The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said the half a million people estimated to be using food banks have brought back a "latent" spirit of giving in the church, adding that religion must help fight the “shame” of accepting handouts.
Welby, who in January contributed to a scathing assessment of the coalition which called income inequality "evil", said that religious groups had stepped up to fill the "huge gap which we could see opening around us" after the recession.
In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, he claimed that the recession "took the whole country by surprise" but the hardship and the cuts had "brought out of people something that was latent in the life of the church, a deep desire to serve and to bless."
Welby was speaking at the launch of The Cinnamon Faith Action Audit report, which found faith groups contribute at least £3 billion worth of social and welfare support to the UK every year, helping 48 million people through 288 million hours of volunteering.
The Archbishop said: "That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, because you don’t want people to be in need, but the need was met by love, and the Cinnamon report shows the degree to which the faith communities have stepped up, and I think that’s extraordinarily exciting.”
Welby told HuffPost UK that he was “not in the political blame game” but the rapid rise of food banks was a “reality” that had to be confronted.
He said: “I’ve never yet met anyone, in government or outside it who said ‘ooh, I wish there were more food banks’. Everyone recognises that an ideal world is where everyone has a job, and has a job that earns enough money to meet all their needs.
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“But the reality is that no economy is that simple, and so need has to be met. I’m not into the political blame game, I just feel that the exciting thing is the churches, in the grace of God, have stepped up to the mark, much, much more greatly than anyone, including myself would ever have imagined."
Welby praised the Cinnamon Faith Action Audit for revealing “what has been happening” and said it “brings us back to the point where we believe that all can change, and there is a future of a society that is mutually flourishing, which is our dream, and the dream, I want to add here – just after an election – of almost everyone I have ever met in politics.”
The work done by faith groups in running food banks, night shelters, debt advice, employment coaching and temporary accommodation was not "mere ‘do-goodery’" but rather a "professional" response to human need caused by the recession and cuts, he said.
Welby recalled the “shame” of a person he met at a visit to a food bank in Dover: “Someone came in, who was, as many people are when they go to food banks, really embarrassed about being there. [They were] someone in work, [for whom] - as they put it rather precisely - the month is a bit longer than the money. It was actually a rather neat way of putting it."
“They were really, really ashamed to be there, and they went out with a box of food, but looking much more confident. And they said to one of the helpers there: ‘I came looking for a box of food, and I was given a box of love.’ Now that is heart of what the church should be doing.”
“If you went back to 2007 and said in two or three years the churches altogether, not just the Anglicans but all the churches would be running food banks all over the country, would be filling the gap in the way that we did during the great recession from 2008 through 2009 and the after effects, I think people would have said ‘oh rubbish they can never do that’. But the reality is that they did.”
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Welby refused to speculate on what cuts the Tory government’s first budget in July would bring, saying: “We don’t know what the budget’s going to bring, so I’m not going to speculate on what might or might not happen. The budget will be what the budget will be, and sometimes you can get yourself into a sort of lather of apprehension and then find it wasn’t actually entirely necessary. But one way or another, I’m sure in a grace of God that the church will pull its weight as it ought to do.”
Asked whether the church could cope with the strain of further cuts, he said: “I think the evidence is that the churches are full of people whose great desire is to serve their communities and love their neighbours, which is a good thing.
“There’s a friend of mine in the Congo, who once had, in the area he covered as a parish priest, two million refugees. And I said 'what did you do?' He said: 'I did what God gave me the resources to do'.”
He added that there was “nothing very unusual” in the Church helping people: “We’ve done this throughout history, it’s not a new thing of the church meeting social need. In England, the education system was more or less invented through the churches in the 18th and 19th century.”
Later, in a speech at Emmanuel Evangelical Church in Westminster to launch the Cinnamon Network report, Welby revisited a key sermon he had made just before becoming Archbishop in 2013, when he said that the “idols of materialism and wealth” had been toppled by the recession.
“I talked about the fact that the idols that we had built our society on, the ideals of materialism and wealth... had been toppled by the recession after the great crisis of 2008," he said. "And that, as the idols have toppled, the only thing that was left were the eternal values. I was talking in a cathedral, I said all that we find left is a cross on the horizon."
“And [I] talked about the need for… meeting that huge gap which we could see opening around us and which opened from 2008 onwards. I’m not trying to ascribe blame, it’s simply a fact that, as we all know, that that gap opened up.”
But at the time of that 2013 sermon, he claimed, he was sure his call to action would have little effect. “I remember going back to my seat – waking up the people next to me, hoping someone would wake up the organist - and thinking to myself that there was some good purple prose in there, but it won’t have any effect. I could not have been more wrong, as usual.
“The faith communities of this country have risen to the challenge of the last seven or eight years in the most extraordinary way, as they have done before, and will continue to do whatever happens in the future with the economy. Because there will always be people in need, there will always be people who need not just provision, but need provision wrapped up in love. And it’s when they get that that human dignity is preserved and humanity is lifted. And that is why faith is a force for good in our society.”
But the Archbishop also acknowledged that many young people had a deeply negative view of religion: “According to a YouGov poll – well, alright it’s a poll, so margin of error plus of minus 7 or 8,” he joked, referring to the General Election polls which turned out to be dramatically inaccurate.
“But even with that, the reputation of religion amongst young people is actually more negative than neutral. 41% of 18-24 year olds - in a poll in 2013, when they still got it right - agreed that religion is more often the cause of evil in the world, and only 14% said it was a cause for good."
“And the Faith Action Audit reveals something completely different,” he added. “It shows the breadth of commitment across the country, the depth of commitment, and about all the strength of experience and good practice. Thanks to Cinnamon and other bodies like it, this is no mere ‘do-goodery’. It is seeking to find best practice and put it into action in the most professional way that can be imagined.”
The Cinnamon Network Faith Action Audit is research covering over 2,000 faith groups, revealing the breadth of social and welfare help provided by religious groups around the country.
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