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General Synod Presidential Address

Tuesday 19th November 2013

The Archbishop of York's Presidential Address at General Synod November Group of Sessions 2013

Last month I visited two very different countries to preach and teach and spend time with our Anglican brothers and sisters in the churches there.

First, I went to Canada – to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Diocese of Edmonton, and then later to the University in Huron. 

A few days later, I went to Egypt to be part of the 75th anniversary of All Saints Cathedral, in Cairo.

In Canada the Bishop of Edmonton invited me to share Harvest Thanksgiving with her family and friends. What a celebration!  Her little grand-daughter, Olivia, was most concerned that I was going to spend two-and-a-half days in the Rockies. Aged three-and-a-half, she showed a remarkable interest in currency exchange: “His money will not work! How will he survive?” Olivia was relieved to hear that her grandparents were taking us there.

 “His money won’t work!”  How do we help people in our communities whose money doesn’t work; who can’t pay for the bare necessities; who have to make hard choices between heating their homes, or having food on the table?

In Egypt, Bishop Mouneer shared with me some of the ways in which the Diocese is serving the very poorest in their communities.  One image stayed with me: the picture of a small child and the caption: “My name is Today: today I need to eat, today I need to play, today I need care, today I need love, give me hope today for a brighter tomorrow.”

These are not challenges which only those in other countries need to meet. They are crucial challenges for us all.

Something new and terrible is happening to our society.   We see it all around us: Poverty.   More and more people are living below the breadline.   Some nine million people altogether.

Parishes up and down the country are striving hard to tackle the consequences of poverty.   It is this work that I want to discuss this afternoon.   Indeed for a parish not to be doing something about it is becoming the exception rather than the rule.   Take Middlesbrough in my diocese, for instance, where churches of all denominations are currently running 276 activities designed to help the vulnerable.   It has been calculated that these Middlesbrough schemes amount to 800 hours of love-in-action each week.   

The extraordinary feature of what I call the ‘new poverty’ is that many of the ‘new poor’ are in work.   Once upon a time, you couldn’t really be living-in-poverty if you had regular wages.   You could find yourself on a low income, yes, but not living in poverty. But that is no longer so.   You can be in work and still live in poverty.     Politicians often refer to ‘hard-working’ families.   They should speak instead of ‘hard-pressed’ families.

Yet we are an advanced economy, a first-world country, and we have been one for longer than most.   But we suffer from blight - increasing poverty in a land of plenty.  

The annual salaries of the chief executives of Britain’s one hundred largest companies reached an average of £4.3million last year or 160 times average wages. Those packages have quadrupled in the past 10 years while no one else has had a proper increase at all.  

Unlike the chief executives, many hard-pressed people find that they are on a “down escalator”.   This phrase captures more than just a shortage of money; it adds a sense of descending the social scale.  

Formerly each new generation enjoyed a higher standard of living than the previous one.   That was the ‘progress’ that everybody was taught to expect.   It was a source of hope.  

But now these gains are being reversed.   Many people believe that their children will be worse off financially than they are.    And at the bottom of the escalator lies poverty.   It was shocking to read the conclusions of the recent report from the World Health Organisation[1] which found that social inequalities were quite clearly related to health inequalities.

Professor Michael Marmot, who led the Review, noted in his introduction to the report that, “Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale”.  Indeed, disturbingly, the report found that children are more likely to die in Britain than in many other European countries. 

The report also goes on to state that,

“A major problem …. is not only low income associated with unemployment, but employment that pays too little to lead a healthy life.”

For vivid evidence of what life is like for the working poor, you could do worse than go to the website of the Living Wage Commission[2], which I launched in July.   Please note that the rate for the Living Wage is not an arbitrary figure, but is based on a rigorous programme of research, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[3], which used focus groups to determine what fellow citizens think people need.

People were asked to say what impact being paid less than the Living Wage had on their lives.   John, for example, said that he loved his job and that he even cycled 20 miles each way to work to save £9.00 per day on travel.    He added that he was 44 years old and that getting £7.20 per hour made things very hard other than to just scrape by, leaving no chance of saving for the future. He had earned the same wage 13 years ago and nothing has changed other than the cost of living.  

