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Politics, Poverty and the Church in an ‘Age of Austerity’

Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, Coventry CV1 2TL, UK
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2023, 14(1), 59;
Received: 25 September 2022 / Revised: 21 December 2022 / Accepted: 22 December 2022 / Published: 29 December 2022
(This article belongs to the Section Religions and Theologies)


The ‘Age of Austerity’ has ruptured the social fabric of contemporary Britain. Arising from our three-year Life on the Breadline project, this article represents the first fieldwork-led analysis of the multidimensional nature of austerity-age poverty by academic theologians in the UK. The article analyses the impact that austerity has had on Christian responses to poverty and inequality in the UK. We draw on our six ethnographic case studies and interview responses from over 120 national and regional Church leaders to exemplify the four approaches to the Christian engagement with poverty that we identified during our research: ‘caring’, ‘campaigning and advocacy’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘community building’. We argue that the Church needs to grasp the systemic, multidimensional and violent nature of poverty in order to realise the potential embedded in its extensive social capital and fulfil its goal of ‘transforming structural injustice’. The paper shows that the Church remains nervous of moving beyond welfare-based responses to poverty and suggests that none of the existing approaches can force poverty into retreat until the Church re-imagines itself as a liberative movement that embodies God’s preferential option for the poor in every aspect of its life and practice.

1. Introduction

Following the 2010 UK General Election Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that austerity was an economic necessity. Everyone needed to make sacrifices. However, the austerity policies that the Cameron-led Coalition Government introduced were largely targeted at people who were already left out or left behind. The role that faith groups have played in responding to austerity age poverty has been extensively analysed within the social sciences but rarely explored within theology. Theologians have engaged widely with poverty and inequality in different times and places, as seen, for example, in the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America but, to date, there have been no extensive or empirically based theological analyses of the multidimensional nature of poverty and the unequal impact of austerity policies in the UK since the 2008 global financial crash. The perfect storm of structural injustice, the unequal impact of austerity, the COVID-19 pandemic and the current ‘cost of living crisis’ raises crucial questions about the role of theology in an era characterised by deepening poverty and growing inequality. This paper provides an example of the interdisciplinary contextual theology of poverty we argue is needed in the face of seemingly unending austerity.
Drawing on primary data from our Life on the Breadline research project, we argue that theologians in the UK need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the multidimensional and systemic nature of poverty. We recognise the long history of Christian responses to urban poverty in the UK stretching back to the Christian Socialist movement in the nineteenth century (Bradstock and Rowland 2002). Furthermore, we acknowledge the historic experience of austerity amongst Black and Brown Britons (Beckford 2004) and the roots of the contemporary experience of poverty and inequality in the Thatcher years of the early 1980s (Whiteside 2016). However, in this paper, we limit our analysis to Christian action on poverty during the ‘Age of Austerity’ that followed the 2008 global financial crisis, as evidenced in our Life on the Breadline research. We suggest that the Church needs to embrace a re-imagined vision of itself as a liberative social movement if it is to realise the potential embedded in its enduring social capital and play a key role in turning back the swelling tide of austerity poverty.
Poverty is multidimensional. Only a multifaceted response can adequately address such complexity. Poverty damages individuals and communities. It enacts multiple forms of psychological, existential, economic, structural and cultural violence. Consequently, responses to the violence of poverty must combine individualised support (meeting urgent pastoral needs, empowering individuals and enabling enterprise) and communal elements (campaigning, advocacy and community building). Critically, a credible Christian response to multidimensional poverty needs to be grounded in the fundamental values of liberation theology and embody the conviction that God has a preferential option for the poor and marginalised. Whilst this paper arises from a UK context the challenges we pose and insights we share will resonate with people seeking to transform structural injustice in comparable societies across the Global North.1

