T4CG’s Founder and Director Jenny Sinclair led this session for the Urban Mission Group at Churches Together England in late March 2023, responding to the challenge to mark the fortieth anniversary of her father’s influential 1983 book, Bias to the Poor. Acknowledging the prophetic questions it raises, she critiques some of the book’s proposed solutions, seeing it as a book of its time. Exploring the reality of the new era, she cautions against returning to the approaches of the 1980s, urging the churches to consider more seriously their calling to challenge the dominance of capital and state. Examining the language the Church uses to describe its relationship with poor communities, she reads the signs of the times to describe the political forces influencing the Church to collude in the abandonment of left behind areas, and what can be done to correct its estrangement from people who are poor.
Download the text of Jenny’s talk as a PDF here
This session is really a response to a request from Bishop Philip North who asked me if I could do something to mark the 40th anniversary of my father’s book Bias to the Poor. I said to be honest, I’m not really that keen on looking back because it risks pointing the Church back to the 1980s. But it could be a useful jumping off point to reflect in a broader sense on what has happened in the last forty years, and to be honest about where the Church has got to in that period.
Despite the book being so influential in its time, and although it raised many of the right questions, my view is that the political position and some of the policy asks it advocated were deeply flawed. So this isn’t going to be a session on that book. This is a new time and that means we need a new and different response.
This is a very big subject but we can make a start this morning. I’m sure we would all much prefer to be together in person, and hopefully we can do that before too long. I’ll share some thoughts for about half an hour and then there will be time for discussion.
First of all, for those who don’t know me, let me just fill you in a little about my background. I grew up an only child – obviously in an Anglican clergy household. We lived in East London, South East London and Liverpool. I was a bit of a rebel in my teens and became estranged from faith. After years in the wilderness I had a conversion experience in my mid-twenties and quite against anyone’s expectations I was called into the Catholic tradition. I then lived a quiet life, working as a graphic designer and I raised a family.
Then in 2011 in my late forties, I had a movement of the Spirit, and was prompted – again quite against my own inclinations – to explore the twenty year ecumenical partnership between my father, Bishop David Sheppard and the Catholic Archbishop Derek Worlock. Their joint leadership played a pivotal role in the renewal of Liverpool in the 1970s – 1990s in a time of division and political confusion. Their partnership, which also stimulated a new season of ecumenism, had two defining features:
- joint servant leadership, adopting the posture of an “outward-facing church” that engages with the life of the neighbourhood, and
- the dignity of the human person and solidarity with the poor.
Looking at this is what led to Together for the Common Good. But while we are inspired by their partnership, we don’t inherit the legacy wholesale: we take a different view on some things because this is a new time.
Together for the Common Good is dedicated to spiritual and civic renewal. We work with churches, leaders and young people to help them fulfil their vocation for the Common Good. We draw from across the Christian traditions but in particular on the theological tradition of Catholic Social Thought. Rooted in the gospel, this body of thinking is intended for all people of goodwill, not just for Catholics. It draws on social and political expertise, data and lived experience from across the world. This lens helps me read the signs of the times and navigate this time of profound change.
Just to say how we define common good, because people tend to project whatever they want onto it. It’s not a utopian ideal but something we build – it is the shared life of a society as we work together across our differences for mutual flourishing, each of us taking responsibility, according to our calling and ability.
“BIAS TO THE POOR”
So the controlling question of Bias to the Poor was how the Church and society can most effectively honour God’s love for the poor.
My father held a deep conviction that the Church needed to be a presence in deprived urban areas. As a family we lived this out, and his example encouraged many church leaders after him to do the same. He was critical of the trend, that accelerated in the 80s, of persuading people to move to find work, which he said would generate “communities of the left behind”. In the face of appeals by government ministers to young people to ‘get mobile’, he and Derek Worlock called instead for job creation in inner-city areas to incentivise young people to stay, to avoid the scarring of the abandoned community for decades to come.