One woman reported that she worked as a receptionist at a GP Surgery, where her shifts were designed so that the doctors were not obliged to give her a lunch break.

For the unemployed, it is harder still.   Monitoring what is happening in the North are seven social housing providers with help from the University of York.  

One respondent to their study described the situation thus:   “People I know go days without being able to eat.”   Health suffers in poverty, too.

One person told of making his fortnightly prescription last for a month, as he couldn’t afford to get them as often as he should.   The enquiry found buffering systems where people with differing dates for the payment of their benefits lend to each other for a week or so at a time to make ends meet.   Many households are in debt.  Said one parent:  ‘I have to pay the loan shark each week because I use him to survive.’

Let me give you two examples from Leeds and York which disgrace us all; and leave a dark stain on our consciences:

1.   Malnutrition   

How can it be that in 2013, in the 21st century, the Yorkshire Post[4] can report – as it did last weekend – that there has been a trebling, a trebling of the numbers of people being admitted to hospitals in Leeds to be treated for Malnutrition ?

How can it be that last year more than 27,000 (twenty seven thousand) people were diagnosed as suffering from Malnutrition in Leeds  - not Lesotho, not Liberia,  not Lusaka but Leeds.

How can it be that the Director of public Health in the City has said that the increase in hospital admissions for malnutrition – just under 100 in the past year – is in line with a national trend”.

 2. Food Poverty

We are a developed economy, we are a first world country. And yet as the York Press[5] recorded this weekend more than 4,000 people were recorded as living in food poverty in North Yorkshire alone over the past six months.

 We are a developed economy, a first world country  yet such is the seriousness of the situation that a council, North Yorkshire county council, is now to enlarge its emergency food parcels to cover five days instead of  three and is also to begin offering emergency utility credits to households in need.

My brothers and sisters, we are a developed economy and a first world country so how can this be that in this day and age we are seeing malnutrition, food poverty and energy poverty at such levels in our country ?

Underlying these experiences are two hard, economic facts.   In the first place, changes in the nature of the world economy mean that wage rises are likely to go on lagging behind price rises.   It is important to understand this.   We are not confronting a cyclical situation, ‘bust’ today, ‘boom’ tomorrow.  

Both globalization, which means that the whole world is almost a single market, and the substantial labour-saving qualities of the new digital technologies, will keep wages down for a long time to come.    

At the same time, the rising demand for raw materials by growing countries in Asia and elsewhere pushes up commodities prices. This is the new reality.   Food banks aren’t going to go away any time soon.  Prices are rising more than three times faster than wages. This has been going on for ten years now. And for people slipping into poverty, the reality is much harsher. 

In fact, Sir George Bain, architect of the minimum wage, said in an interview with The Independent in July this year that a study by the Resolution Foundation showed that the national minimum wage could be worth less in 2017 than it was in 2004.  And yet, the Foundation estimates that if everyone were paid the living wage, the Government would save £2.2 billion a year through higher tax and insurance receipts and lower spending on tax credits and benefits.[6]

Meanwhile the statutory minimum wage, it should be noted, was raised by just 12p an hour – I’ll say that again, by 12p an hour! - to £6.19p an hour on 1st  October.   A ‘Living Wage’ it is calculated, would be £8.55 per hour in London and £7.45 per hour elsewhere.   In other words, the statutory minimum wage is now only three-quarters of a living wage in London and four-fifths elsewhere.

The second hard fact is that the impact of welfare reforms is now beginning to bite – with reductions in housing benefit for so-called under-occupation of social housing, the cap on benefits for workless householders and single parents, and the gradual replacement of the Disability Living Allowance with a Personal Independence Payment.

One of the victories of the UK has been that, alone among the developed countries, we had managed to break the link between poverty and poor housing. In the last few decades it has become increasingly possible to be very poor, but still to live in a decent home. This victory is at risk, as over-crowding, poor housing conditions, and insecurity once again become associated with poverty. 

It may be that governments cannot do much more than tinker with the deep-seated trends that I have described.   If that is the case, the requirement for love-in-action by the Church becomes more urgent.

The Church will and must respond positively.  For relieving poverty is part of what it means to be Christian.   In the Beatitudes Jesus taught:  

“Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled.

Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.

Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake” (Luke 6:20-22).

