Background Notes on the Challenge of Affluence Lecture

Dr Rowan Williams

We are honoured to welcome as our speaker on Friday, 12 July Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. Rowan Williams is a poet, theologian and author. His numerous academic and popular books include Christ: The Heart of Creation (Bloomsbury 2018) and God with Us: the Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection: Then and Now (SPCK 2017).

The Reverend Conrad Noel

Over the weekend of Friday 12 – Sunday 14 July, the congregation of St Anne’s Church Kew Green are taking the opportunity to remember the Reverend Conrad Noel, who was born 150 years ago in a house on Kew Green on 12 July 1869. Conrad Noel is a remarkable figure in Anglican history, although not often remembered today. He was a disciple of F D Maurice, the Christian socialist theologian and philosopher and firmly believed that the social message of Christianity is found throughout the bible and is essential to full understanding of the Church’s teaching and sacraments. His family were minor aristocrats and his father Roden Noel a poet. In 1910, aged 41 and married with one daughter, Conrad Noel became the vicar of the very beautiful church of St John the Baptist, Thaxted in north west Essex. He remained there until his death on 22 July 1942.

During his time in Thaxted, he ‘revolutionised’ the church there in a number of ways. He believed passionately in beauty, in order and in quality. He altered the church interior to make it brighter and lighter. He had the entire congregation process for the great festivals of the church with banners and lights and flowers. His wife Miriam was a great enthusiast for English folk song and dance, and together they introduced this as a parish activity and actively contributed to the revival of Morris dancing. Conrad Noel loved music and was a friend of Gustav Holst (see next paragraph). He preached incessantly about bringing the Kingdom of God to fruition in our own society.

His absolute conviction that we are all equally children of God and equally loved by God led him to hold views – that he acted upon – that were regarded as very controversial. He was intensely anti-imperialistic and actively supported the movements for independence in Ireland and in India. He was not a pacifist. In 1914, he hung the flags of all the allies in Thaxted church and included the red flag of the international and later of Sinn Fein. His son-in-law, the Reverend Jack Putterill, said of him, in a talk for the BBC series ‘Men of Vision’ in 1962 that he had

‘many friends and admirers among whom was the great Archbishop Temple. But he also encountered very bitter opposition and hostility… By nature he was the kindliest of men, with his brown eyes and curly hair and determined chin; with a rare wit and humour. He had great personal charm and the gift of drawing everyone into his own immediate interests and enthusiasms.’

Gustav Holst, the composer, and his wife Isobel rented a cottage in Thaxted in 1914. He and Conrad Noel struck up a close friendship and Holst was closely involved with the musical life of Thaxted Church. From 1916-1918, he and Noel organised a four-day musical festival at Whitsun to lighten the wartime gloom. Holst was Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School from 1905 until his death in 1934 – hence we are complimenting Dr Williams’ lecture with an all Holst concert on Sunday, 14 July, at 15.30 by a choir of accomplished singers from the school.

The Challenge of Affluence

A background paper to July 12 lecture by Dr Rowan Williams Note: for definitions of poverty, please see the end of this note. (Footnote references in bold parenthesis)

1. St Anne’s Church, Kew is one of the wealthiest parishes in England. (1) The parish (population just over 5,000) has very low rates of poverty in all age groups: 5% child poverty, 4% working age poverty, and 7% pensioner  overty. 6% of the parish population are without academic, vocational or professional qualifications. This affluence contrasts sharply with the  inhabitants of a parish like St Ann’s, South Tottenham (population 19,000), with 36% child poverty, 24% working age poverty and 40% pensioner poverty. 23% of the population there are without educational qualifications. (2)

2. In London, little percentage change has occurred in 120 years. Charles Booth, who is Christopher Stephens’ great grandfather, did not believe the  extent of poverty in London in the 1890s and funded an extensive survey. He found that 30% of Londoners were in poverty, due to low wages, lack of employment, sickness and disability. To-day, although there has been a massive improvement in living conditions and life expectation, the figure is 27%. (3) Low wages and high housing costs are largely the reason.

