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Justin Welby’s social conscience

25 November 2012

One of the things we know about the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is that he doesn’t like bankers. Another is that he has given a good deal of thought to the question of social sin – a trickier concept than personal, individual failings. A third is that he has been profoundly influenced by the social teaching of a nineteenth century pope, Leo XIII, as expressed in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. It’s available online, just twenty pages long.

That encyclical is a curious document to read now: some of it feels anachronistic (if you like women bishops, you’re going to hate the bit about fathers as the natural rulers of families), much feels self evident. It starts off with a ringing denunciation of the prevailing social disorder of the time and its effects on the labouring poor: ‘the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.’

It goes on, however, to declare in unequivocal terms, the natural human right to private property (‘the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature’), and the folly, for workers as well as the wealthy, of any attempt to replace it with collective state ownership. All perfectly obvious, all written way ahead of the Russian revolution.

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Conservatives find all this terribly congenial, ditto the emphasis that man, and the family, precede the state, and that the family ‘has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the state’ and come before those of the community in the natural pecking order. For good measure he goes on to reflect on the wretchedness of earthly life – ‘nothing is more useful than to reflect on the world as it really is.’

The bite of the thing comes more than half way through, and it’s in his reflections on the duties of employers and the rights of employees. It’s not good enough, he says, for wages to be set by a free market. ‘Wages, we are told, are regulated by free consent,’ he observes, before going on to declare that each man has a natural right to procure what is required to live. Behind any private agreement on pay, ‘there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and men, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.’

Then he goes on to assert the real good of working men’s unions, again not an entirely self-evident proposition from a pope at the time. Funnily enough, it’s his wistful invocation of the medieval trade guilds, once considered a bit pathetic in its nostalgia, which now seems rather pertinent. And I’m sympathetic myself to his view that a worker’s right to religion includes a day of rest on Sundays – has anyone, lately, tried to exercise their right to a Sabbath rest when they apply for a job in retail?

One of the most pertinent bits of Rerum Novarum now, of course, is its contention that an employer does not simply recruit labour; he recruits a person, with minimum human needs. And if market forces don’t deliver the means necessary for him to live with minimal decency, then the state may have to intervene.

We’re talking, obviously, about the minimum wage here and indeed about the fashionable notion of the living wage, which is significantly higher. The London living wage, for instance, is £8.55 as opposed to the minimum wage of £6.19 which has lower levels depending on age. Charles Moore, in the Spectator, recently made a cogent argument against the living wage on the basis that it not only made a nonsense of the concept of the minimum wage but failed to acknowledge that someone with a family had different needs from a young, single person. I’m sure Leo Xiii would have agreed. But there are any number of unavoidable costs associated with living in the capital – transport is hugely expensive, and so is housing – which mean that if you’re going to live here at all, it’s next to impossible on the minimum wage.

All this is up for argument, and not just among Catholics. But it’s just one of the respects in which Rerum Novarum is worth considering. A little after its publication, the Anglican socialist, Henry Scott Holland, said it was ‘the voice of some old-world life…speaking in some antique tongue of long ago.’ Actually, it sounds rather pertinent in lots of respects. Let’s see how Justin Welby uses it.

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Show comments
  • Sarah

    “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustic”

    Like an unpaid housewife and mother then. In his world, women are naturally poorer than men.

  • AnotherDaveB

    The ‘living wage’, as I understand it , is an entirely voluntary thing. Companies choosing to pay higher wages.

    Encouraging employers to consider their employees needs, rather than what they will accept is a perfectly valid and admirable goal for the CoE. Mr Cameron used to talk about ‘social responsibility’ applying to organisations, as well as individuals.

    The state-set minimum wage itself, I think is probably a bad thing.

  • Noa

    We wait to see whether Archbishop Welsby will continue the policies which have enabled the Church of England to be considered the religious arm of the Labour Party.

  • True Bred Pomponian

    This country’s biggest problem is a poverty of the spirit. This is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s problem. Don’t assume that that he will address it. He is far more interested in sticking two fingers up at the Government of the day.

    • 2trueblue

      Add to that lack of aspiration and inspiration, killed totally by Liebore.

