Church of the poor: Raising the sails for when the wind changes

cropped20headshotInspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this. Their reflections will appear here, and in a new publication to be released soon. Today: Cait Crosse, New Economy Project Manager for the Society of Friends.

For Quakers, overcoming poverty is a matter of justice, not charity. To many, it’s wrong that parts of our society struggle to make ends meet, when there is more than enough wealth to go around. And Quakers challenge themselves to take action against social injustice as an important part of their spiritual life – even when it puts them at odds with the political and economic status quo. In this way, Quakers uphold Gandhi’s words that

“those who say that religion doesn’t have anything to do with politics don’t know what religion is”.

Recently, Friends have organised Equality Weeks, campaigned for a Living Wage and written to their MPs to raise concerns about inequality, to give just three examples. Additionally, the Church employs members of staff to carry out social justice work on behalf of all Friends, such as campaigning against this government’s reforms to welfare.

Over the last five years, Quakers have also been thinking collectively about how to work on a bigger scale to address the root causes of economic injustice and unsustainability. Many see growing inequality, poverty and climate change as a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with our economic system. In 2011, Quakers made a statement at their Yearly Meeting that the global economy “in its pursuit of growth … is often unjust, violent and destructive”. They decided that they needed, as a Church, to “learn more about how we are influenced and constrained by the economic system”. Friends asked what an economic system compatible with Quaker values such as equality, sustainability and peace would look like in practice. They knew they didn’t have all the answers, but they felt clear that they needed to find out more.

The New Economy project is part of the response to these questions. This project aims to support Quakers to reflect on our current economic system, and think about how they can change it. To help this discernment, seven booklets exploring different aspects of the economy will be published in the coming year. A guiding statement, entitled ‘Principles for a New Economy’, was produced in 2015, suggesting some key features that might underpin an economic system compatible with Quaker values. These principles focus on sustainability, economic and social equality and meaningful democracy within an economic system aimed at “the enhancement of all life, human and non-human”. These are common ideals, perhaps. But if put into practice, these principles would represent a significant departure from the mainstream economic policies of today.

Why bother with this utopian thinking, when there are pressing problems of poverty and inequality facing us across Britain? Quakers know, from centuries of experience, that change takes time and requires both practical responses to current issues, but also a ‘long view’.

The New Economy project is ultimately about supporting Friends to take action, but action that addresses root causes, as well as urgent needs. This thinking is required by the scale of the problem – the reality that the economic inequality, poverty and climate chaos facing the world today may only be solved by radical changes to our system, our communities and our lives. At the annual Quaker Salter Lecture, Ed Mayo, the Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, called the process of imagining a better world and nurturing practical local changes “raising the sails for when the wind changes”. Friends hope that the New Economy project will play an important part in this sail-raising work, to help build a just and equal economy in the future.

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