His solutions to poverty were inspired by I Corinthians 12-27, that all are ‘members one of another’. He put forward many good proposals but his emphasis was on what we might now regard as “welfarism”, both in terms of state interventions and as a posture of the Church. He argued for control the economy, for wealth redistribution and for a social wage for the low paid and unemployed. He underestimated the problem with centralising state power and the problems that would flow from detaching work from benefits.
This book positioned the Church as an advocate for poor communities. He believed that he as a church leader should speak out on their behalf. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we might now see that posture as somewhat patrician, a characteristic that the Anglican Church still finds hard to shake off, and which has spread to other churches too, despite some evidence of recognition of class and the importance of local leadership. Ironically my father made significant contributions in this direction too, but fundamentally, he saw Church and State, not the poor themselves, as the agents of change.
Bias to the Poor was influential and led to Faith in the City which in turn influenced a generation of church leaders and other initiatives such as the Church Urban Fund. Since then there has been marked Church decline. Somewhere along the way, the Church fell out of relationship with ordinary people, not least poor communities. Despite new life among some Pentecostal and unconventional churches, the institutional churches have seen their numbers falling very fast. The lockdowns in the pandemic merely accelerated a trajectory that was already well established.
So although the book asks many of the right questions, I am uncomfortable with some of its proposed solutions. My father was part of a movement in the Church of England that adopted a certain politics in the 1980s whose assumptions continue to shape the Church and its attitude to poor communities. I believe it contributed to the Church’s estrangement from poor people. Now that we have the so-called “cost of living crisis” there is a risk that the churches may double down and make the same mistake again. This is a new season that warrants reading the signs of the times.
WHAT’S GOING ON
It’s vital to understandwhat’s been going on. Why should we do this? Well, because
- we may think that evangelisation is the only solution to renewal
- we can inadvertently prop up an unjust system – there is a very real risk of the churches becoming what Lenin called “the useful idiots” if we make the wrong call
- we are in a new time, and so many of the assumptions we carry – political, social – may be out of date.
Now of course there is no such thing as a neutral view. So what theological worldview am I taking? I listen and learn across the Christian traditions and learn from the leading political thinkers of our time, and I read as widely as I can. But in particular I draw on the Catholic Social Thought tradition – sometimes called the theology of the Holy Spirit in practice.
Seven years ago, in 2015, Pope Francis said this is not an era of change but a change of era. He was not the only one to notice that the financial crisis of 2008 was a sign of the old era breaking down.
We are living through years of profound change – in socio-political terms this period can be described as an interregnum. The new era is yet to be born. In the meantime we can expect to see all manner of morbid symptoms.
In this time of political confusion there are many competing ideologies – so it is vital to ensure we are looking at this through a Christian worldview, not a secular worldview.
The “cost of living crisis” is not a post-pandemic phenomenon, and although it is exacerbated by the Ukraine war, its causes go back a long way. We need to zoom right out and see the bigger picture, or we won’t understand what is going on.
Every era is characterised by a particular philosophy and that philosophy shapes what we call the “political economy” – that is, the arrangements that determine wages, the state of our housing, the way capital behaves, the types of jobs generated, the power relationships we experience – these things are always shaped by an idea.
So the animating idea of the current era, which is breaking down, comes from the philosophy of Liberalism. This manifests in various forms – and some have been positive – but in the last 45 years or so it has morphed into an ideology known as neoliberalism.
Further back, its roots are in the Enlightenment, but in 1979 this philosophy manifested in the form of neoclassical economics which prioritises shareholder interest and the pursuit of profit maximisation over everything else.
The economic impact
This involved removing the constraints from finance capital which ushered in four decades of transactional individualism and the system of globalisation across the West. We can describe this as the era of “contract”.
