Bishop Mike's Diocesan Synod address

First published 9th December 2013
In his address to Diocesan Synod on 7th December, Bishop Mike urged support for Foodbanks and spoke on measures to improve the operation of the Welfare System.
Whichever way you look at it, and wherever you look, these are very tough times. Our Christmas starts with Christ Campaign in a small way brings into the public eye the ironies that exist in our midst. 51% of people in this country tell us that they think that Jesus Christ is irrelevant to their celebration of Christmas. When asked what they think Christmas is about they talk about calories (food and drink) and presents.

The irony lies in this: whilst some say that Christmas is about food and drink, thousands of people will rely on foodbanks this Christmas to put food on the table for their families. Whilst we talk about presents, many people will feel pressured into debt to fund their Christmas. Last month the level of personal debt in this country totalled a staggering 1.43 trillion. Thats a lot of noughts and a lot of debt!

Many live in fear of rising costs, static incomes and pensions, with a level of anxiety about their economic security. The irony of all this is that whilst the Government bangs on about hard working families it is, in fact, low-paid, but hard working families who are really feeling the pinch.

Our Diocese is similarly finding it hard to face its financial commitments. The reality is that parish share receipts across the Diocese are running at a lower level than in 2008. Today, Synod, we shall have the painful task of passing a budget that reflects the harsh realities of the tough times in which we live.

This morning I want to take the unusual option of using my address to propose a motion that has come to us from City Deanery. Because we already had a packed agenda and because there is an element of urgency about the subject of the motion, I made the offer to the Area Dean of using my address to propose their motion and then ask you to vote on it, without debate, with the hope that this will bring about some grass roots action. I am pleased to be able to address this issue that is very much in the headlines and which I know will be a matter of concern for many people around this Diocese.

The phrase Food bank has become a well-worn part of our vocabulary. More than 3,100 people received a three-day food package from one of the Bristol-based foodbanks between April and September this year. For the same period last year the number was 1,700; a near doubling of the figure. Nationally, the number of people using foodbanks has trebled over that same year.

Surely, as Christians we must agree that the help foodbanks offer to those in the most desperate circumstances is a good thing. We hear Jesuss clear statement in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25) that when we feed the least of these little ones of his, we feed him. We hear Jesus proclaim right at the start of his ministry that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him (and by implication us) to bring good news to the poor. We listen to the prophets of the Old Testament rail against oppressive systems and regimes that keep people in destitution; Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause says Isaiah (1.17).

And so it is no surprise that churches are at the forefront of the impetus to set up and run foodbanks. It is estimated that 81% of parishes in this country support foodbanks in same way or another, through collecting food, providing volunteers, managing the foodbanks and distributing vouchers. We are right to feel proud of the church's efforts as we take seriously the clear message of the Bible of support and compassion for the every poorest.

And yet there is something that does not sit easily with us. Compassion yes; but also justice. We will want to ask why in this modern, technological, prosperous age in the West, foodbanks are even necessary in such a nation as our own. What has gone wrong at the very heart of things that means that Lorna is quoted as saying: I felt very ashamed having to go to food bank the first time. It was down to my sons school liaison officer coming round to my house, because I hadnt sent my son into school for a couple of days as I couldnt afford a packed lunch for him and I couldnt afford to pay for a school dinner. I couldnt do what a mum should do for them look after them. I couldnt even feed them. That just makes you feel really low as a parent. (Walking the Breadline produced jointly by Christian Action on Poverty and Oxfam).

Why is this happening? And what can we do about it? These questions are at the very heart of the City Deanery motion that is before us today.

As Christians, we are called to serve our local communities in the best way we can, and for many, foodbanks are now a vital necessity. There is, however, an obvious point here. Foodbanks are a symptom of a society that is far from well. To put it starkly, foodbanks treat symptoms, but we need also to use our influence to attack a political culture which creates the kind of economic climate which creates the need for foodbanks. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, we need to reject the language of benefit scroungers, not because there arent people who manipulate the system, but because there are many, many more who are in serious difficulty and truly need our help.

So we also need to be asking what has given rise to the poverty that means that foodbanks are needed? Why cant people afford food for their own families? And what long-term policy decisions need to be made in order to make foodbanks redundant in the near future? Government ministers have repeatedly refused to accept a link between the growth in food bank use and welfare reform, stating the reasons are complex and varied. It is indeed a complex picture. There are many social, economic and political factors that lead to the poverty and exclusion we see at every food bank in this city.

But it would be nave to assume that Government policy had not played at least a part in the conditions we now see. Recent cuts to the welfare system have contributed to a worsening picture. In April this year, many of the major welfare reforms came into effect, and since then there has been a trebling in the number of foodbanks users, compared with the same six-month period last year. The Trussell Trust has seen a significant increase in the proportion of clients using foodbanks because of benefit changes or delays; these accounted for 54% of all referrals in the first half of 2013-14, compared with 43% during the same period last year. Benefit sanctions have nearly trebled in the last 10 years to more than 860,000 in the year to June 2013, compared with fewer than 300,000 in 2002. And dont even get me started on the so-called bedroom tax. Now, evidence also seems to point to the fact that a significant and increasing number of food bank clients are working families, adversely affected by a squeeze in wages and rising living costs. Food prices have increased on average by 32% over the last year and it is now no longer only the very poorest who are feeling the squeeze.

The link between Government policy and what the Bishop of Truro recently called the scandal of food poverty in the UK cannot be denied. Walking the Breadline states that, The explosion in food poverty and the use of foodbanks is a national disgrace, and undermines the UKs commitment to ensuring that all its citizens have access to food one of the most basic of all human rights.

However, the Government seems to remain blissfully in denial of the facts. The Work & Pensions minister Mark Hoban, has said: Foodbanks are not part of the welfare system and statistics are not collected on the number of referrals to foodbanks or the reasons. There is no reliable evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of foodbanks. Ministers do not have any immediate plans to visit a food bank or meet representatives of groups operating foodbanks. (2 Sep 2013).

This is not good enough. As Christians, the injunction to do justice and love mercy goes hand in hand with walking humbly before our God. But what form should our response take? There is a need to move beyond simple relief from hunger by the provisions of foodbanks, to rehabilitation and helping people to participate in beginning to improve their circumstances, to development, where people are empowered to live as they were meant to live in society. Undergirding all this must be a challenge to the systems and processes that lead people to be in such dire situations in the first place. That is what the City Deanery motion encourages us to engage with.

Foodbanks are worthy and good expressions of compassion to fellow people, but in a wealthy society such as ours, they challenge our very understanding of what it means to seek the common good and what it means to live in a healthy society where all are equally provided for.

The motion has two parts. The first part has been on the agenda of the Mission and Public Affairs Division for sometime. This has led to the appointment of a new staff member, Tom Sefton, whose role, if I might quote the motion is to brief our bishops who sit in the House of Lords in order that they might encourage the Government to improve the operation of the Welfare System in order to ensure that such short term crisis assistance becomes no longer necessary.

You might say, well the MPA has already ticked the box on this so whats the point? Well, in a way it has, but on the other hand, to have a motion that seeks to address the causes of these problems is important and I encourage you to vote for this. It will be an encouragement to the MPA and to me and to my episcopal colleagues to do all we can to speak up for an economic system that delivers something that better, that corrects the shocking economic inequality that exists in the 21st century in a wealthy and developed country.

But there is something you can do and this is where the second part of the motion comes in. 

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