2. Surveying the Theological Landscape and Situating This Paper

2.1. A Picture of Poverty

In 2020 just over 14.5 million people were living in poverty in the UK. Government Ministers have regularly lauded work as the route out of poverty, but the Institute for Public Policy Research found that in 2021 approximately 11.7 million of the 14.5 million people in poverty were in paid employment. During the 2020–2021 COVID-19 pandemic 700,000 people were pushed further below the poverty line. Furthermore, the Resolution Foundation suggests that, because of the ongoing ‘cost of living crisis’, a further 1.3 million people were forced into poverty during 2022 (Bell et al. 2022). Such poverty is multidimensional and people’s experience of it varies and is shaped by their social location. However, to date theological analyses have been largely one-dimensional and lacked extended empirical engagement. Theologians need to grapple with three interconnected challenges if they are to meet the challenge posed by austerity poverty.
First, it is important to critique the individualising of poverty by successive British governments who have attributed it to so-called moral inadequacy, rather than structural injustice. Following the 1997 General Election the Blair Labour government placed a clear focus on structural injustice. This was evidenced in the establishment of the Social Exclusion Unit in1997, the introduction of a National Minimum Wage in 1999 and the creation of more than 3000 Sure Start children’s centres in socially excluded neighbourhoods. However, as the New Labour decade progressed poverty was increasingly depicted as “pathological rather than endemic” (Levitas 2005, p. 7). A similarly moralistic narrative was articulated by Conservative Chancellor George Osborne in 2012, soon after the Welfare Reform Act passed into law. Osborne divided people in poverty into, ‘strivers’ working hard to provide for their families, and ‘skivers’ happy living on Benefits.2 This discourse echoes the Victorian dichotomy of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. In her exploration of this “moral categorization of people in poverty”, Muers challenges the binary logic that underpins this dichotomy, arguing that objectifying people makes it easier to impose austerity policies without wrestling with the existential and ethical questions they raise (Muers 2021, p. 42). Poverty must be seen as a systemic challenge if it is to be defeated. Gutiérrez (1974, p. 175), the pioneer of liberation theology, describes poverty as a form of systemic sin—“a social, historical fact”. Such sin, he argues, “is evident in oppressive structures … as the root of a situation of injustice” (Gutiérrez 1974, p. 175). Within our Life on the Breadline case study focusing on Christian responses to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington the systemic nature of poverty, inequality and housing justice was particularly apparent.
Second, as Beth Waters’ Life on the Breadline image in Figure 1 below reminds us, poverty is multidimensional. Food poverty, poor housing, fuel poverty, personal debt, child poverty, holiday hunger, low pay and insecure employment converge in an austerity age perfect storm. Christian social action and theological analyses, however, often address just one piece of the poverty jigsaw.
The first generation of liberation theologians grasped the interconnected nature of poverty as Gutiérrez (1988, p. xxi) makes plain: “Poverty [means] … lack of food and housing, the inability to attend properly to health and educational needs, the exploitation of workers, permanent unemployment, the lack of respect for one’s human dignity”. A shift in theological method to focus on the multidimensional nature of poverty and the plurality of our experience is necessary if we are to fashion the kind of holistic analysis of poverty that is needed after a decade of austerity.
Third, poverty is a numbing form of violence that is embedded in policies, economic structures and cultural practices (Shannahan 2018, p. 243ff). Our Grenfell Tower and B30 Foodbank case studies highlight the collective trauma endured during the ‘Age of Austerity’. Gutiérrez (1974, p. 289) discusses the existential nature of such damage: “Material poverty is a sub-human situation … to be poor means to be exploited by others … not to know you are a person”. In a similar vein Tamez (1982, p. 12) suggests that poverty leads to the “degradation of the human being, a seizure of the divine image in a person”, what Galtung (1969, 1990) called structural violence. Cooper and Whyte (2017, p. 1) suggest that austerity had, “devastatingly violent consequences” and Powers and Rakopoulos (2019, pp. 1–12) argue that the resulting poverty was a form of “slow violence”. The term “slow violence” originates in Nixon’s (2011) examination of the incremental and, often hidden, violence that environmental damage causes to human community. However, we suggest, with Powers and Rakopoulos (2019) and Cooper and Whyte (2017) that the term also captures the persistent but often hidden damage wrought by Government policy since the 2010 General Election and the grinding trauma of austerity-age poverty.

