need to ensure that the financial incentives in their industry don’t act against their moral instincts. The Archbishop has managed to avoid overtly party-political sentiments while speaking out about what are, on any reasonable view, social evils. What’s more, he proposes practical solutions too.

Hence, the Anglican Church’s new focus on those in debt as a target for its attentions, trying to help those at the mercy of some payday lenders’ usurious interest rates by encouraging credit unions. A radical departure for the Church in its way, but very much in the tradition of the “Faith In the City” thinking that first surfaced in the 1980s.

Much more of a departure from the Catholic Church’s past is Pope Francis’s withering attack on the Catholic elite – a Vatican bureaucracy that he says is suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “the terrorism of gossip”. He has also addressed the difficult questions of paedophilia, celibacy and corruption in the Church. He has not held back from attacking the modern cult of celebrity – “those who look obsessively at their own image”. Again, those are hardly party-political points, but no less radical, valid and welcome, for all that.

Pope Francis has led his Church only since March 2013, Justin Welby since November 2012. Both have made promising starts in raising their voices on the right issues and at the right time. It is too early, perhaps, to describe either as revolutionary, but they say and do challenging things. We look forward to their respective Christmas messages.