3. In the UK, child poverty has been rising since 2011/12. 4.1 million children now live in poverty, a rise of 500,000 in the last five years. The vast majority of this rise has taken place in working families. Four million workers are in poverty – a rise of more than half a million over five years. Strikingly, in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment, driven almost entirely by increasing poverty among working parents. (4) In May this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report on poverty in the UK, following a visit in November last year by their special rapporteur. He concluded:

“The United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy … Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences. Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated. The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings. The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos. A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda…”

The Government has contested this report and the rapporteur has replied that

“there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between the picture painted by the Government … and what people across the country told the Special Rapporteur. ” (5)

4. Inequality indicates the disparities between better-off and worse-off members of the population in terms of income and wealth as well as a host of other, often connected, disparities relating to gender, age, social background, health, education and so on. In terms of income inequality, there has been a marked increase since 1979. Between 1979 and 2012, 10% of overall income growth went to the bottom 50% of households; 40% of the total went to the richest 10%. Although taxes and benefits modified this by supporting households on the lowest incomes, the UK remains among the most unequal of western European countries. Inequalities in wealth are  double those of income. Half of the UK’s wealth is owned by 10% of the population. (6) It is now ten years since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published their findings that inequality damages social relationships –the more unequal a society, the more social problems there will be. (7) Economic advantage and disadvantage are reinforced across the life cycle, often passing on to the next generation. (8)

5. Global poverty. Our collection at Dr Williams’ lecture will be, at his choice, for Christian Aid, the churches’ charity to help the most
disadvantaged people in our world.

“In 2015, 10 percent of the world’s population (736 million people) lived on less than US$1.90 a day, compared to nearly 36 percent (1.85bn) in 1990…While poverty rates have declined in all regions, progress has been uneven… More than half of the extreme poor live in Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the number of poor in the region increased by 9 million, with 413 million people living on less than US$1.90 a day in 2015, more than all the other regions combined. If the trend continues, by 2030, nearly 9 out of 10 extreme poor will be in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

“The work to end extreme poverty is far from over, and many challenges remain. It is becoming even more difficult to reach those remaining in extreme poverty, who often live in fragile countries and remote areas. Access to good schools, health care, electricity, safe water, and other critical services remains elusive for many people, often determined by socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, and geography. The multidimensional view – wherein other aspects such as education, access to basic utilities, health care, and security are included – reveals a world in which poverty is a much broader, more entrenched problem.” (9)

6. Christian attitudes to poverty. The Church Urban Fund exists to help people living in some of the poorest communities. In an analysis of how
clergy and churchgoers understand poverty, the Fund reported:

“Christian theology provides a distinctive perspective on poverty,including … a strong emphasis on a personal and collective responsibility to help those in poverty … clergy understand poverty and inequality very differently to their congregations… The majority of church goers do not recognise the extent of poverty in this country and only a small minority attributes poverty to social injustice.” (10)

7. Defining poverty. Working age poverty is the proportion of working-age adults who experience income deprivation. This includes those in receipt of Job Seeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance and Carer’s Allowance. A similar basis is used for calculating child and pensioner poverty. (11)

Current weekly benefit rates (12)

  • Carer’s Allowance £66-15
  • Employment and Support Allowance, Job Seeker’s Allowance £73-10
  • Incapacity Benefit (long term) £112-25
  • Severe Disablement Allowance £79-50


1 Church Urban Fund,
2 Church Urban Fund,
3 Trust for London (2017) London’s Poverty Profile.
4 Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2018) UK Poverty 2018
5 United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council (2019) Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A?HRC/41/39/Add.1/E.pdf
6 Institute for Public Policy Research (2017) Time for change. Interim report of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice.
7 R.Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: why more equal societies always do better. Allen Lane.
8 Report of the National Equality Panel (2010) An anatomy of economic inequality in the UK. Summary
10 Church Urban Fund (2012) Bias to the poor? Christian attitudes to poverty in this country
Note by Claudine McCreadie, 31 May 2019. All web sites were accessed in the previous week.
11 Church Urban Fund
12 Department of Work and Pensions (2019) Benefit and pension rates 2019-2020.

Note by Claudine McCreadie, 31 May 2019. All web sites were accessed in the previous week.

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