2.2. All in This Together?

In 2018 Conservative Chancellor, Phillip Hammond acknowledged that austerity had been a political choice, rather than an economic necessity.3 The introduction of austerity policies reflected a broader depiction of state-based solutions to social problems as barriers to entrepreneurship and competition, which were framed as the drivers of social mobility. Such ideological touchstones formed the backdrop for the ‘Age of Austerity’, a term first used by David Cameron in a 2009 speech intended to contrast fiscal prudence with what he called irresponsible spending (Evans and Walker 2020).4 Both Cameron and George Osbourne went on to make frequent references to the ’Age of Austerity’. By 2018 welfare spending had been cut by 25% and in 2022 average wages remained lower than before the 2008 financial crash. Furthermore, the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts rose from 168,000 in 2010 to 1,000,000 in 2020. Child Benefit was frozen in 2011 and in 2012 the Welfare Reform Act introduced the Bedroom Tax which reduced people’s benefits by 25% if they had a spare bedroom. Universal Credit combined six pre-existing benefits and began its national roll-out in 2014. Whilst Chancellor George Osborne claimed that “we are all in this together”, the burden of austerity has fallen most heavily on people who were already hurting. In his 2018 visit to the UK the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights observed that, “the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents and people with disabilities” had been hit far harder than other groups by austerity policies (Alston 2018, p. 18).
On average, austerity hit women harder than men, partly because of the gendered division of labour in relation to child-care (Hall 2018). Consequently, the closure of 600 children’s Sure Start centres between 2010 and 2019 impacted more heavily on women than men. Young adults were hit harder than older people (Edmiston et al. 2017). The 2017 Social Attitudes Survey found that 17% of in-work 18–25-year-olds were on precarious flexible hour contracts, compared to 5% of 36–65-year-olds (Kelley et al. 2018). Austerity affected children more than adults. Between 2014 and 2020 the number of children living in poverty grew from 3.8 million to 4.3 million (Hirsch and Stone 2021). Furthermore, austerity hit children from some ethnic groups harder than others. The Runnymede Trust (2018, p. 2) reports that, whereas 26% of White children were living in poverty in 2018, this figure rose to 41% for children of dual heritage, 47% for Black British children, 54% amongst children of Pakistani heritage and 60% for children of Bangladeshi heritage. After a decade of austerity, the Food Foundation found that the number of children living in homes experiencing food insecurity grew by 5% to 2.6 million in the first half of 2022 alone.5 Disabled people have been harder hit by austerity than people without disabilities, as seen in the new Personal Independence Payments assessments. Between 2013 and 2018 just over 160,000 people failed work capability assessments which were later overturned at appeal. Even access to the benefit system is not equal. For example, the digital nature of Universal Credit implicitly excludes people with little access to the internet (Denning 2019).
As the impact of a decade of austerity, COVID-19 and the ‘cost of living crisis’ have converged, life has continued to get harder for those already left out or left behind. Successive Chancellors, Phillip Hammond (October 2018) and Sajid Javid (September 2019) claimed that austerity policies were ending.6 However, the Trussell Trust reported that they handed out 33% more food parcels in 2020–2021 than in 2019–2020. Furthermore, the Trust noted that the government’s reduction of Universal Credit payments by £20 in 2021 was likely to force more people to rely on food banks.7 This prediction was borne out and between April 2021 and March 2022 the number of food parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust increased by a further 14% to 2.1 million. The unequal impact of austerity and the multidimensional character of poverty pose key challenges for people of faith committed to egalitarian visions of the common good. Before we turn to our Life on the Breadline research it is important to summarise key debates within the social sciences and theology about the role of the Church in responding to contemporary poverty.

2.3. Literature Review—Theology, Poverty and the Role of Faith in the Public Sphere

The literature exploring this debate within the social sciences and contemporary theology is too extensive to summarise in a single paper. Consequently, we confine our reflection here to a brief summary of four key themes—the role of faith in the public sphere; faith groups engagement with poverty during the Age of Austerity; the emergence of public theology and the relevance of Common Good teaching in relation to Church engagement with poverty and the changing focus of liberation theology in recent decades.

