In an uncompromising speech to the Trades Union Congress this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, attacked the modern ‘gig economy’, of low pay and zero-hours contracts. He singled out giant online companies, such as Amazon, for ‘leeching’ off the taxpayer by paying their workers too little and paying far too little tax themselves. He called for ‘a new unionisation of Britain’. But it soon emerged that the Church of England itself invests heavily in Amazon shares and advises its parishes to employ workers on zero-hours contracts. So was he being hypocritical? And should an archbishop engage in hot political controversies or should he stick with God?
Mr Welby was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to address a TUC conference in over twenty years. His audience loved what he had to say: The gig economy, zero-hours contracts, is nothing new, it is simply ‘the re-incarnation of an ancient evil’. The living wage is set too low and the food banks should be ‘out of business’. The government should scrap its universal credit policy if it can’t get it right. And on top of all that: ‘There must be a new unionisation or there will be a new victimisation’.
The Archbishop also set his sights on giant online companies for not paying their workers a real living wage and for paying far too little tax themselves. He said: ‘If you earn money from a community, you should pay your fair share of tax to that community. But when vast companies like Amazon and other online traders [can] get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system’.
Amazon has always claimed that it pays all the British tax that it is required to do and Mr Welby’s criticism was aimed at the system which allows its legitimate tax bill to be so low. In saying this, the Archbishop was not saying anything especially controversial. It’s not just the Labour Party that believes companies like Amazon should pay more tax. Tory MPs have been urging the government to do something about the disparity in taxation between online traders and high street shops, a disparity that they believe is turning many high streets into wastelands of boarded-up shop-fronts. The Treasury is believed to be looking into how this might be done.
But by citing Amazon, the Archbishop exposed himself to charges of hypocrisy. That’s because the Church of England is a heavy investor in Amazon. The Church Commissioners, who are responsible for the Church’s investments which last year amounted to over £8bn, have included Amazon in their top twenty equity investments.
The charge of hypocrisy appeared to be compounded when it emerged that the Church also employs workers on zero-hours contracts and, on its website, advises its parishes to do so. Some dioceses explicitly advertise jobs on this basis. One former employee, a United Reformed Church minister, Ray Angelsea, who worked for five years in an Anglican cathedral bookshop on a zero-hours contract, wrote to The Times to say: ‘I was promised a couple of days a week but, in the end, I was lucky if I was given two days a month. You were given a couple of days’ notice before shifts, a few times they were cancelled on the same morning and there was no sick pay or holiday pay’.
The Church has responded by saying that the guidance to parishes on zero-hours contracts no longer reflected their ‘current thinking’ and added: ‘As a responsible employer, the Church is now reviewing its working practices’. As for its investment in Amazon, it argued that it was better for the church to be ‘at the table’ as a shareholder, with a voice in influencing the company’s policies.
But these defences have not cut much ice with the Archbishop’s critics. The Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, said the Archbishop should ‘practice what he preaches’.
Some critics argue that hypocrisy is only one of the charges that should be levelled against Archbishop Welby. They say he and the clergy more widely should not engage in politics at all. Their role should exclusively be to minister to people’s spiritual needs and to leave politics entirely to others. Indeed Mr Welby anticipated this response before he even delivered the speech. He remarked that senior clergy were often told to ‘stick to religious and spiritual matters and stay out of politics’, adding: ‘I have a feeling today might be another one of those days’.
But this is a view that the Church of England has rarely accepted and it has courted controversy before. Back in the mid-1980s relations between Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, almost completely broke down when he published a Church report, Faith in the City, which was widely seen as a direct attack on the social effects of her economic policies. More recently, Mr Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, was often outspoken on behalf of the poor or the vulnerable.
Many would say it is inevitable that Christians and the churches they belong to become involved in politics precisely because a central tenet of the Christian faith is concern for the poor and destitute. Such people cannot be tended to solely through spiritual guidance, they argue: poverty is, incorrigibly, a political issue. The result has been, however, that during the last thirty years or so the Church of England has been widely regarded as evolving from being the Conservative Party at prayer to being the Labour Party at prayer.
Mr Welby insists that his intervention was ‘political but not party political’. But this claim has failed to convince many Conservative MPs who accused him of ‘parroting’ Labour policy as expounded by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. One of them, Charles Walker, said the Archbishop should ‘have the courage to remove his dog collar’ and become a politician, adding: ‘There are a diversity of views as to what is best for the economy, but [he] only seems interested in presenting John McDonnell’s point of view’.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Conservative MPs complain that the established church is not just being too ‘political’ but being ‘party political’ to boot, and so relish the chance to charge it with hypocrisy.
Is the charge justified? Was the Archbishop right in his attacks on the gig economy and on companies such as Amazon? Do the church’s investments in Amazon and its own use of zero-hours contract make the attacks hypocritical? Should the Archbishop have addressed the TUC in the first place? Do you think his speech did amount to endorsing John McDonnell’s policies or not? And do you think that the Church should refrain from engaging in politics, or do you think its fundamental beliefs mean than it cannot avoid doing so?
Let us know your views.