Low pay in church: I hate to say it, but the Sun’s right

It’s a rare day that I find myself agreeing with the Sun.

The Sun has run a front-page piece today about the fact that various parts of the Church of England are advertising jobs at below the recognised Living Wage. This is despite the CofE bishops backing the Living Wage in their pastoral letter last week, a letter attacked by the right-wing press for its (mildly) left-of-centre outlook.

Of course, some of us have been calling for years for churches to pay the living wage to all staff. On one level, when you’ve been campaigning on an issue for a long time, it’s frustrating to see it become headline news for the wrong reasons. I doubt that the Sun’s editors are motivated by a concern for church employees’ livelihoods. They want to discredit bishops who have criticised Tory policy. But the Sun’s hypocrisy does not make the Church’s hypocrisy OK.

Justin Welby is fairly media-savvy and has handled the controversy better than many church leaders could have done, although it’s remarkable that he does not seem to have seen it coming. He described the payment of low wages to church employees as “embarrassing”. He would be more convincing if he had described it as downright outrageous. Welby is right to point out that the Church of England is made up of various parts that are to a large degree independent and that he cannot force individual churches, cathedrals or dioceses to pay the Living Wage. However, Canterbury Diocese is one of those at fault. It would be good to see churches acknowledging their mistreatment of workers rather than getting defensive about it or making excuses.

I am not suggesting that all CofE workers are underpaid or mistreated. But some of them clearly are. Of course, this applies to other churches as well as the Church of England. Some may be good employers in some ways but fall down considerably in other areas. The Quakers pay the living wage, but this has not stopped the mistreatment of café workers in the Quaker headquarters who spoke out against the way things were run. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Salvation Army, who are colluding with one of austerity’s gravest injustice by running workfare schemes.

These organisations, like the Church of England, do a great deal of good work tackling poverty and speaking out against injustice. That’s what makes their treatment of some of their own workers so shocking and so sad.

Let’s not get distracted by the role of the Sun in today’s controversy. This is not about defending the church against the Sun. This is about defending the rights of low paid workers. However much we mock the Sun’s motivations, we can still take advantage of what they have done. This is an opportunity to push churches to pay decent wages and treat workers better. This is vital if churches are to provide any sort of prophetic witness on issues of economic justice – issues that are central to the Gospel.

The bishops’ election letter is mild, not radical

The Church of England’s bishops have issued a letter giving advice to Christians about issues to take into account when casting their votes in May.

This fairly mild document has triggered condemnations from right-wing Christians and church-bashing Tories, with Conservative MP Conor Burns labelling it as “naive” (this from a man who believes that Tory economic policies can alleviate poverty). Nadine Dorries said the Church should have focused on talking about abortion, as if Christianity had nothing to say about poverty and violence, though she did make a good point about the Church’s own failings in regards to equality.

The right-wing press can be relied upon to react to the bishops’ letter with simulated shock. I can confidently predict that tomorrow’s Daily Mail will say that the bishops’ letter has caused “outrage”. The Mail, of course, will have ensured this by phoning up the likes of Conor Burns and asking them if they are outraged (they are).

There will also be comments from some quarters about keeping politics and religion separate, a concept that would have been bafflingly incomprehensible to anyone living before the eighteenth century, and most people since then. Politics is about the running of society, about wealth and power and how they affect our lives. Politics is about everyday life. Apolitical religion is impossible; if it were possible, it would be largely pointless.

It’s quite right that the Church of England should give advice about voting. As the bishops point out in their letter, “Religious belief, of its nature, addresses the whole of life, private and public”. The letter does not endorse or condemn any one party.

According to the Guardian, the bishops’ letter constitutes “a strongly worded attack on Britain’s political culture”. However, the sort of comments that appear in the letter are now commonplace outside of the Westminster bubble. The letter suggests that politicians are employing “sterile arguments” and that “our democracy is failing”. Such views can nowadays be read in mainstream newspaper columns, as well as in pubs and coffee-shops up and down the country. They are not radical.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to see the bishops joining in the criticisms of what passes for democracy in Britain. There is much in their letter for a progressively minded person to celebrate. It emphasises the importance of tackling poverty and social isolation, mentioning in-work poverty in particular. It condemns attempts to demonise unemployed people and other benefit recipients. I’m pleased that it raises doubts about the Trident nuclear weapons system, although it does not oppose it outright. It condemns attempts to “find scapegoats” in society. It calls for a “fresh moral vision” in politics.