2.3.1. The Role of Faith in the Public Sphere

In 1985 the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas published their Faith in the City report, which critiqued the Thatcher government’s social policies for deepening the early 1980s recession (Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas 1985). The report “caused a political storm” (Dinham 2008, p. 2166) and exemplified the ‘advocacy’ tradition of Christian social action to which we point in this paper. Faith in the City represented a moment of prophetic truth-telling by the Church of England but Government Ministers labelled it “pure Marxist theology”. The storm surrounding the report exemplified a broader secularist narrative that sought to restrict religion to the private sphere.
The secularism of twentieth century research into religion (Weber 1930; Wilson 1966; Berger 1967) was gradually displaced by a more nuanced postsecular perspective (Habermas 2006, 2008; Toft et al. 2011; Casanova 2012) that recognised that religion had not retreated to the private sphere, but become increasingly visible in the public realm (Hoelzl and Ward 2008). Dinham et al. (2009, p. 1) noted that “Academics, policymakers and practitioners are grappling with the emphatic return of faith to the public table”. In this context, the ways in which faith groups used their enduring social capital assumed a renewed political importance and stimulated growing academic discussion (Berger 1997, p. 972ff; Baker 2007; Bretherton 2010, 2015; Dinham et al. 2009; Beaumont and Cloke 2012; Baker and Skinner 2014; Cloke et al. 2019; Shannahan 2014). From 1997 onwards successive Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, noted the political significance the enduring social capital of faith groups in local neighbourhoods across the UK.
It was against this backdrop that the ecumenical Faithful Cities report (Commission on Urban Life and Faith 2006) was published in 2006. A successor to the Faith in the City report, Faithful Cities trod a more consensual line than its predecessor, and sought to negotiate a space for faith in the public sphere and the world of social policy. Bretherton (2011, p. 253) suggests that “we are going through a period of de-construction and re-construction in which perennial questions about the relationship between religious and political authority are being asked again”. For Bretherton this re-negotiation can pose three temptations. First, the Church can be tempted to mute its own voice and become ‘co-opted’ as an informal partner of government. Second, the Church can be drawn into a ‘communalism’ that either pits different faith groups against one another or reduces the public role of faith to fostering community cohesion. Third, the Church can allow itself to be ‘commodified’. Writing of civic engagement amongst Black Pentecostal churches, Beckford (2004, pp. 8–10) argues that, in spite of its social capital in urban communities, the Black Church often resists engaging in civil society politics because it has been “scared out” to the suburbs, “bought out” by grants that fund its community work or “sold out” to “a crude mix of otherworldly spirituality and this-worldly materialism through problematic prosperity doctrines that lead into … a selfish faith”.
In the thirty-seven years since Faith in the City’s publication, the cultural and political backdrop to the engagement of the Church in the public sphere has been transformed. However, the charity versus politics dilemma has not left us. The challenges to which Beckford and Bretherton point in relation to the Church’s engagement with austerity-age poverty became evident during Life on the Breadline.

2.3.2. Public Theology—Faith and the Common Good

Scott and Cavanaugh (2004, p. 1) suggest that “Theology is politically important and those who engage in either theology or politics ignore this fact at their peril”. As social scientists have re-framed their analyses of secularisation in recent decades, political theologians have explored the nature of faith-based engagement in civil society politics. The term ‘political theology’ originates in the work of the Nazi apologist Carl Schmitt. However, the exploration of the intersection between theology, political discourse and religious practice is most closely linked with the exploration of the relationship between oppression, hope and political praxis by J.B. Metz (1969), Dorothy Soëlle (1993) and Jürgen Moltmann (1967) and liberation theology, which began to emerge in the late 1960s.
Political theology’s younger cousin, public theology, has arisen as a postsecular and postmodern social contract is emerging within which faith-based engagement in the politics of civil society has become common-place. The term “public theology”, which was initially coined by Marty (1974, pp. 332–59), needs clarification before considering its use in discussion about the role of faith in the public sphere in the UK. Stackhouse (2004, p. 284ff) suggests that the term resonates with a shift from state-centred to civil society focused framings of the public sphere. Graham (2013, p. xvi) suggests that public theology represents, “a quest for a new voice in … a public debate that is more fragmented, more global and more disparate” than ever before. Stackhouse (2004, p. 284) and Lee (2015, p. 44) both note that public theology is a conscious attempt to fashion a model of theological discourse that resources the building of an inclusive postsecular vision of the common good.
The roots of common good thinking are found in the canon of European philosophy, as far back as the work of Aristotle. As Hollenbach (2002, p. 4ff) notes, whilst the term itself may not have been widely used, the concept of the common good was a feature of Christian theological discourse as far back as the thirteenth century CE, as the work of Aquinas attests, and formed an important aspect of early Jesuit practice in the sixteenth century. The Catholic Social Teaching tradition that originates with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (Rowlands 2018, 2021) aligned a theological vision of the common good with an ethical commitment to defeating poverty (Pope Leo XIII 1891, para. 42). More than a century later, Roman Catholic Bishops in England returned to such thinking ahead of the 2010 UK General Election, suggesting that—“The common good refers to what belongs to everyone by virtue of their common humanity … The common good is about how to live well together … At the heart of the common good solidarity acknowledges that all are responsible for all” (Bishops Conference of England and Wales 2010, p. 8). Writing in the year of the financial crash Bedford-Strohm (2008, pp. 144–62) argued that public theology provides the Church with a means of articulating a model of the common good that is premised on God’s Preferential Option for the Poor. However, Hollenbach (2002, p. 19ff) reminds us of the need to interrogate the extent to which political and theological appeals to the common good collude with or challenge structural injustice.
During Life on the Breadline, many of the Church leaders with whom we spoke identified a vision of the common good that is shaped by a commitment to God’s Preferential Option for the Poor as the basis for their denomination’s engagement with contemporary poverty. This emphasis was also evident in our ethnographic case studies. However, we suggest that it is also important to recognise that a de-politicised framing of the common good as the basis for Christian engagement with austerity-age poverty will leave structural injustice intact (Dorrien 1990, p. 4ff). In the face of systemic injustice and persistent austerity should the Church use its social capital to feed the hungry and clothe the naked or to agitate for structural change?