The type of economic model that this philosophy generates is inherently unstable. This is because it is founded upon a false anthropology – a desiccated, soulless conception of the human being and a false idea of freedom, quite different from a Christian anthropology where human beings are seen as transcendent, relational beings made in the image of God. Pope Benedict writes about this brilliantly in the document Caritas in Veritate in 2009, as part of his response to the Crash of 2008.
Finance capital has a tendency to dehumanise and commodify human beings and the natural world. It does generate wealth of course, and that is good, but it tends to exploit, and it requires units of labour (that’s us, human beings) to be cheap, and mobile. The insistence on having to move to find work used to be seen as right wing but is now rebranded as “freedom”.
This transactional “freedom” brought prosperity for some, but it broke parts of our country. Investment moved out of certain areas (including the places that you in the Urban Mission Group are focused on) and this caused civic and spiritual degradation. It drew the brightest and the best away from their places of belonging to the big cities.
This was in fact a politics of abandonment. It was a breach of the common good.
Governments of all parties over the last four decades have perpetuated this system. None have had the political vision to mount a serious challenge to the hegemonic power of finance capital. Not least the approach of the Blair-Brown administration, which was trusted by the social wings of the churches to lead the way. Later, the Party capitulated completely, abandoning its Methodist and Catholic roots for this liberal ideology, in the process becoming estranged from its heartlands, losing three elections.
After three decades of no sign of reform of this economic system, the so-called “left behind” had enough of this liberal domination and mismanagement. They literally had nothing to lose. Their reaction was framed by big money interests as “populist” but in previous eras it would have been understood as a peasants’ revolt.
Every country that has followed this system is seeing the same effects. Such a system leads to the State becoming too centralised: it also has a tendency to be dehumanising. The motivational spirit at work here is anti-human – which is why the system is now unravelling. The so-called “cost of living crisis” is inevitable in this kind of political economy. It is just one example of a wider crisis unfolding across the West.
The social impact
There is a vicious cycle at work here that connects the economic and the social:
- the dominance of banking profit
- promotes intensified consumerism and low wages >>
- which in turn generate social pathologies >>
- which in turn lead to more welfare expenditure >>
- which in turn requires more State redistribution >>
- which then leads to more consumerism >> and so on
So as this is playing out, we are now seeing a collaboration between the powers of finance capital and the technocratic State. In this increasingly symbiotic relationship, and with insufficient countervailing forces, power becomes too concentrated and it dominates the human being. Effectively we can conceive of this as the “principalities and powers.”
Catholic Social Thought always looks for a balance of power so that the human being is not subordinated, so that God’s grace can flow through that person’s life. The tradition advises that the powers of money and State should be constrained. However, it advises this is done not only through a fair tax system, but
- also through the countervailing force of strong, local, accountable, civil society institutions (such as unions, churches, associations, clubs and local businesses),
- and through strong families, which are seen as the bedrock of society, cultivating personhood
- and through the deconcentrating of capital – for example shifting from six big, centralised banks to many regional banks (like the Bank of Dave, Bradford and Bingley, Northern Rock etc)
- and through distributed power (for example, through accountable, democratic processes at regional and local levels).
Over the last forty years, local democratic processes hollowed out and civil society atrophied, so the countervailing powers are not strong enough. When these forces are weak, capital operates with relative impunity, and the State amasses too much power – this has happened more than we would ever have agreed to prior to the pandemic.
So this philosophy generates not only economic but social consequences.
Liberalism in its extreme form incorporates the idea of “the unencumbered self”, which produces a culture of self, emphasising rights over responsibilities. This is effectively an assault on relationship.
It has generated conditions that lead to pathologies such as family breakdown, atomisation, the fragmentation of communities, political polarisation, increased loneliness (higher among the young than the old), breakdowns in social trust, exploitation of the person and of the natural world, extreme inequality, civic degradation, psychological distress, spiritual confusion.
In its extreme form, this philosophy conceptualises “family” as a constraint. Tradition, accountability and mutual obligation are seen as obstacles to progress. Relationship to place is reframed as old fashioned.