Despite this, it is not the radically left-wing document that parts of the media are reporting it to be. The Mail and Express will hate it for what they perceive it to be, not for what it is.

The CofE letter is far more mild in its comments on Trident than the denounciations of Trident renewal produced by most other Christian churches. The bishops declare that the “traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining”. Their wording implicitly accepts the claim that nuclear weapons are primarily about deterrence. Further, it is a big leap from re-examining something to opposing it.

The arguments for Trident, and other nuclear weapons, have been examined, re-examined and re-re-examined many times over, by Christians and others, over the last few months as well as over several decades. We don’t just need to “re-examine” the arguments for Trident; we need to oppose them.

If the Church of England is inching towards a collective anti-Trident position, this is better than nothing. But if so, the CofE is only very slowly catching up with most other Christian denominations in Britain. Trident renewal is explicitly opposed by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Federation, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Religious Society of Friends, the Union of Welsh Independents and the United Reformed Church (please let me know if I’ve missed any out). The Church of England has a lot of catching up to do.

The bishops’ letter states that “military intervention by states such as Britain is not always wrong”. While I can welcome the implication that it is usually wrong, I’m disappointed by the casual rejection of a firmly anti-war position. Let’s not forget that it was the Lambeth Conference – representing Anglican bishops from around the world – that in 1930 declared, “War, as a method of settling international disputes, is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Similarly, the Church of England’s welcome comments on tackling poverty are not accompanied by any critique of the neo-liberal capitalist system that fuels poverty (and, indeed, relies on it). The letter calls for a revival of the “Big Society” idea, now largely abandoned even by the government. As a phrase, it was always popular with right-of-centre Christians, but in practice it was only a euphemism for the effects of the cuts – leaving charities and faith groups to pick up the pieces as community services were slashed.

The reality of the CofE’s attitude to the general election was made clear by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. Asked whether people reading the letter could take its advice and still be led to vote Conservative or even UKIP, he replied, “I believe they could be.”

This is sad. The Church of England has condemned the British National Party, but they won’t condemn another far-right party, UKIP. Of course, UKIP looks respectable and middle class. It even has Church of England priests among its candidates.

There are also Christians in the Conservative Party. I don’t doubt their faith, but I question their judgement. As the CofE’s letter says, Christians should be concerned about poverty. Over the last three centuries, the Conservative Party has opposed every major measure designed to alleviate poverty, from old-age pensions in 1910 to the NHS in the 1940s and the national minimum wage in 1997. The Conservative Party is for the rich, in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes and a bread knife is for slicing bread. You can try to use them for something else, but it doesn’t really work.

Politics, like religion, is messy, complicated and frightening. It also calls for courage and commitment. Jesus’ teachings will not tell us who (if anyone) to vote for, or lead us to the same conclusions as each other. But they can remind us that Jesus constantly and explicitly sided with the poor and marginalised, practised active nonviolence, challenged us all to change, promoted love and inclusivity over the idols of Mammon and violence and was arrested after taking direct action in a temple.

What would happen if church leaders called on Christians to adopt similar attitudes today? The Daily Mail really would be outraged.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.

What the Andrew Windsor case says about sex, abuse and power

Andrew Windsor, commonly called Prince Andrew or the Duke of York, has been accused of raping a teenager. Even the scandal-loving British press are being relatively reticent about this, avoiding the word “rape” and saying that the allegation involves a woman who says she was “forced to have sex” with him. Perhaps certain newspapers can’t bear to associate the word “rape” with a royal. Or they think that there is some form of forced sex that is not rape. Both attitudes are equally worrying.

I do not, of course, know whether Andrew is guilty of the crime. Like every other accused person, he has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And like every other person making an accusation of rape, his accuser has a right to be taken seriously.

The accusation has surfaced in a case in the US concerning Jeffrey Epstein, who allegedly procured Andrew’s unwilling teenage victim. If there appears to be a strong case against Andrew, he should of course be extradited to the US to stand trial. Even if the case is strong, I very much doubt that this will happen. I find it hard to believe that US authorities will want to ask their usually subservient allies in the UK government to hand over a member of the royal family.

True or not, the pressure is on Andrew, who has so far failed to comment in public and is instead hiding behind a brief statement issued by Buckingham Palace. The Palace declared yesterday that “any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors is categorically untrue”.

