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Careful with the churches, George

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 08.24.05There is no row between the Government and the churches over the welfare reform measures that came into effect yesterday.  The church report which sparked reports of a clash was published over a month ago, and reported over the weekend by the BBC as if it were new.  Bias, anyone? So when the Daily Telegraph (£) (for example) reports this morning that George Osborne will today respond to "a weekend of criticism about benefits cuts from Labour, leading church groups and prominent figures on the Left:, it's worth bearing this artificiality in mind.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that church leaders support the Government, but the context of their reaction to its policies is very different from that of the 1980s, when a special report for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, "Faith in the City" criticised Margaret Thatcher's economic policy.  Church attendance is even lower.  The Catholic Church has been blighted by the child abuse scandals, and the spectre of militant Islamism has fed a backlash against religion.  Neither the Human Rights Act nor the Equality Act existed in the mid-1980s, and the European Court of Human Rights was less intrusive and aggressive.

As I write in today's Daily Telegraph, the churches do invaluable work with the poor and deprived, running, as one bishop put it, "post offices, cafes, doctors' surgeries, asylum rights centres, homeless outreach and bereavement counselling, job creation and economic regeneration programmes, eco-initiatives [and] youth clubs".  The Chancellor and the Government should therefore handle church criticism, when it comes, respectfully and carefully.  Furthermore, a big slice of people receiving tax credits are working - which helps to explain why the slob-on-a-couch posters which CCHQ rushed out, and quickly backed off, were a mistake: a caricature of how some present-day conservatives think Margaret Thatcher campaigned.  (She was both more positive and more subtle.)

None the less, there is a difference between what worshippers in the pews think and what bishops in the Lords, and elsewhere, say.  Very simply, episcopal criticisms of the Government are often reactionary, in the literal sense of the word - a harking-back to the years of the Attlee post-war settlement, when more men worked in manufacturing, more people were married, women didn't enjoy the same opportunities as today and there were far fewer ethnic minorities.  When a coalition of churches lines up to attack the Government's welfare policies, or George Carey pops up to attack its social policy, the policy presciptions they yearn for are often out-of-date.

This doesn't mean that David Cameron has a thoroughly thought-out approach to the churches, or that all church criticism is always wrong.  (The same-sex marriage debacle was a self-inflicted wound; the treatment of one-earner couples could turn into another.)  But the longer church leaders confuse the Attlee settlement with a New Jerusalem, the safer the Prime Minister will feel in first complimenting them, and then ignoring them - secure in the knowledge that more churchgoers agree with his stance on welfare than some bishops care to admit.


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