Archbishop preaches localism

Image credit: Hackney church

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called today for a more localised response to a possible second wave of Covid-19 infections. It was the only way a “new normal” would be endurable, he said.

“In the Church of England,” he wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “we have been committed to localism for centuries. Every inch of the country is part of an Anglican parish, and parish churches are woven into the fabric of their communities.”

This is an approach that in part reflects his attraction to Roman Catholic social thought, which lays great weight on the principle that political organisations should do centrally only what cannot be done locally.

It also reflects his work early in the pandemic as an unpaid part-time hospital chaplain, and the experience of his co-author, Dame Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, formerly the UK’s chief nursing officer.

The social and psychological effects of a prolonged lockdown on vulnerable people and their families – especially at Christmas – are important to both Archbishop Welby and Bishop Mullally and may lie behind their suspicion of the government’s bald “rule of six”.

Churches and other faith groups have come to be significant welfare providers. The Telegraph article mentions a church in Hackney that has delivered more than 100,000 meals since the lockdown began. And the Trussell Trust, the main organiser of food banks in England, was founded by Christians.

“Local government, schools and voluntary agencies — including churches — can communicate well, act swiftly and measure risk and consequences on the ground,” they write.  “Giving them generous funding would be a good investment.”

Comment

Andrew Brown, journalist:

“There is an irony in this appeal for government money for local action. At a time when the archbishop is preaching the virtues of localism, his own church is being forced by circumstance into greater and greater centralisation.

“Archbishop Welby’s most controversial action in this crisis was itself a massive expansion of centralised authority — his attempt to ban all parish priests from their own churches. This was, according to church sources, intended as a way of setting an example to the nation, and very strongly urged by Downing Street.  Laity and some clergy complained and a recent poll suggests that about 25 per cent of churchgoers have not been reconciled to the closure of their churches.

“The claim that the church’s parish structure covers all of England looks increasingly untrue as financial pressures bite. In Birmingham there is no longer even the ambition to have a paid priest in every parish. The Church Commissioners made £75 million available at the outbreak of the pandemic but this will not be enough. Cathedrals, too, are facing a crisis from their loss of vital tourist income.  Increasingly the whole church depends on centrally distributed subsidies, and the decisions about who gets the money can be made only by central authorities. Churches all over the country will have to shut, and parishes forced to be amalgamated. One bishop thinks six or seven dioceses might also go the same way. And the decisions about which churches must close, or which dioceses must amalgamate, can be made only centrally.  It is also central bodies that make the decisions about which churches and projects will get the £24 million the church plans to spend to make 50,000 new enthusiastic Christians.”

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland:

The Guardian reports that Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said Justin Welby was right to point to the “huge spiritual and social significance of Christmas. I don’t think any of us in government want to be Oliver Cromwell-esque about this. We want to see families celebrate Christmas in a safe and happy way, and we want to see our churches and indeed other places of worship also join in that celebration.”

Anoosh Chakelian, journalist:

Anoosh Chakelian, Britain editor of the New Statesman: “The underlying message of Welby’s piece is that local authorities and community agencies cannot afford to provide vital services. ‘Giving them generous funding would be a good investment’, he suggests. ‘Let’s place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered’… Although Johnson has promised not to continue austerity, the position of poorly funded councils and the reliance of communities on the goodwill of volunteers suggests otherwise… All this runs counter to the Tories’ beloved ‘levelling up’ agenda.”

Church of England clergy:

The Rev Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, defied the lockdown ban on priests entering their own churches, one Sunday in April, saying he was responding to scores of letters and emails from parishioners. Today he took to twitter:  @WalkerMarcus.. “This is a really excellent article by @JustinWelby and @bishopSarahM. Really excellent. Ties together the importance of the local in church and nation. Values the parish, the Church’s little platoons, which is where lives are truly changed.”

The Rev Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary’s, Newington, broadcaster and writer, also on twitter: @giles_fraser: “A very welcome restatement of the basic principle of subsidiarity in the  @dailytelegraph  today by  @JustinWelby  and @bishopSarahM. Thank you both.”