St John, in a letter to a group of churches, asked:  ‘if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against them, and refuses to help, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:18).  ‘It doesn’t’, is the short answer.   We must “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).

Through the centuries, poverty has often risen to the top of the Christian agenda.   St Francis of Assisi, perhaps the best-loved saint of all, lived poverty as well as relieved it.  

And it was surely significant that the newly elected Pope took the name of Francis.   During his Inauguration he spoke of the calling of a pope to be close to the "poorest, the weakest, the least important, those who Matthew lists in the final judgement on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, those in prison".[7]  And emphasising the necessity of the centrality of Christ, he said. "If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO”.

St Francis of Assisi famously dismounted from his horse and pressed a coin into the hand of a leper and kissed him; in the same way, Pope Francis recently embraced and comforted a disfigured man suffering from a rare disease.   The incident made news round the world.

And, if I may take a completely different example, John Wesley. The movement he founded, Methodism, was strongly focused on helping the poor in the name of the Gospel of Jesus.   

Two hundred years later we saw the development of what became known as ‘Liberation theology’.   It began as a movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s–1960s.   The Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, popularized the phrase preferential option for the poor.  

The Church of England, I believe, has arrived at another such moment.   Confronting poverty is again rising to the top of the agenda.   How to do it?   Last month the Church Urban Fund published an interesting paper[8] that contrasted two methods of tackling poverty.  The first is needs-based, which is essentially handing out stuff to people.  

The Church Urban Fund criticises this approach as having the unfortunate side-effect of developing a client mentality in those who are being assisted.   

Such ‘clients’ it fears, may come to believe themselves incapable of taking charge of their own lives.    It contrasts this with what it calls an ‘asset-based approach’.   

This starts with local individuals and organisations uncovering and identifying the assets and capacities already present within the community.   It is founded on the belief that everybody has something to give to those around them.   That is what ‘asset-based’ means.  This leads to a second insight:  that strong sustainable communities cannot be built from the top down, or outside in, but only from the ‘inside out’.    And as the Church Urban Fund describes it, this approach is also relationship-driven.   It is based on people talking with, and listening to, others. 

To what extent, then, are the Middlesbrough projects I mentioned adopting an assets-based approach?   Very largely, I would say.   For one thousand volunteers from the local community are involved in the work.  Middlesbrough also has a food bank. Volunteers sort the food.  The local community is thus involved in the entire process.   It is literally ‘by the people, for the people’.

I admire the research and tireless work of the Church Urban Fund. I am a devoted supporter. However, I do not think we need to take an either/or approach: ‘asset-based approach’ orneeds-based approach’.  It is both/and. Yes, the starving person must be taught how to fish, so that they can feed themselves, but they must also be given a fish to eat.

As Jim Wallis, of The Sojourners has said, “Our task is not only to pull the drowning people out of the river. It is also to go to the top of the river and stop those who are pushing them in!”

In his Social Insurance paper, a term which was sadly changed through the persuasion of Archbishop William Temple to the ‘Welfare State’ – Beveridge argued for something for something, not nothing for something and full employment for the Social Insurance to work.

 As I said at the beginning, the work I have described in my own diocese is going on throughout the Church.    So it is important to understand the full dynamics of what is happening.   When Church volunteers are asked why they participate in love-in-action, they almost invariably reply that they are motivated primarily by their faith, by the desire to reflect God’s Kingdom, and to demonstrate God’s love and care for all.  

But, take note, not all the volunteers are Church members – and nor, except rarely, are those being helped.   Another significant aspect of the work is its effect on the volunteers themselves.   

As one project reported:   “Many of our volunteers find this to be a life-changing, eye-opening experience!”   Furthermore, the work is often ecumenical.    It links Church of England parishes together in single projects, but it also links congregations from different Christian traditions.   And it is, as a matter of fact, often conducted in a businesslike fashion.   Amateurism is not on the menu.


So one can see that this work directed towards relieving poverty is more profound than it first appears.   


A large number of people in our communities never willingly darken a Church door. The only possible way to reach them is by showing them what the good news of God’s Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ is.


