Wednesday 19 October 2016

Speaking truth to power, part II

As I have blogged just recently, it is often said that one of the core duties of a charity is "to speak truth to power". It’s a phrase that originated with the Quakers in the 18th century. The charge that they were given to speak was threefold:
  • To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace,
  • To the  people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority,
  • To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on life.
There is an obvious link between the work of the Church and faith groups, and the work of charities in acting as the moral conscience of the country and a thorn in the side of the powerful on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Of course this sometimes means we are both attacked by Governments and politicians who argue we have no business playing politics. Former Archbishop Williams has talked of the "illiteracy" of many politicians about our role and this is but an example of that. If Christ turfed the money changers from the Temple, would the Churches not be failing in their duty if they did not point to the gap between the wealthiest in our society and the poorest? Is that not true for charities?

It is sometimes argued that charities should "stick to the knitting". In other words we should run soup kitchens or food banks for the poor but keep our mouths shut about the causes of poverty. Fortunately neither the Church nor charities will cease from these essential roles; both delivering services to vulnerable people and the most damaged communities and holding those in power to account. 
Cardinal Nichols' trenchant criticism of the effects on communities of welfare changes is a powerful example of the role Church leaders can play and one to be applauded. The work of churches of all denominations and other faiths is also a great example of community cohesion. Our Muslim communities have a strong and abiding charitable tradition that mirrors that of the Christian tradition. So the example being set by Archbishop Longley and other faith groups in Birmingham offering the Muslim community solidarity is another example of the role Churches can play in fostering stronger communities.

Historically the link between faith and charity is strong and continues to be binding. Charitable giving is one of the core duties of a Christian. From early times the Church has encouraged and supported charities. Indeed many of the earliest charities were run directly by the Church. One of ACEVO’s members, the CEO of St. John's Hospital in Bath, is running an institution set up by the monks and which, as they say, "through centuries of change (…) has remained true to its purpose. Founded in the 12th century it is still providing comfort in old age for those in need." Pope Innocent III in 1215 gave a letter of authorisation for the collection of alms, writing, "with works of great mercy and for the sake of things eternal so sow on earth what we should gather in heaven, The Lord returning it with increased fruit."

Many of our great national charities have their roots deep in the founding impetus of the Church; the children’s charities: Barnado’s, the Children’s Society and Action for Children are cases in point. One of the earliest hospices in the country, St Joseph’s in Hackney, was founded by the Sisters of the Poor. The work of the great international NGOs such as Caritas, Cafod and Christian Aid is sustained by the faithful and not simply through giving but through active support for their campaigning role; to mention just one example of that, "Make Poverty History".
So, at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor remains so large, we need a renewed sense of purpose between the Churches and charities in our common goal of giving voice to the voiceless. Similarly faith groups and charities continue their work in providing care and welfare services for those in need. Our role is growing as the State draws back from provision. Often this is because of an increasing understanding of the role of citizen and community focused charities, but also because the deep funding cuts demanded by austerity have eaten significantly into the safety net of our welfare state. That role will continue to grow and with it the much greater responsibilities that entailed. And as Archbishop Longley reminded ACEVO members in his speech to us, poverty encompasses so much more than just worldly goods. As he said, "poverty includes isolation, loneliness, fear in one's environment, being deprived of opportunities and lacking a voice". So we have that common purpose in delivering basic support and care as well as speaking out.

When the translators of the King James Bible were examining the Latin texts for the famous injunction of 1 Corinthians 13.13, there was much debate on the term "caritas". Modern translations use "love" but the King James scholars stuck to charity. Just a few years before they were deliberating, there was also debate on the role of charities which led to the great 1601 Statute of Elizabeth on Charitable Uses. I like to think they eschewed the use of "love" for charity as it is in charitable actions and approaches that we demonstrate the love we must have for one another and for God.
"And there abideth faith, hope, charity; these three, but the greatest of these is charity"

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