BBC Radio 4:Philip North - Bishop of Burnley - 05/12/2017


There is nothing quite like the bright-eyed hopefulness of someone new into a job they love. I spent last weekend staying in the Lake District with our Diocese of Blackburn curates on a training programme. They doubtless presumed that my presence was for their benefit. Actually it was for my own, because I was able to drink from their energy and enthusiasm like a thirsty traveller at a Saharan oasis.

This is surely why Theresa May was able to give such an impassioned speech when she first became Prime Minister. Filled with the zeal of a newbie, she spoke with real fire in her belly about the need for a fairer society and a government that worked for those who were just about managing.

Sadly, delivery seems to have been rather harder. At the weekend Alan Milburn resigned as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission. That was followed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that suggests that increasing numbers of children and older people are drifting towards poverty. The Government response has been robust, pointing out progress made by the living wage and record low levels of pensioner poverty. It’s an interesting debate, but if your Christmas plans involve a visit to a loan shark or a food bank, resignations, reports and statistics won’t do you a great deal of good.

I wonder, though, if the heart of the social mobility problem is rather broader. It is all too easy to offload the issue onto politicians, expecting them to deliver, but then shirk at the personal implications of building a fairer society. This is certainly a problem we know all too well in the Church. Gatherings of Christians love to hear the language of a bias to the poor. But when it comes to hard policy around resource allocation, we usually shuffle nervously in our seats and hope the issue will go away.

Advent may provide another way of viewing the problem as Christians look forward to the birth of the child of Bethlehem. St Paul talks about Christ’s coming as an act of willing self-saCRIfice on behalf of the human race. Jesus renounces the majesty of heaven to share in our fragile lives. By being born, he deliberately lets go of power in order to empower us.

As a Christian I can see a pattern here. Empowering others can’t just be about imposing massive demands on politicians. It means a willingness to give power away ourselves. For example fair rents may mean lower incomes for second homeowners. Fair pay may mean lower profits and reduced share dividends. Greater access for the poor to top universities may mean some who would otherwise have deserved places not getting them.

Social justice requires saCRIfice. It means being ready joyfully to let go of power in order to empower the powerless. Without that, the highest ideals and most potent rhetoric about social mobility will crumble to dust.

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