For shorthand, we can call this way of seeing the world “individualism”, where the primacy of God is subordinated to the primacy of self.
It generates poverty in all its forms: economic poverty, relational poverty and spiritual poverty, leading to the breakdown of morality.
It has also generated the cult of identitarian politics with its culture of self in the form of victimhood, and the battle of rights which has led to the culture wars. Hence justice is reframed, eclipsing the reality of political economy, giving finance capital a free pass.
There has been a loss of memory in terms of the meaning of association. Individualism has also contributed to the erosion of local agency; the real meaning of politics has been lost. Atomisation has led to the breakdown of social trust and many communities have lost the sense of self-determination, that shared problems can be addressed by working together. This means people become more dependent on products and services than on each other.
In simple terms, this individualistic philosophy is hostile to human beings, who are social beings. And so it generates “poverty” in two significant ways:
- in economic terms it generates low wages requiring a bigger and bigger welfare State which ends up subsidising businesses who pay wages too low to live on
- and in social terms, it generates pathologies that the State ends up having to solve.
WHOSE SIDE IS THE CHURCH ON?
So given all of this, and reflecting on the last forty years since Bias to the Poor, we need to ask: whose side is the Church on?
What can we learn from Jesus in His time? It is clear whose side He was on.
The biblical scholars among you may spot some parallels here with the Roman political economy in Galilee . Jesus was a manual worker, part of the peasantry. The Roman economy privileged the elites who controlled the storehouses and kept down the wages of the poor.
Jesus resisted the excesses of this economy and the damage it wrought by promoting the kingdom, which took civic as well as spiritual form. His instinct was to build a countervailing power through relationships, to bring people together in solidarity, across class, across race and across educational background: a relational power. Jesus offered a non-violent sacrificial resistance which was characterised by love and just relationships.
From the gospels, Catholic Social Thought derives a set of principles, including solidarity, subsidiarity, the dignity of work, stewardship and the preferential option for the poor. It is centred on upholding the integrity and dignity of the human being and the natural world. We call this “common good thinking.”
These principles call us, just as our Lord did then, to be the embodiment of love in a world that has been desecrated; to build common good with God and with each other in the places where we live; to accompany each other in solidarity, to offer some resistance to the dominance of the principalities and powers. To hold a sacred space in which human beings can be together to encounter the transcendent: a place to be loved and heard, to share and build bonds, a sense of family.
In this sense we could say that building common good is an insurgency against individualism.
The coming months and years are likely to be hard. The political class is currently showing little sign of the guts or vision required to undertake the economic reform required, and the underlying trends show that the low wage phenomenon is creeping upwards, into the formerly affluent classes. Signs of globalisation breaking down mean that local food and energy production will become more important.
How will the churches respond? A realistic worldview rooted in the gospel will help to avoid mission drift. The times may call for a kind of tragic realism but also a disposition of expectancy. Of course we must meet emergency needs, but it is our vocation to sense the kingdom.
Only God knows where these seismic changes are heading. This is a new era with no roadmap and no human being knows how things will play out. So an attentiveness is required: a posture of listening to the movements of the Spirit in our neighbourhood that will give us the graces we need to navigate the unknown.
What will the church look like in our area? What does solidarity with a poor community look like? What are these structures of grace?
This could be an inflection point for those churches willing to make this cultural shift.
But first, I think we need to consider honestly some of the factors around the increasing distance of the Church from poor communities, and from God:
First, the language so often used in church social action circles indicates this estrangement. One good test is to ask if what is said internally can be said in front of someone who is poor. I think language must be consistent. Terms like “marginalised”, “outreach”, “service delivery”, “engagement”: this is not the language of friendship and mutual respect. This managerial language is part of an approach that is well intentioned but which unintentionally “others” the people it aims to help.
And, it misunderstands how God works. “Community development”, “projects”, “facilitators” and other professionalised terms and roles – these terms are part of the culture of contract, based on a misguided conception of the human person. If we are not extremely careful, they can shame the real work, which is to build relationships of loving friendship.
