In 1983 the then Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard (once of the England cricket team) published a book entitled ‘Bias to the poor’. In it he argued that Scripture shows that God has a consistent preference for looking after the poor and weak of society, and that, to use the modern expression, God was a God of social justice.
This seems incontrovertible to me; that is, I do not think it possible for a person to be a Christian and not be concerned for those who are poor or marginalised or excluded from engaging with the wider society. The message of Scripture, perhaps best exemplified in the marvellous words of the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel, are clear and consistent on this point.
The ‘bias to the poor’ is something that is deeply embedded in the Church of England’s self-understanding, and is something of a commonplace amongst clergy. However, I want to bring out one way in which I think the church has gone astray in its understanding of what this means. Put simply, I think the Church has confused the imperative of caring for the poor with one particular form that such caring might take and, moreover, missed elements of caring for the poor – of integrating them with wider society – which is of huge contemporary relevance.
To explain that point, I want to tell a story about King David – the story about how he was chosen. The prophet Samuel had previously chosen Saul to be the King of Israel – Saul was a fine, handsome, tall and muscular man, accomplished and acclaimed. He led Israel to disaster. When Samuel asked God to lead him to the new King, that he might anoint the King, Samuel was led to the sons of Jesse. Each one paraded before him, but God did not give his consent. Finally, Samuel asked Jesse – do you not have any other sons? And Jesse said, ‘there is still my youngest’ – and this was David. God said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected [Saul]. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16)
Poverty in scripture is never simply about material wealth, but also about status in society. When Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest, he brings a little child into their midst and says that unless they become like a little child they will not enter the Kingdom – and the point of this is that a little child has absolutely no status in society. This principle was embedded in many Christian practices down the centuries. In the Rule of St Benedict, for example, the monks are told that “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”.
In other words, God doesn’t simply love the poor and seek for them to be given material relief. He also ‘often reveals’ his will through what is said by the poor. This is because those who have little stake in existing systems can often see those systems more clearly – as opposed to those who have a great stake in the existing systems (the High Priests) who lack such a perspective.
Which brings me to the Church of England. So far as I can tell, there isn’t a single member of the House of Bishops who is in favour of Brexit. Which means that, if we look at who tends to be against Brexit, and who tends to be for it, the Bishops are lining up with most of the rest of the establishment – and on the other side are the poor and excluded of British society.
The researcher Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Kent, recently published a paper describing the attitudes and approaches of those who supported Brexit. He finds that such voters are not generally motivated by racism or cultural insularity (which are the usual, reflexive brickbats offered by those opposed to Brexit in order to reinforce a sense of moral superiority) but rather a combination of two things: a sense that, for decades, whole communities had been cut off from the increasing prosperity of wider British society; and, secondly, a sense that those who were making the decisions affecting those communities were more and more distant from the communities themselves. Hence the success of the slogan ‘take back control’.
So here we have large sections of British society who are poor and excluded – exactly the sort of people for whom the Bible expresses an especial concern – but who are entirely unrepresented in the hierarchy of the national church.
Something has gone very wrong.
In Ancient Israel, the role of prophet was one that had a particular place within the Royal Court. There is a fascinating story in the book of Jeremiah which details the conflict between the ’employed’ prophets in the Court – notably Hananiah – and the prophet from the North, Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah was foretelling disaster at the hands of the Babylonians, whereas Hananiah proclaimed that the Babylonians would be defeated. Hananiah, put simply, was telling the Royal Court what they wanted to hear, and preserving the Court in what we would today call a ‘bubble’, where they were unaware of what was happening in the wider political context. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was persecuted for his teaching – and he was proved correct.
The trouble with the Church of England is that it has allowed the bias to the poor to be restricted to the safe, middle-class and soft-socialist nostrums that constitute acceptable discourse for the mainstream centre-left of this country. In doing so, it has failed to recognise that God doesn’t simply care for the poor, he also speaks directly through them, most especially when they cry out for justice and liberty.
If the Church of England is serious about being a Church for the whole nation, especially its mission to the poor, it might do well to start listening to what God is saying through the poor of this country – or, if that is too much, perhaps even listen to the ‘consensus of the faithful’ on the subject of Brexit. After all, Anglicans were significantly more likely to vote for Brexit than the average. The Bishops don’t just represent the more affluent minority of the country, they also represent a much smaller minority of their own church. I just hope that God doesn’t have the same fate in mind for us that he did for Israel under Babylon.