2.3.3. Theology and Faith-Based Engagement with Austerity-Age Poverty

Whereas researchers from the social sciences have extensively analysed the ways that faith-based organisations have responded to austerity-age poverty this is not a theme that has been widely considered within theology, thereby adding to the contribution that this paper can make to this discussion. However, it would be untrue to suggest that theologians have completely ignored UK poverty over the last decade. Four strands of this theological discussion are important to note.
First, the renewed visibility of faith in the public sphere has raised questions about the motivation that shapes Christian engagement with poverty and the nature and purpose of theological discourse in an Age of Austerity. Bradstock (2010, p. 135ff) argues that, due to its longstanding ethical engagement with the challenges of building inclusive societies within which all people can flourish, theology can offer a valuable critique of the assumptions that underpin austerity-age economics. Bradstock’s work invites us, to reflect afresh on the values that drove a decade of austerity. Gaston and Shakespeare (2010, p. 793ff) comment on the emergent Big Society initiative heralded by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. On the basis of their conviction that “Jesus stands in solidarity with those who have nothing” (Gaston and Shakespeare 2010, p. 800) Gaston and Shakespeare argue that Christians have a theological responsibility to challenge the economic and ethical basis for austerity—“to resist the lure of the Big Society and to work instead with those who resist the cuts to jobs and services and seek with others to build a movement for a radical social alternative” (Gaston and Shakespeare 2010, p. 801).
Second, a clutch of papers have reflected on food poverty, and, in particular, on foodbanks as sites of faith-based activism. Cameron (2014) affirms the immediate pastoral value of the foodbank response to poverty. She suggests, however, that the Church’s wholehearted support for the foodbank model runs the risk of unconsciously colluding with unjust austerity policies and masking deeper structural injustice. Allen (2016) and Pemberton (2018, 2020) have engaged in a dialogue about the intersection between theology, austerity and foodbank responses to poverty. Using the foodbank to exemplify his argument, Allen (2016) critiques the two dominant approaches to Christian social action—charitable giving and campaigning for social justice. For Allen, a charitable approach confirms asymmetric power relations and fosters a level of dependency that inhibits the agency of people living in poverty. Equally, for Allen (2016), a social justice model remains confined within the hegemonic parameters of capitalism. Instead, Allen (2016) argues, the Church needs to model patterns of inclusive fellowship, mutuality and hospitality that foster the creation of new patterns of social relations. Pemberton (2018, p. 2) argues that Allen’s conclusion is ‘insufficiently radical’. In contrast to Allen, Pemberton (2018) suggests that the Church should engage with the economy and the state. Aligning his argument with the work of geographers such as Andrew Williams et al. (2016) on faith-based social action, Pemberton argues that food banks have potential to act as transformative political spaces.
Third, the last decade has given rise to a small number of theological papers, exploring the perfect storm caused by the interrelation between what Jones (2019, p. 154) calls “welfare state retrenchment”, rising levels of homelessness, housing injustice and the impact of austerity policies on already marginalised communities. Writing about Christian responses to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, Shannahan (2022, p. 269) argues that the tragedy “symbolizes the cruelty of the ‘age of austerity’ that followed the global financial crash”. Both Jones (2019) and Shannahan (2022) demonstrate the importance of fieldwork within contemporary political theology and illustrate the need to broaden theological discussions about austerity-age poverty beyond the food bank. Shannahan (2022, p. 275ff) argues the need to understand grinding austerity-age poverty as a form of unresolved collective trauma. Jones (2019, p. 154) draws our attention to the relational and existential impacts of poverty and the ways in which these can undermine Christian appeals to the common good—“There is a profound ethical and theological challenge to the common good in the uncomfortable reality that some members of society have such low expectations and aspirations”.
Fourth, a small number of theologians in the UK have drawn on the experience of austerity-age poverty to reflect on the nature and purpose of Christian community and witness. Writing about a church-based cold weather shelter in London and the broader work of Salvation Army hostels for the homeless Duce (2013) and Button (2018) argue the need to re-frame thinking about Christian responses to homelessness around an ethic of hospitality and mutual well-being. Arising from his ministry on an outer city estate in Birmingham, Barrett (2018) considers how the development of a radically receptive model of ecclesiology shaped by an ethic of solidarity can enable community building in the face of structural injustice.
We recognise the value of such theological analyses, but suggest that none have engaged in any extended empirical depth with the multidimensional dynamics of austerity. Theology in the UK, therefore, is still to respond in sustained depth to the critical challenge embodied by austerity-age poverty.