There is a famous story of St Francis of Assisi. One day he said to one of his young friars: “Let us go down to the village and preach to the people”.  So they went. They stopped to talk to this man and that. They begged a crust of bread at this door and that. Francis stopped to play with the children, and exchanged a greeting with passers-by.  Then he turned to go home. “But Father“, said the novice, “When do we preach?”  “Preach?”, smiled Francis.  “Every step we took, every word we spoke, every action we did, has been a sermon. So we go and preach the Gospel. We use words if we must”.

 In this spirit, one can surely call this work evangelism – signposting, albeit not by preaching but by example.   It deepens the faith of the Church volunteers and it attracts and involves non-members.    When we talk about the re-evangelisation of England, this may be one of the methods by which it will proceed. ‘Faith in the City’ was a bold attempt at addressing social disintegration, economic decline and housing decay as part of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.


What I have been describing is the real strength of our Church: its extensive presence on the ground in areas of economic stress and strain as well as in more prosperous places.   Local initiatives, when multiplied a thousand-fold, become a real force for good.    This work is not directed from the centre.   Most of it is self-generated, parish by parish.


The Church can make an impact when its members, at every level, recognize that they have a responsibility to reflect the experience, the life, the troubles, the fears and the hopes of those among whom we serve.


Whether it is the individual local church volunteer helping their neighbour; the parish making representations to the local Council; groups of Christian business people challenging company ethics; Bishops speaking to civic leaders in their Dioceses, or the Lords Spiritual raising the debate in the House of Lords.


For example, the Bishop of Truro speaking on the Government spending review; the Bishop of Derby asking, by way of a written question on food banks:  “What incentives are provided to supermarkets to donate waste food to food banks at the end of trading?”  


On the ‘Bedroom Tax’ the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds asked whether the Minister was aware of the evidence that people who are leaving accommodation to avoid the under-occupancy charge are being rehoused in private accommodation at greater cost? The analysis research done by the University of York Centre for Housing Policy suggests that the policy will cost £160 million because the Department of Work and Pensions has underestimated the impact on the housing benefit bill of people moving to the private rented sector.


And I have seen this confirmed locally. The Bishop of Hull reports that Hull City Council’s figures on housing benefit for 7 months of this year indicate that expenditure has risen by 0.4% even though the number of claimants has fallen by 2.77%, with housing benefit paid to the private sector rising by 3.8%.


When Beveridge, Archbishop William Temple and Tawney tackled the five giants of ignorance, idleness, squalor, disease and want, in the 1940s, they had a clear vision as to how things could be different. In part, they were also tapping into the spirit of the immediate post-war years in which there was a great hunger to rebuild a more equitable, more caring world.

It is that vision which we need to recapture today but remoulded in a way which is realistic for the circumstances which we face now.


We can do it but we need the political will; as well as ethical and religious conviction. “Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with the God[9] and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. 


As well as the reality of poverty and growing inequality in our country today, we also face the problem of poverty of vision.


Put simply, we have lost a vision of how we might transform our society to bring about changes that we wish to see. 


We need to recover a prophetic imagination and Christian wisdom, and not get bogged down with what does not work. Rather we must concentrate on what works, and breathe new life into it.


Poverty is costly, wasteful and indeed very risky. It seems to me that we in the Church must make the argument that losing human potential at a time when we need all the capacity we can gather is hugely wasteful; that paying people below the level required for subsistence fractures the social contract and insurance, and that this is risky.


Poverty also renders our brothers and sisters invisible and voiceless.  Our role, as members of the Body of Christ, is to give bothvoice and care for people in need.

“Their money is not working. They will not survive. Today needs to eat, needs care, needs love and hope. Give them their daily bread to live for a brighter tomorrow.”


Our strength as a Church lies not only in our vision but also in our presence. Our place in every community of England gives us an unparalleled opportunity to make this new vision of freedom, service and fraternity a reality through our care for people in the parishes we serve.


And we share the virtue of Christian hope, born of the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which go far beyond economic recovery and reach into the heart of every man, woman and child. Yes we lament our situation, but we do so knowing that our song will finish in hope: the hope in Christ’s message to us. “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  Do not be afraid”. (Revelation 1:17-18).   

[1] Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region: final report (UCL Institute of Health Equity, 2013)






[7] Matthew 25:31-46

[8] Tackling Poverty in England: An Asset-Based Approach, Church Urban Fund, October 2013 (

[9] Micah 6:8

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