23/02/2014 03:36 GMT | Updated 23/02/2014 04:59 GMT

Welfare Cuts: Have Christian Leaders Become The New Voice Of The Left?

Elizabeth OldfieldDirectorTheos

There is a tradition as long as Christianity itself of the "turbulent priest", of bishops and church leaders taking on the political establishment.

David Cameron is unlikely to mete out the fate that the original "turbulent priest" Thomas Beckett received (being stabbed to death), for Archbishop Vincent Nichols.

But the harsh words this week from the new Cardinal, and from a coalition of CofE bishops, this close to an election year, echoes a more recent attack on some values of Conservatism by the clergy - that of 1996's 'Common Good'.

Church leaders are extremely concerned by the rise in food banks, often hosted in churches

In 1996, the economy could hardly have been more different. As Businessweek put it in an editorial at the time, "London's economy is so hot, it might be time for the fire brigade". Spending on champagne was up 20%, it was the year of Damian Hirst and Marco Pierre White.

That year was also the year of 'Common Good', a radical statement by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, against rampant capitalism and greed, calling for a fair wage, denouncing "abuses of economic power" and an end to "greed is good". It attacked the ethical basis of Thatcherism, and of allowing market forces to dominate.

Though the document repeatedly stated it was not intended to be party political, the paper was widely believed to be an endorsement of Tony Blair's New Labour, with the promise of the minimum wage, which swept to power the following year.

In 2014, the focus from the church leaders is the three-fold increase in food banks, the demonisation of immigrants, the rapid rise in homelessness, and the "scrounger" rhetoric of the coalition government. But the message is the same - kindness, empathy, responsibility.

And with just over a year to go before the next election, an election which polls currently predict Labour will win, is this the Second Coming of 'Common Good'?

"A concerted effort seems to be gathering pace and momentum across the mainstream Church communities," Dr Anna Rowlands, a lecturer in Theology and Ministry at Kings College London, told HuffPost UK.

"With the absence of leadership on these issues from the main political parties, it feels to many as if the Churches are expressing that opposition. This is not to be presented as a political usurpation by the Churches, but rather the Churches responding to the logic of their own ideas and practice, coinciding with something of a void of strong political opposition on these key issues.

"When we look at the issue of immigration, the case is even more stark and startling."

Nichols, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic, had been measured in his criticism of politicians until recently, when he gave an interview to the Telegraph last weekend, branding the Coalition's welfare reforms as a "disgrace" which leave vulnerable people facing "hunger and destitution".

In a press conference the following Tuesday, Nichols attacked the "discourse about immigration which is based on fear."

Rowlands said the move came as a surprise becomes Nichols had been so detached before. "He did not speak out directly against Universal Credit or capping of benefits when the policies were announced.

"He has been, so far, a less outspoken critic of this government than other key faith leaders. Having said that, he has been more consistently critical of immigration policy. Therefore, his choice to speak out now on welfare is all the more striking, as is the focus of his critique.

"That critique has focused on the human impact of the welfare changes, as measured against the experience of parish clergy. The rise in destitution, hunger and a kind of further desolation of the spirit of the most vulnerable are matters that he sees as Gospel questions, rather than mere policy questions.

"The idea of a safety net 'torn apart' is therefore something that he thinks should be a matter of concern for both politicians and church leaders."

But the Catholics are not alone in their concerns. Cameron's benefit cuts were savaged by 27 bishops in a letter this week, saying they have caused a "national crisis" and directly linked welfare changes to the rise of foodbanks.

End Hunger Fast, a coalition of church leaders which now includes Methodists, Quakers and other denominations, laid out their distaste for welfare cuts in an open letter to the Mirror to mark the start of Lent.

Rev Stuart Elliott, vicar for two parishes in North Wales, has been a key campaigner for End Hunger Fast, even pledging to live on a food bank budget with his family for a week in solidarity. "This is about a trend toward individualism. When Cameron talked about Big Society, what it actually meant was a 'Smaller Society', with only some people able to participate in it."

Recent research carried out by the Christian think tank Theos, as well as by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University has shown that Church leaders are generally more pro-welfare and pro-immigrant than the average Anglican Christian. Catholics are more pro-welfare and marginally more left-wing than Anglicans.

"We found that the most frequent attenders of the churches tended to be much more welfarist, rather than people who describe themselves as nominally Christian. They feel strongly about poverty and the unemployed," said Elizabeth Oldfield, Theos' director.

The political alignment of many Christians on the left may surprise people of a secular inclination, because of church opposition to same-sex marriage, and particularly Catholic doctrine on the role of women in the Church. "The abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the handling of sexuality and women bishops has done little for institutional trust in the Church of England," Rowlands added.

So is it an intervention on behalf of the left, or more specifically, the Labour party?

This is something those involved with Christian campaigning on poverty, particularly End Hunger Fast, reject.

Elliott said he believes most church leaders "perish the thought" of being seen to endorse a political party. "I do think that, as we saw with the Bishops speeches in the House of Commons in December, that although there is criticism of the coalition, we don't believe any party is offering the right alternative.

"This is actually an anti-party politics statement, that you can't play politics with poverty. We don't see poverty, hunger, and food banks as something that should be for point-scoring. All we are interested in is the right, compassionate policies to combat these issues, whatever colour party that comes from, I'll support them."

Oldfield pointed out that even former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, a self-described "lefty" was often "very, very critical of Labour and the Tories. It's a plague-on-both-your-houses way of thinking."

Rowlands said she thought the headlines connecting 1996's Common Good to New Labour were "a bit of a misnomer". It is just an assumption, she said that "when the Church speaks on social issues from a broadly Gospel perspective that these views are 'left-wing', because that is the register [people] have for them. There is a general lack of knowledge about the Christian roots of many of our traditions in law and politics and of the deep veins of social thought that run through Catholic and Anglican traditions."

Oldfield said she believes there will always be a Church voice in opposition, whether the government is blue or red. "Church voices don't fit easily into either party, many leaders are socially conservative, but also welfarist, pro-immigration. You can't fit the church in a box of left or right, This means they are always being critical, and tend to annoy most governments."