This great effort to “fix things” is utterly different from the covenantal approach of listening to God and dwelling in the local with our neighbours. An overly programmatic approach risks engineering out the possibility of us hearing the Holy Spirit.
From a church-centric position, it may appear so, but from God’s worldview, poor people are not marginal. It depends where you stand and who you know. The numbers are currently estimated at least 14 million people, that is at least 20% of the population. And 750,000 households are currently at risk of mortgage default . That is a lot of people. This doesn’t feel “marginal” to me.
Second, the food bank paradox is well known. Food banks meet increasing need but also mask the real problem: they are now a key component baked into a low wage economy propping up big business. The more efficient emergency food aid becomes, the less urgent economic reform appears.
Food banks and other forms of social action and resources are often sources of pride in churches wanting to “to serve the community”, justifying their usefulness. But the Church has a sacred vocation to be transformational, not to be useful. Churches may be delighted to be providing services but the service-client dynamic focused on needs can inadvertently alienate the very people it aims to help. That is not building a common good. This may be a little harsh, but as was once said, “The poor are not the raw material of your salvation.”
The emphasis on food poverty also masks the role of individualism in driving social pathologies such as family breakdown, addiction, homelessness, debt and other problems people fall into. Non-material causes of poverty often cannot be solved by the State, and are better addressed in relationship within local institutions.
Pope Francis says that Christians must stop seeing charity in a service provider mindset and instead live a shared life. He says we “must commit to a mutual sharing of life that does not allow proxies”.
This requires congregational culture change, to become “communities of place” where being relational is less of a project and more of a disposition.
Third, as we have seen, over the last forty years the Church has set great store by its advocacy role to speak out for the poor, as if the poor need the Church to be angry because they can’t do it for themselves. Well, in recent democratic events, poor people did use their voice and their vote – but were held in contempt by many in the churches for doing so. So it’s not surprising that they gave up on the Church:
- when it failed to defend their interests – as it had done in the past, and when it failed to advocate for fundamental economic reform.
As my friend David Gannon texted me last month:
“The church has alienated working class people by turning into a ‘woke’ foodbank. It needs to start acting like a church again. The ‘Cost of Living Nerds’ are barking up the wrong tree. State hand outs are soul destroying. People need dignified work so they can maintain some self-respect as well as a life. He added: “Unfettered capital has screwed the country, our economy needs to be pinned to the towns and cities it serves.”
Fourth, there is widespread naivety in the churches about the economy. Bias to the Poor was well-intentioned but made the mistaken assumption that financial redistribution through the tax system was the solution to poverty. Well it didn’t work; things have got much worse.
Campaigning for increases in benefits may be an imperative in the immediate term, and it assuages some guilt in the affluent, but it does nothing to address the underlying dysfunction, which is an economic system geared to the interests of capital.
More insidious, this posture feeds a politics of low expectations. In this sense, the Church is a fully signed up supporter of the culture of contract. The churches should not be comfortable with five generations of families on benefits.
Being covenantal involves advocating for fundamental economic reform, incentives to place-based investment and decent jobs to restore the abandoned places. Within Catholic Social Thought, the dignity of work is central.
Further, as Bishop Philip and Malcolm Brown and others have been saying for years, church closures in low-income areas signal to poor communities that the Church doesn’t care. Being covenantal involves staying put, building long term relationships and acting in true solidarity, living a shared life.
When the Church colludes with money power and State power, and abandons places in which it has served for centuries, this is a breach of the common good.
Compare this with Jesus who never abandons the poor, whom He honours the most.
He says, “I will be with you always”. His love is covenantal, not contractual.
My father had the right instinct about the Church having a presence in poor communities and in the early part of his ministry he lived this out. But the policy solutions he adopted in the 1980s and 1990s were framed within the culture of contract, and so they inadvertently propped up an unjust system. The difference is about posture.