The use of the word “impropriety” to refer to something as horrific as rape makes me feel slightly sick.

The BBC keep telling us that it is unusual for the Palace to deny something directly, as they usually simply ignore allegations. This is outrageous. If the rape accusation had been made against a politician, bishop, business leader or celebrity, the person in question would be denying the allegations in front of a camera and facing questions from journalists. But a member of the Windsor family can simply ask his mother’s press office to issue a one-sentence comment, with the expectation that parts of the media will congratulate him for doing even this.

Have we learnt nothing from the horrors of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church? From the revelations about Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford?

Recent months have seen a string of allegations and convictions involving sexual abuse in the Church of England. Oddly, this has made relatively little impact on the secular media. The story a few weeks ago about payouts for sexual abuse in the Scouts disappeared from the media almost as soon as it arrived. Earlier this week, the Guardian revealed systemic sexual abuse in the Army Cadets, yet the Guardian’s editors did not seem to think that the story was worth more than a half-page piece on Page 14.

I am not suggesting that every single allegation made about people within these institutions is true. But a vast number of them are true, as we can tell from the convictions and payouts. It seems clear that publicity about sexual abuse has urged other victims to come forward. In some cases, they have done so years or decades after the abuse in question. They then have to cope with the abuse being described as “historical”, with the implication that it is less important. In other cases, accusations have been made much sooner after the events in question.

With all this going on, we might expect society to be waking up to the dreadful reality of sexual abuse – its frequency, its impact, its horrifying normality in certain institutions. If society is waking up, the establishment and much of the media do not seem to be. So many of these cases involve people using status to abuse someone with less power and to get away with it. Priests, celebrities and army officers all know that their status makes them difficult to challenge. Abusers in churches, the BBC and the Army Cadets all saw their institutions close ranks to protect them.

It should be obvious that sexual abuse is often linked with power. Abuse is more likely when certain individuals are revered or protected by institutions that require people to accept what they’re told without question. Despite the revelations about the Army Cadets, the government is still keen to promote them, talking of the benefits of “military values” in schools. Military values, of course, involve doing what you’re told and not questioning authority. Can we still not be honest about what that leads to?

Apparently not. We now have a rape accusation against one of the most high-status people in the UK. Not only is he sixth in line to the throne, but Andrew has also spent years as a trade ambassador with UK Trade and Investment, a unit of the Department for Business. He has been particularly associated with securing arms deals for multinational companies such as BAE Systems, often with the world’s nastiest regimes. As such, he is complicit in the deaths of thousands, but this does not make the rape allegation any less serious.

With the rape accusation against Andrew Windsor, it is surely time to put an end to our usual practice of doing nothing to hold the Windsor family to account despite the vast influence, wealth and status accorded to them. Andrew’s brother Charles, expected to be head of state within a few years, expresses political opinions on all sorts of things but is never challenged about them on Newsnight or the Today programme.

Britain now faces a test. Either we can show that we take sexual abuse seriously and believe that all people are accountable. Or we can let deference, inequality and brutality win the day again. It’s up to us.

New Year Revolutions

A number of my friends have today written “Happy New Year” messages on Facebook with strongly political content: 2015 is the year to “get rid of the Tories” or “kick out the ConDem coalition”.

I couldn’t agree more with the desire to get rid of this nasty, petty, poor-hating government. The government is so awful that many people would understandably accept almost any alternative. This is itself is a problem, for if we choose the lesser of two evils, we are still choosing evil.

I will have a sense of relief if Labour replaces Cameron in the general election this May. But I do mean “relief”, not joy or celebration. A Labour government would be slightly better than a Tory one.

Despite Tony Blair’s attempts this week to portray Miliband as some sort of radical leftie, the reality is that Miliband’s policies are basically pro-austerity. Miliband has bought into the ConDem rhetoric about “reducing the deficit” (although the deficit is not high in either historical or international terms). He is not committed to reversing most of the Tory benefit cuts and is firmly behind the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

True, Labour is committed to scrapping the bedroom tax, introducing a mansion tax, raising the minimum wage and taking action on zero-hours contracts and energy prices (although the details seem worryingly vague). If all this happens, I’ll be very pleased, although it’s only scratching the surface in terms of building a fairer economy. My fear is that Miliband will be pushed to the right once in office and these policies will be watered down or scrapped altogether. Virtually every Labour Prime Minister has moved to the right once in power; the exception is Tony Blair, who was already too far to the right to move any further.

