Christianity and welfare and grace
Reading today's Independent,I came across an interesting article by Andreas Whittam Smith based on a recent book by Frank Prochaska entitled Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain. For the time being, I will hold back from buying this book until it is out at a more affordable price as a softback. However, Whittam Smith's article suggests that it is an interesting book.
Essentially the argument made seems to be that the mid 19th Century was the high point of laissez - faire economics. Taxes were low and economic growth was taking place at a fast pace. Of course, not everyone was enjoying good times. Life was hard for those capitalists who failed to compete and went bankrupt. It was also hard for major sections of the working class who all too often weren't working. In those days there was precious little supportfrom the state for the victims of the workings of capitalism. Such help would have been seen by many politicians as both useless and immoral.
The lack of state provision was met as far as was possible by the churches. This help took the form of voluntary hospitals, ragged schools, orphanages etc. Such help was often provided with the hope of creating moral improvement in the poor. I cannot help but gulp at this notion for all too often the history of the Cornish mining town in which I grew up suggests that it was often the rich and powerful who had the greater need of moral improvement. However, it cannot be denied that many within the churches sought to act charitably for good motives even if such help seemed often to be a means of recruitment for their churches.
Prochaka argues that the widening of the franchise which began in 1867 led governments to undertake welfare provision as the needs were beyond the capacity of Church charitable organisation to meet. This meant that Church attention shifted from the poor as individuals to questions as to the causes of poverty. Inevitably the consequence was that the Church became more distant from peoples' lives.
Of course, there were other factors in Church decline. Darwinism had its effect and the evangelical tradition came under pressure from the rise of critical Biblical scholarship. Whittam Smith doesn't mention it but the slaughter during two World Wars created an erosion of faith as did the growth of awareness that all too often religion had been used as a means of social control.
Certainly, the decline in Church attendance has been considerable in the UK. the 1851 Religious Census suggests that 10 million people had attended churches and chapels on that day. The figure now is probably less than 2 million people attending church on a Sunday even though the population has more than trebled since 1851.
So has the welfare stae killed our churches. I think to an extent a case can be made for Prochaska's hypothesis. And yet, I believe wholeheartedly in a welfare state and would wish to defend it. My reaction is in part emotional. Despite the progress of the second half of the 19th Century, my great grandmother who was a widow came to the end of her life in a monstrous workhouse in 1914. She had worked for much of her life and to a degree was let down by her husband retreating into alcohol abuse as a result of family tragedies. I cannot help feeling that a country that was about to waste a fortune on war, failed her. And my sorrow is added to by the fact that her daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, kept the story of her end a secret from al of the family who followed, doubtless out of a sense of shame.
But I also believe that the state should play a moral role in welfare provision. The churches have never been able to adequately meet the scale of human needs. Charity can only create people who are dependent on Lady Bountifuls. I prefer to think in terms of entitlements albeit properly administered. We are our brother's keeper! And that finds proper expression in a proper sharing of resources. That is what morality is about.
As for the churches, where do we go? In the mid 19th Century, they flourished because they at least attempted to meet the needs of the people. I don't think that we can re create that situation. Never again will the Church be the main provider of income maintenance, health or education. Thought of such a situation are but a pipe dream.
And yet there is a way that the Church can respond to peoples' needs today even if it seems much less obvious and perhaps more difficult. Today we have around us a crisis of self esteem. Many people are struggling to make sense of their lives. People live with guilt for the times in which they mess up and feel worthless. Our culture encourages this as is expressed in a mass media which all too often needs to create those who can be derided for their failings, a mass media which all too often freezes people in their worst moments.
The antidote to this is God's grace. That grace treats us all much better than we deserve. It gives value to each of us as God's children. In our hurting society, the Church has a calling to be the means by which people are connected to God's grace as expressed in the slef giving love of Christ. Furthermore, we are called to mediate that grace in our dealings and relationships with others. So, dear reader, we can still meet the needs of people today.
Anyhow, I hope to develop an understanding of grace next week.