It’s been interesting reading through many of the media articles following the parliamentary launch of Feeding Britain. There have been plenty of them, that’s for sure; the Church of England’s media digest pages probably haven’t been so full since the Same-Sex Marriage Bill went through Parliament.
Much of it has come down to the role of the state and what Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions should be doing about it all. Getting payments to more people on time is the most obvious place to start. It would save a couple of hundred thousand visits to foodbanks over the next year. Having them take over the running of foodbanks would certainly not be a good move. There are a few writers who have got it into their heads that Feeding Britain has called for the state to intervene in this way, but nothing of the sort has been said. Such were the rumours based on leaks that, by the time Justin Welby stood up to make his speech at the launch, he had to refute such claims: “You might think from some of yesterday’s coverage, and today’s, that the report is asking the Government to move into the foodbank sector. It’s not. It is far more interesting and creative than that.”
Obviously some journalists weren’t paying attention because the co-chair of the report, Frank Field, had to do almost exactly the same thing a few days later. Writing to the Times, he didn’t mince his words: “The last thing we want is for the deadening hand of government to fall upon food banks.”
He’s absolutely right, too. One of the main reasons why foodbanks have been so successful is that they’ve stayed away from government interference. The other is that they’ve been run by Christians.
Not so long ago Christians were often perceived by many, particularly in local government, as a bunch of amateur do-gooders. Some still think that is the case, but the truth is that you can’t deal with pushing on for a million foodbank visitors needing help unless you’re thoroughly organised with plenty of structural frameworks in place. There’s no way on recent performance that the state could run a system like this in such an efficient and effective way. Churches are perfectly placed to do this sort of thing – they have the manpower and local knowledge and relationships, but most of all they have something the state can never harness: they have God at the heart of it.
This is something that secularists repeatedly struggle to get their heads round. So do plenty of politicians, but not all. Stephen Timms has been banging the drum for the churches for quite some time now. Being a Christian, he gets it. This is what he said in a speech in September:
If you look around the country today there is a very important new social movement which is blossoming – but I don’t think its significance has properly yet been understood. It’s steadily building, it’s making an impact and it’s a movement of activism whose starting point is faith in Jesus and hope in his resurrection. We’re talking about a grassroots movement. There isn’t a headquarters somewhere or some famous celebrity who’s directing it all: this is a locally based, locally focused movement. It’s rooted in committed communities, in churches, which are socially and culturally mixed groups in a way that’s actually quite unusual in our society today. And this movement is rooted in worship – we’re not talking about something that consists of activists who happen to have got a bit of background in Christianity – instead this has right at its centre the person of Jesus Christ and the activity of worship and that’s what gives it vitality and energy and commitment. And it’s a movement that’s interested in changing individuals. It plugs away. It doesn’t abandon failures even if sometimes it looks a bit foolish. It works in faith that human history is in God’s hands and that one day what is clearly wrong and unfair today is going to be put right and I think this is one is the most hopeful developments around.
This is the big difference. When the state is in charge it becomes a job to do, but when churches are doing the work on the ground it is an act of worship. It has a spiritual dimension that fuels compassion and the desire to serve, and to serve well. The authors of The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, which was reviewed here last week, explains this very clearly:
(Christians) have something to offer that others do not. We are not relying on our human effort to transform people’s lives, but on a God who is intimately acquainted with the needs of the poor and offers hope as well as practical help. Jesus’ response to human need combined passion, prayer, commitment, faith, available human resources – and the expectation of change. Christians have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, and we should fully expect that power to be at work in us as we minister to the most vulnerable in society.
We have the privilege of praying for the people we are seeking to help. Faith and miracles must play a part in our care for the poor and needy. The Church’s work cannot be reduced to a social services model. God’s Spirit is available to us to bring a miraculous breakthrough that goes beyond any practical help we can give. Not only does God call us to demonstrate his mercy to the poor, but we also get the honour of explaining the extraordinary good news of Jesus Christ that can be embraced equally by rich and poor alike, and which has immediate impact on our lives, however desperate they may be.
No one else approaches social action in this way, not even organisations linked to other religions. This might seem nonsense or even offensive to those on the outside, but Christian projects up and down the country can testify to this power that comes through faith in Jesus. And what’s more, it works. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is another success story. It provides free debt help, counselling and job clubs through churches for 38,000 people a year and just keeps winning industry awards. Volunteers are encouraged to wear their faith on their sleeve and will offer prayer for each person they work with. Every time a client becomes a Christian a bell is sounded at CAP HQ and everyone gathers to pray and give thanks to God.
This is what social action through our churches should look like. These projects and organisations do not exclude anyone because of race, beliefs, sexuality or anything else, nor do they create any pressure to convert, but they also know that the best they have to offer to those they work with is more than just meeting physical needs. If a Christian is asked what motivates them, they should have every reason to give a full and honest answer without fear of criticism. CAP, like many other Christian organisations, receives no funding from the state and they see this as liberating. It avoids interference from those making demands on how grants should be spent. Other Christian organisations have gone after public funding in order to grow or survive and due to constraints placed upon them or concerns that the faith aspect should be toned down as a result they have lost their way, losing sight of the faith that fired them into existence and becoming less successful in the process.
The Feeding Britain authors and Justin Welby acknowledge that more can be done if State and Church work together in partnership using limited amounts of public money to build foundations. But they also know that they would need to be equal partners. The Church is not the little man to be bossed around here. It is delivering what the state is unable to do and shouldn’t be ashamed of its motivations. Whatever funding providers do to force Christian organisations to be less Christian is backward, insulting and counter-productive. This is a moment for government to throw its support behind Christian organisations which have proved themselves and blessed this nation. And that includes acknowledging and encouraging the faith of the thousands of volunteers and leaders who are providing routine acts of compassion that would otherwise be in very short supply.