Speaking of wealth and poverty; in praise of Philip North

‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’

Fortunately this stanza from All Things Bright and Beautiful is rarely sung these days. Perhaps, at least at the cognitive and explicit level of reasoning, we no longer quite buy into a hierarchical and stoical theology of existence?  But, maybe, the Church of England at a deep and unacknowledged level does in fact continue to be guided by such theologically poor assumptions?

Bishop Philip North certainly believes that the Church of England seems to have a bias towards the middle class and, wealthy.  Or, more precisely, the churchy and ever so slightly glamorous  home counties set. And, he is very possibly correct.

I have a lot of sympathy with the drift of + Philip’s argument even though I am not totally convinced by some of his analysis or the generalizations he makes. +Philip, for instance, seems to regard poverty as an entirely urban and northern phenomena. I am not sure this is true. Rural poverty also is a cruel, and isolating, thing. Real urban poverty is to be found in Swindon, Slough and Shoeburyness all of which are in the south. Perhaps, I am just splitting hairs?

Bishop Philip’s grand claim is that ‘every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised.’ Some have that suggested this, whilst sounding grand, is not true. I think what I would argue that every effective and enduring renewal movement has sought to remove distinctions between rich and, poor challenging the notion that socio-economic stratification is somehow divinely ‘ordered.’ 

St. Benedict famously did this when he wrote that ‘the greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others, that Christ is welcomed. As for the rich, they have a way of exacting respect through they very fear inspired by the power they yield,’ (R.O.B. Chapter 53). Turning to a fresher expression of church St. Francis’ theology was also biased not only to the poor, but to the very act of becoming impoverished. Both St. Benedict and St. Francis were educated middle class boys who understood that care and compassion for the poor and the building of communities which eradicated the distinction between rich and poor are a large and significant part of authentic Christian mission and evangelism. Perhaps their confidence was vested in the notion that Jesus was a middle class boy whose very mission was to make the Kingdom of God fully available to all?

Bishop Philip is surely right to challenge the Church of England to invest in mission activities which look unglamorous and where the short-term payback is unquantifiable. He is correct in challenging the Church of England to stop being so impressed by SW1 & 2 models of mission and evangelism. He is impressive in standing alongside the likes of Pope Francis in seeking a a church that is poor and for the poor.” He is prophetic in asking the Church of England to finally and completely jettison a theology which in many ways continues to believe in the unsung line which declares that ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.’ So here is the question for the allocators of church funds:

Do we (and yes I am part of the collective we) continue to believe at a deep, but unspoken level, that rich and poor exist in a divinely appointed hierarchy of estates?  I suspect that we do and that Bishop Philip is right to challenge some very deeply held assumptions; assumptions that guide some of the Church of England’s most important investment decisions. Finally I suspect that Bishop Philip would endorse the words of Oscar Romero:

‘If we really want to learn the meaning of conversion and faith, if we want to learn what it means to trust other people, then it is necessary to become poor or, at the very least, it is necessary to make the cause of the poor our own. That is when one begins to experience faith and conversion: when one has the heart of the poor, when one knows that financial capital, political influence, and power are worthless, and that without God we are nothing.’ 

As a church we need to stop being so focused on the shiny, the glitzy, the apparently successful and, the contemporary. We need, if we are truly interested in building enduring and effective renewal movements to find ways of learning the lessons bequeathed by the likes of Benedict, Francis, Oscar Romero and, yes, Jesus. If we don’t we might as well start singing once more ‘‘the rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.’ 

The investment decisions we – the Church of England – make are ultimately reflections of the theology we prize and, for me at least, that is a sobering thought. Thank you Philip North.






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