Things might be better if a minority Labour government has to do deals with the SNP (or, if things are very close, even with Plaid Cymru and the Greens) to remain in power. However, I’m not optimistic about Trident renewal being prevented in this way alone (a minority Labour government could rely on Tory votes to get Trident through). Further, we would need to keep campaigning to hold minority parties to their progressive pre-election promises once the sniff of power reaches them.

Nonetheless, I will never agree with those who say that the election result makes no difference. Even a slight improvement on the current situation is welcome. This does not mean that a slight improvement should be our aim.

When the suffragists and Chartists campaigned so hard for the vote to be extended to women and working class men, they believed the vote was the most powerful tool for bringing about change. Indeed, the vote has been used to bring about some pretty massive social changes: the National Health Service would not exist at all were it not for the Labour landslide of 1945. At the same time, we must remember that this was an election result made possible only by the growth of left-wing ideas during the second world war, ideas which spread at the grassroots rather than through formal political processes.

Most suffrage campaigners did not foresee that power would move away from Parliament, making the vote less relevant. Economic changes that are sometimes lumped together as “globalisation” have globalised wealth and power but have not globalised democracy. Even if a genuinely progressive government were to be elected, it would struggle to follow progressive policies in the face of the vast power wielded by multinational corporations and other unaccountable vested interests. As it is, most party leaderships are stuffed full of people who have an interest in basically preserving the status quo and who see corporations as their allies rather than as a threat to democracy.

This is why I respect people who take a principled decision not to vote. They do not want to legitimise an unfair system. But while I respect them, I take a different position. I believe in using what power we do have, as well as taking advantage of the results – however limited – of our ancestors’ campaigns for the vote. The system is already morally bankrupt; low turnouts have not led to is rejection.

Voting is only a small part of democracy. If we had to choose between voting or working for change in other ways, I would choose the later. If voting makes anyone feel that other forms of activism are unnecessary, I would rather they did not vote. However, it is possible to vote and at the same time to take to the streets, to the media, to the internet and to the picket lines to work for change.

So I will go out on the morning of 7th May and vote for what I believe in, or as near to what I believe in as I am able to. I do not yet know who I will vote for; I don’t know who the candidates will be in my area. The constituency I live in goes by the quaint name of Cities of London and Westminster, although I am not sure that I will still be living here in May. It is a rock-solid Tory seat and you might well say that my vote will make no difference. This will not stop me expressing my view through the ballot box, just as I will express it on the streets and in the media.

So what should someone like me do during the election campaign? Carry on as normal, as I believe the election is only one event in democracy? Throw myself in to campaigning for left-wing candidates, hoping that a strong vote for parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru will send a message even if they have no chance of taking power?

To be honest, I’m not sure and I haven’t decided. I’m willing to campaign for candidates and parties when I share many of their views, as long as they do not believe that elections are the only way to achieve change. I have a lot of time for the Green Party and back many of their policies, but I am nervous of how Greens elsewhere in Europe have moved rapidly to the right, notably in Germany and the Republic of Ireland. I could campaign for the Greens while being to the left of many of their members, but part of me wonders if I would be very different from those left-wingers who join Labour despite disagreeing with many of its policies. When it comes to much smaller outfits such as the Peace Party, my instinct is to ask them, “Why don’t you just join the Greens, who you agree with on most things?”. But is that any different to Labour left-wingers asking Greens why they don’t just join Labour?

As you can tell, I have more questions than answers about involvement in election campaigns. They are questions to myself at least as much as to anyone else, and I would value your thoughts. I know that several of my friends and comrades will refuse to vote and see participation in the election as collusion with an unjust system. At the same time, other friends and comrades, who in many ways are just as left-wing, will be enthusiastically campaigning for particular candidates or parties.

There is one thing I am confident about: we can use the election to campaign, whether or not we vote. With the media focused obsessively on the party leaders for several weeks in April and May, creative protests and interventions can have at least some influence on the course of political and media debate. For example, the four leaders on whom the London-based media will concentrate – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – will not be talking about Trident. We can be thankful that Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett will talk about it, but let’s not rely on this alone. If we can find opportunities to challenge leading politicians about Trident, face-to-face or as close as we can get, during election time, they will at least be caught on camera and draw some public attention.

