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Archbishop Welby is not one to duck a challenge. For example, his recent address to the TUC conference criticised Amazon for paying low tax and wages. It may be fanciful to imagine that an archbishop’s comments had an impact on the decision by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest man — to raise pay rates in the US and the UK, but staff in other countries have protested over pay and not received a rise. Welby’s widely reported interventions on finance have shown him to be a critical friend of business, with a nuanced position on the role of money. In 2013 he spoke of the “possibility of wealth as life-giving water”. But the TUC speech, delivered six days after the publication of an Institute for Public Policy Research report in which he called for measures to combat “destabilising” inequality, suggests that he has grown impatient.

While the Church grapples with social and economic change, one element in the triangular constitutional dance has repositioned itself rather well. When Prince Charles suggested in 1994 that as monarch he would reject the centuries-old title Defender of the Faith in favour of the more general “defender of faith”, concern rippled among Christians. However, the Queen appears to have drawn on her son’s idea: in a 2012 speech at Lambeth Palace she argued that the C of E’s place in society had been “occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated”. In a formula that would have been unrecognisable to the first Elizabethans, she continued: “Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” (Charles has since reinforced this reframing, arguing that “at the same time as being Defender of the Faith you can also be protector of faiths”.) Thus the Queen rebuffed critics of the CofE’s preferential status and those who question its place in a multifaith society — in effect, defending the Anglican Church as a trustee of a place in which all can flourish.

Archbishop Welby’s TUC speech was trying to achieve something similar in the economic realm. He made clear that he was being political, not party political. It was not about “Right” or “Left”: it was about realising the common good; here, economic good as it contributes to a broader good, an aspiration ingrained in Christian thought and practice. What he said should demonstrate to anticlerical Labour members the values the Church shares with them, while continuing to alert hard-right Tory policymakers to the corrosiveness of unbridled individualism.

History rarely goes in straight lines. Although church attendance is still falling (by between 10 and 15 per cent between 2006 and 2016), engagement with churches — through schools, foodbanks and so on — remains high and the Church is investing £27 million in more than 100 new churches on housing estates and other deprived areas. In 11 per cent of parishes the decline in attendance is being reversed. Graham James, chaplain to Archbishops Robert Runcie and George Carey, and Bishop of Norwich since 1999, told Standpoint he believed bishops are more active in the Lords than 30 years ago, when the upper chamber bore a greater resemblance to “a gentlemen’s club”.

And while for decades sexual ethics have driven a wedge between the Church and popular opinion, some assumptions are being revisited. The power dynamics around personal freedoms are being challenged like never before, through #MeToo and the mental health crisis among British teens. Economically, the crisis of 2008 and its aftermath have cast a long shadow. There is a dissatisfaction with what we have become.

A wise Church will step carefully but confidently into both debates, using the language of respect, fairness and human flourishing. That is where it has a deeply needed and potentially powerful role, power based not on political structure, but on the core of its message.  

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