2.3.4. The Changing Focus of Liberation Theology

The influence of Latin American liberation theology has been immense, since its emergence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the Church leaders with whom we spoke during Life on the Breadline identified the foundational theological values of liberation theology as the ethical basis for their denomination’s engagement with contemporary poverty. We have already noted the ways in which the work of liberation theologians like Gutiérrez and Tamez can enrich our understanding of the systemic and violent nature of austerity-age poverty. Given the abiding influence of the claim that God has a Preferential Option for the Poor it is important to comment briefly on the development of liberation theology and to consider its relevance in the UK half a century after Gutiérrez’ publication of its seminal founding text A Theology of Liberation.
There has sometimes been a tendency to treat Latin American liberation theology as a fixed set of ideas that can be imported wholesale into widely different situations—a product, rather than a process. Liberation theology, according to Rowland, “is not a body of knowledge that can be learnt but a way of understanding God in the midst of history” (Bennett and Gowler 2012, p. 8). Consequently, whilst the term was first adopted by the Catholic Bishops of Latin America in Medellin in 1968, the theological argument that God has a Preferential Option for the Poor is as relevant in austerity Britain as it was in the Latin American Church because liberation theology does not represent “detached reflection on Scripture and tradition but the present life of shanty towns and land struggles” (Rowland 1999, pp. 2–3). Gutiérrez (1974, p. 302) summarises, “The poor deserve preference not because they are morally or religiously better than others but because God is God, in whose eyes the ‘last are first’”. In the years following the emergence of liberation theology attempts were made to embed its ideas in the UK, not least in the work of John Vincent (1986) at the Urban Theology Unit. However, many of these early attempts to articulate a British liberation theology did not take sufficient account of the need to adopt a critical approach to contextualising its theological methodology into a dramatically different socio-cultural context (Shannahan 2010).
A critical engagement with liberation theology’s core values and methodology is essential if its potential is to be realised as a theological force for social change in breadline Britain. The movement that began in Latin America with its overriding focus on economic poverty and social class has evolved as it has emerged in different contexts in relation to a diverse range of liberation struggles. The pedagogical and philosophical roots of liberation theology in the work of Paulo Freire (1970) paved the way for a theological engagement with multiple forms of oppression in a diverse range of contexts. Freire’s (1970) focus on the importance of conscientisation of the multidimensional causes of oppression as the first step in the development of the struggle for liberation formed the basis, not only for the articulation of liberation theology in Latin America but also for the emergence of a wide-range of theologies of liberation in other contexts. The earliest forms of Latin American liberation theology can be critiqued for neglecting other forms of oppression and the ways in which their combined impact can deepen the experience of poverty. The history of struggle for racial justice within the Black Church and its confluence with the US Civil Rights and Black Power movements gave rise to the Black liberation theology exemplified by the work of James Cone (1975) in the US and Robert Beckford (1998) and Anthony Reddie (2008) in the UK. Coming to birth at a similar time feminist and womanist liberation theologies critiqued the neglect of gender by Latin American and North American liberation theologians and placed women’s experience of oppression and the combined impact of sexism and racism at the heart of theological methodology, as seen, for example, in the work of Rosemary Radford-Ruether (1983) and Jacquelyn Grant (1989). A third arena of struggle within which the theological foundations of liberation theology have been deployed relates to sexuality, the experience of homophobia and the development of liberative Queer identities, as illustrated by the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid (2002). In recent decades, the core values of liberation theology have been brought into dialogue with a range of struggles for social justice and in relation to broader postcolonial movements (Sugirtharajah 1991; Pui-Lan 2021).
Whilst its initial stimulus was the poverty and inequality of Latin America the philosophical thrust of liberation theology has given it a life beyond its initial context, ensuring, we suggest, its ongoing relevance in breadline Britain in the twenty-first century. Its assertion that God has a Preferential Option for the Poor and its commitment to a model of theological analysis that arises from and prioritises the voice of those who have been left out or left behind resonate during an Age of Austerity. However, Petrella (2006) reminds us that the world in which the first generation of liberation theologians wrote has been transformed. The Cold War and state-centric struggles of the 1970s and 1980s have faded from view. Struggles for social justice are increasingly multidimensional and lived out in the context of a diverse and arguably postmodern and postsecular civil society. Petrella (2006, p. 11ff) argues that liberation theology needs to re-define itself in relation to a new world and a new century. Within this paper and our broader Life on the Breadline research, we argue that the Age of Austerity provides liberation theology with this new arena of struggle.

