© St Ninians Episcopal Church, Glasgow which is a charity registered under no.SC010966
Rector writes The news that you as a congregation raised the sum of £882 for St Luke’s Hospital in Malawi is, yet again, testament to the amazing generosity of the St Ninian’s congregation when it comes to raising money for overseas “good causes”. In the midst of my understandable pride as your Rector, I have to confess to a certain sense of unease. I am almost ashamed to admit it because on one view this reaction of mine might be regarded as downright churlish. I feel unease because there seems to be an increasing tendency to be oblivious to the poverty that exits in this country. We seem to be very reluctant to speak of such things and I wonder why. Could it be that, as the fifth richest country in the world, to speak of relative poverty is to be regarded as a dangerous “talking-down” of the nation? I am very aware of a deep undercurrent prevalent in our society, since at least the 1980s, that regards all those on benefits as being little more than scroungers. Now I am willing to accept that there will always be those who will seek to take advantage of the largesse of the state but it cannot on any view account for the facts that have emerged recently. My unease becomes more concrete and grows into a palpable sense of shock and then anger when I read the results of a United Nations Report into Poverty in the UK. Strange to say this has received but little publicity. Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has published his final report on the state of Britain. The report accuses the government of the “systematic immersion of a significant part of the British population into a state of poverty”. The Report declares that 14 million people are now living in relative poverty. Recent Government policies have been compared to the creation of “Victorian workhouses”. To receive Universal Credit claimants must show they have spent 35 hours searching for work and policies are designed to make everything as difficult as possible for the claimant. The UN Report claims that nearly 40% of children are expected to be living in poverty by 2021. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has estimated the figures to be nearer to 30%. Even if the upper number is exaggerated, these figures are still utterly unacceptable in the fifth richest country in the world. The UN Report is supported by research carried out by the Care Quality Commission and UNICEF who also report on the rising number of working families dependent on food banks; the unprecedented rise in child mental health problems; teachers being driven to provide food for pupils; the closure of youth services and the hostile environment towards immigrants. The UN Report should horrify us but I think there is a very real problem about feeling able to discuss these issues as a church family. The issue lies, I think, in the fact that this is the sphere of domestic politics. It’s much easier for us to talk about issues overseas and to encourage generosity in response to some emergency or worthy cause. Talking about the overseas problem very rarely raises issues of domestic party politics and so congregations feel able to talk freely. However, if the challenge is, say, poverty in Glasgow or Scotland any discussion inevitably leads to scrutinising the policies of the government of the day. The Church seems to have managed to contrive, over the centuries, a situation whereby it is regarded as not the done thing to talk about party politics. Now I quite appreciate and understand that a Rector is in a very difficult position. If a Rector makes his or her allegiance to a particular political party obvious from the pulpit, so to speak, then the Rector can expect trouble because such a declaration would make one half of the congregation happy and the other half very unhappy! A Rector is supposed to be a figure of unity not a symbol of division. If I feel a necessary constraint, no such constraint should affect you: the members of the congregation. Let us once and for all put to rest the nonsense that religion should not soil its delicate hands by plunging into the maelstrom that is politics. The way we organise our society is just as important to religion as the way we tend our soul. I have said on a number of occasions that the whole Brexit affair has diverted the country from many equally vital issues. How much more vital, then, is the issue of whether a child in the United Kingdom will or will not have a decent chance in life freed from the burden of grinding poverty? The Rector