Pope Francis says the Church needs to be deep in relationship with poor people. He says that when someone is poor, he or she has a sense of the need for others and for God – an instinct for interdependence that the affluent so easily lose.
He goes further – he says the Church needs to be evangelised by the poor. He recognises that in its estrangement from poor communities, the whole body of the Church has become impoverished.
God is at work in poor communities. He honours the poor specially. The estrangement of the Church from the abandoned places means it will struggle to tune in to God’s worldview.
With such an unstable period ahead, we are called to be both pragmatic and prophetic. But we should acknowledge that we may not know yet what being “prophetic” might involve.
This new season requires a shift in posture. From the patrician assumptions around advocacy, the desire to fix and the service-client dynamic, to a relational culture of love, listening to God and to each other, of dwelling in the local together, of becoming communities of place characterised by covenantal relationships of reciprocity and mutual respect.
Some churches may be able to make this shift, and some notably already have.
But many, especially the institutional denominations, have fallen out of relationship with poor communities and some are affected by a middle class and managerial mindset, which comes out of the culture of contract.
Could professionalised roles now so prevalent in the churches sometimes make it difficult for us to see the way God sees?
Now you may think “we already know this.”
But even in an esteemed group like this, I do think it is worth asking ourselves honestly if things we are doing are inadvertently perpetuating this sorry state of affairs.
So we can ask: whose side is the Church on?
SHIFTING FROM CONTRACT TO COVENANT: DISCERNING THE VOCATION OF THE CHURCH
A second discussion could be had to discern the call of the Church, stimulated by the questions below.
How can the Church shift to a more covenantal disposition?
Are our church communities:
- Practising patterns of prayer and liturgy that help us become a people attuned to God’s voice in the local, becoming “communities of place”?
- Developing an attentiveness to the movements of the Holy Spirit in the community?
- Growing the ability to spot and cultivate the seeds of new vocations and ministries both within church and out in the neighbourhood?
- Asserting a distinctive Christian identity – resisting temptations to be “useful” or popular – confident to face an unknown future with confidence?
- Supporting the leadership of local people?
- Noticing practices that are stuck in a culture of contract and intentionally shifting to a culture of covenant?
- Developing a relational culture, through the practice of one to one conversations and shared meals both in the church community and in the neighbourhood?
- Strengthening local families, offering a hand up and a sense of belonging, recognising the brokenness wrought by the culture of individualism?
- Attending not only to material poverty, but also to spiritual and relational poverty generated by culture of individualism?
- Shifting the emphasis from poverty and welfarism to the dignity of work? Calling out the zero hours contract and low wage culture that undermine the family?
- Sharing church land and buildings with the community?
- Building trust across class, race, opinion, education in our area and in our church, to uphold the human space, reweaving solidarity, resisting principalities and powers?
- Calling for economic reform: regional banks, constraints on financial capital, and for investment in the abandoned places? Convening relationships with local business leaders and employers to collaborate for the good of the area?
What other kinds of practices might help to make this shift?
Jenny Sinclair is founder and director of Together for the Common Good
You may also be interested in: “Rethinking Bias to the Poor” by Andrew Bradstock and Jenny Sinclair
 ibid, T4CG
 Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy
 Pierpaolo Donati, The Crisis of the ‘World System’ and the Need for a Civil Society
 ibid, Pabst
 Douglas E Oakman, The Radical Jesus, The Bible and the Great Transformation
 ibid, Francis
 ibid, Sinclair (To live a decent life)
 Matt 28:20
 ibid, UK Onward
 ibid, Sinclair (To live a decent life)
 Centre for Theology and Community, Assets Not Burdens: Using Church Property to Accelerate Mission
This article was featured in T4CG’s Easter 2023 Newsletter. You can subscribe to our newsletter here
Like what you are reading? More inspirational content from Jenny Sinclair can be found here: https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/news-views/from-jenny-sinclair