It’s only one tactic, of course, on only one issue. But effective activism requires creativity as well as persistence and a diversity of methods. That’s why I’ll be trying to do things like this, as well as casting my vote according to my beliefs. And whatever the result, I’ll be out on the streets after the election as well as before, because justice comes from below and never, never from above.

Sex, violence and Margaret Thatcher

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is generally considered a “slow news” period by the media, as not much is happening (in reality of course, lots of things are happening; just not the sort of things that most editors tend to consider newsworthy). The week, however, is always livened up by the release of government papers under the 30-year rule. Government documents from 1985 have just entered the public domain.

These reveal all sorts of alarming, amusing and sometimes predictable facts: Thatcher considered removing schools from local authority control; it was Oliver Letwin who recommened using Scotland as a guinea pig for the poll tax; there were discussions among ministers about forcing advertising on the BBC.

I am struck by the contradiction between two of the revelations. Between them, these two stories say a great deal about the ethical hypocrisy of British politics and society.

On the one hand, it appears that Thatcher considered a ban on sex toys, or at least certain types of sex toys, by extending the Obscene Publications Act to include physical objects. The then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, wrote a memo to Thatcher saying there was a “strong case” for such a ban, adding, “Some of the items in circulation are most objectionable, including some which can cause physical injury”.

At the same time, Thatcher thought about spending £200 million of public money on chemical weapons, despite the UK’s declared position of opposition to chemical weapons. Such weapons were intended for use if the cold war turned hot: in other words, they would have been deployed against the civilian populations of the USSR and its allies.

Here we have Thathcherite ethics in microcosm. Minor physical harm between consenting adults having sex: unacceptable. Mass killing of innocent civilians: acceptable.

Dominant atttidues to sex and violence in the UK continue to stink with hypocrisy. The establishment are dragging their feet on investigating alleged Westminster-centred child abuse while approving of “anti-pornography” laws that demonise sexual acts between consenting adults that tend to be enjoyed most by women and LGBT people.

If you can play football on Christmas Day, why shoot each other on Boxing Day?

Shortly after Christmas 1914, an order was issued by John French, the general in charge of the British troops on the Western Front. He had heard of the informal truces that had broken out along the front on Christmas Day. He ordered that such events must never be repeated. A year later, ahead of the following Christmas, soldiers were reminded that they would be charged with disobeying orders if there was another truce.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 varied along the front. The frequently mentioned football matches may have happened in only a couple of places. More commonly, soldiers met in No Man’s Land, shook hands, chatted and swapped food.

After the war, John French conveniently forgot that he had issued orders against truces. He instead spoke of the Christmas Truce of 1914 as an example of soldierly chivalry. Pro-war politicians and commentators today also tend to talk positively about the Christmas Truce, as if it were an innocuous fluffy event that we can all celebrate. I think they would have taken a different view if British soldiers had chatted and exchanged food – and even played football – with enemy soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Falklands.

The spontaneous truces of 100 years ago must surely have undermined the propaganda of each side’s government, which sought to portray the soldiers on the other side as inhuman fiends. When people meet their enemies and discover how much they have in common, they become a threat to those who want them to fight each other.

The question we should all be asking is the question asked by the pacifist Labour MP Keir Hardie when he head about the Christmas Truce a century ago. “Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other?” he asked. “They have no quarrel… the workers of the world are not ‘enemies’ to each other, but comrades.”

If it’s acceptable to play football with someone on Christmas Day, why is it OK to shoot him on Boxing Day?

There has been much criticism of Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement this year, which uses the story of the Christmas Truce to promote a supermarket. I had expected to be annoyed or angered by the advert, so was surprised when I first viewed it.

True, the advert exists to make sales for a corporation. It was not made to draw attention to the futility of war. Nonetheless, this is to some extent what it does. After they have shared food and played games, the soldiers depicted in the advert return to their trenches and continue firing at each other. Some of the people who have watched the advert must be asking themselves why.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event. It was not explicit disobedience, as the orders against such truces had not been issued at that point. Nonetheless, it was a rejection of the propaganda that demonised the enemy. If not a mutiny, it was at least an informal strike, celebrating common humanity over the demands of militarism and jingoism.

No wonder the generals on both sides were worried. If they had kept on “fraternising”, these soldiers might have brought the war to an end. That’s why I’ll celebrate the Christmas Truce – because it was a rebellion against war.