  • dalai guevara

    Oh, those banksters…We are reminded that it is the Heads of State in other countries which regularly remind the delinquents of their lack in ethical standards. Would we ever see this happening here, where we have an Archbishop or just plain Chancellors of St P’s et al to do the dirty work for them?

  • Daniel Maris

    He seems a nice chap, but there are big forces at work and the CofE is almost an irrelevance now.

    The Papal position on economics and social affairs wasn’t bad in theory but in reality they ended up backing feudalism and fascism – until their mid-century adjustment.

    • TomTom

      Big Forces within the Church which can rent it asunder……..95 Theses to be made plain

    • dalai guevara

      ‘Backing’ feudalism? It is quite obvious to any five year old that in the UK, this is one and the same thing.

  • Cirenvoice

    Anyone who thinks that this Old Etonian, ex-oilman streak of piss is going to make any difference as Archbishop is in for a severe disappointment. Reading his apologia on the front page of the Sunday telegraph this morning makes one despair. Is Welby really the best the C of E can produce? One thinks of the parallel with Entwistle / BBC – the adjectives ‘hopeless’ and ‘hapless’ immediately spring to mind.

    • HooksLaw

      Good to see an open mind for once, calm considerate rational thoughtful opinion that has weighed in all the prevailing factors.
      There was me thinking the Spectator comments section was becoming a stinking cesspit. Thanks for offering us a beacon of light and hope amidst a stormy sea of bigotry and prejudice.

      • Noa

        Well irony, even sarcasm, is definitely more entertaining and effective, than abuse.

    • TomTom

      The Church of England was far out of touch when John Wesley created his own splinter group, now sadly too much like the C of E. It is the nature of hierarchy that those skilled in climbing its greasy pole are least appealing to those watching the ascent…….it is now the self-effacing without charismatic personality that the machine prefers……Max Weber had his notions of those best suited to the bureaucratic machine and this society is bureaucratised and sclerotic through and through – a rotting cadaver

      • telemachus

        You have Justin Welby wrong

        After Williams he is like a breath of fresh air

        He is charismatic. He is a born leader. He is also a conciliator.

        He is also wickedly funny

        I had the privelege of listening to him in Liverpool a couple of years ago and he had us rolling in the isles

        If you do not think wit and charisma are important ask Boris

        You could also listen to his speech at the Speccy awards

        • Austin Barry

          Who cares?

          Our future lies with the Imams: the men who have certainty. who consign women to their true subordinate position, who know that they are the elect. They didn’t go to Eton, but to the Madrassa where life reduces to its essence: a life without irony or love or understanding. This is our future, Insha’ allah.

        • TomTom

          READ CAREFULLY what I wrote BEFORE you comment

          • telemachus

            I just did and nonsense though it is it reqires some defence of Welby

        • TomTom

          He is a born leader. He is also a conciliator. and holds a Master in Doubelthink and Newspeak no doubt to complete this picture

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Sneaking in a bit of liberation theology, I see.

  • Gerry Dorrian

    Leo was trying to address the injustices that were feeding the growth of various schools of communism, not least Marx’s vision. But ultimately the Pope was doomed – the descendents of people who, Marx noted in Capital, denied peasants their feudal rights to land through enclosure would see in communism a new way to fight their way to the top of the tree by freeing working-class people from being cannon-fodder for the capitalist machine only to make them cannon-fodder for the communist machine.

    • HooksLaw

      Or alternatively the provision of a good education and the endeavours of their own wits. (amongst others there was the education act of 1902)
      As opposed to the new serfdom of communism that is.

      • telemachus

        only in true communism are we free
        You make the mistake of many of judging the utopia of communism on the failed socialist experiments
        The Soviet Union were getting there until the revisionism of the late 50’s
        I am mor taken by Welby’s take on social sin
        This is the get rich quick and sod the rest of you philosophy bequeathed to the Tory party by the 1980’s government.
        Thank God someone cares to challenge this

        • TomTom

          Good job Blair didn’t have that get-rich quick attitude isn’t it Telemachus…the most electorally popular Labour leader…his charitable work begins at home……houses for children is his favourite

  • Coffeehousewall

    So is this about Welby or Leo? Has Welby said anything as important as Leo, or gas he just read Leo?

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