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What Do the Bishops Know About Politics? More Than You'd Think...

18/02/2015 15:06 GMT | Updated 20/04/2015 10:59 BST

Long before the Coalition, the Labour and Tory candidates in one London election nicknamed their Lib Dem opponent "the Bishop." It was a revealing insult. The implication was that he was free to pontificate because he didn't have any power. As the Church of England's Bishops release their Pastoral Letter, many politicians and commentators have been equally dismissive. So what exactly are these pontificating Pontiffs adding to the national debate?

The Church has a clear answer to this attack. What it brings to the national debate is an unparalleled level of grassroots engagement. Its parish churches are at the heart of a wide range of forms of voluntary action - from parent and toddler groups to Night Shelters and Foodbanks, Credit Unions and employment training courses. (The excellent Spear programme, for example, has a record of getting young people into work that far outstrips the private contractors funded by the State.) The Government's own Social Integration Commission named the local church as the place where people were most likely to meet and befriend someone different from them, in terms of class, race or culture. Far from being a source of division, religion is still our society's strongest form of social glue.

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Image: The Bishop of Stepney with Citizens UK leaders celebrating the interest rate cap on payday loans

And here's another surprising fact: at a time of increasing disillusionment about the Westminster machine, the Church of England's parishes have been at the heart of some game-changing political action.

The Living Wage Campaign is now supported by politicians of all parties. But when east London churches began to campaign for it - as part of the Citizens UK alliance - they were met with a wall of scepticism and resistance. Success has many parents, but the fathers and mothers of this movement are the churches (and mosques) in some of England's poorest neighbourhoods. As the Premier League faces increasing pressure to spend some of its £5.1 billion broadcasting windfall on becoming a Living Wage employer, local churches remain at the heart of the campaign - witness the wonderful letter to Arsenal from the Revd Martin Wroe.

Back in 2009, that same alliance demanded a cap on interest rates, and investment in a more mutual banking system. Archbishop Justin has shown how the Church can be a force for good when bottom-up action is combined with a strong national voice. In the last decade alone Credit Union membership has doubled, an interest cap is now written into law (Britain's first anti-usury legislation for over a century), and Wonga's business model is now in serious trouble (and it is on its third Chief Executive in the last 18 months.)

So in fact the evidence stacks up against the popular prejudice. The Church's engagement in the Living Wage Campaign and in the fight against exploitative lending is deeply rooted in theology, for the Bible leaves us no room to separate the "spiritual" from economic and political issues. These campaigns also show how Christians can act with their neighbours for the common good.

In their own experience, and in the life of the Church they lead, our Bishops and Archbishops bring a level of experience and insight often absent in the Westminster village. In alliance with other religious and civic groups, Anglican parishes are at the front-line of engagement with homelessness and hunger in our cities - and as well as offering practical care are campaigning for structural change.

This is nothing new. Back in the 1920s and 30s, it was the priest Fr Basil Jellicoe who pioneered new forms of social housing - using that same combination of grassroots engagement and establishment connections to build high-quality, affordable homes in place of the slums around Euston station.

Ninety years on, Britain has another housing crisis. Once again, it will fall to the church, in partnership with other civil society organisations to bring about the change that our political elites seem unable to deliver.

Jobs with decent pay, an end to exploitative lending, a decent supply of affordable housing - this is what our poorest neighbourhoods need, and what the Church is working in and with them to secure. And the very moral compass which leads the Bishops to demand these things leads us to reject the toxic chauvinism which is beginning to infect our political discourse. The Pastoral Letter stands against those who seek to pit the poorest in Britain against their brothers and sisters abroad, with its robust defence of overseas aid spending and hospitality to refugees and migrants. All too often, people who shout "charity begins at home" are happy to neglect the poorest at home and abroad. Not surprisingly, the people working hardest for charity and justice at home tend to think those same values should shape our treatment of all the world's citizens. This Pastoral Letter invites us to recognise in each of our fellow humans the image of God. It is credible because the Church is not just saying these things. In England's poorest communities, it is living them out.