3. Methodology

Life on the Breadline was the first empirical project led by academic theologians in the UK to analyse the multidimensional impact of the ‘Age of Austerity’ on Christian responses to contemporary poverty. Our interdisciplinary research drew political theology and the social sciences into a critical dialogue. Adopting a triangulated qualitative approach between 2018 and 2021 combining ethnographic case studies, focus groups, semi-structured interviews and an online survey, we built the most extensive theological evidence-base to date on the Christian engagement with contemporary poverty in the UK.8
We interviewed sixteen national Church leaders from thirteen national Churches in the UK, defining a national Church as a denomination that adheres to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and that has a clear national presence in more than one geographic city or region in the UK, and in turn defined a national Church leader as a senior leader in their denomination. These in-depth, semi-structured interviews lasted approximately forty minutes, and Churches not represented either turned down an interview request or did not respond. Next, we undertook an online survey in 2019 with 104 regional Church leaders from seventeen national Churches across the UK; a regional leader being defined in relation to the geographic areas used in national Church structures. The survey covered the respondent’s role and background, their understanding of poverty, their Church’s response to poverty, and their thoughts on poverty in relation to the Government. The 104 regional leaders responded to the survey invitation from the 375 regional leaders who were invited to participate. As there is no definitive list of national or regional Church leaders, this was subject to information that was available in 2019.
Finally, between 2019 and 2021 we undertook six ethnographic case studies across London, Birmingham, and Manchester—Notting Hill Methodist Church and Power the Fight in London, B30 Foodbank and Hodge Hill Church in Birmingham, and Church Action on Poverty and Inspire Centre in Manchester. These case studies were chosen to focus on Christian responses to poverty in three of the largest cities in the UK, to address varying aspects of poverty and to reflect the range of Christian responses to poverty in the UK. Each case study involved one of the research team spending time participating with and observing activities run by the case study and keeping notes of observations and reflections. As part of each case study interviews were carried out with staff/volunteers and clients/local residents, and where possible (subject to the COVID-19 pandemic) focus groups were arranged which included discussing photos that participants had taken of their local communities. Interview and focus group participants were selected based on open invitations from the researchers in the field to people who they met at each of the case studies.
In theological terms this paper, like the Life on the Breadline study from which it arises, is an example of liberative contextual theology. We do not attempt to forge a systematic theology of austerity-age poverty. Rather, we draw on the methodology found within contextual theology (Bevans 1992; Schreiter 1985; Pears 2010) to frame the dialogue we establish between primary data, the social sciences and theology.

4. Discussion

4.1. Mapping Christian Responses to Austerity-Age Poverty

During our fieldwork four broad approaches to Christian engagement with poverty became evident: ‘caring’, ‘campaigning and advocacy’, ‘enterprise’, and ‘community building’. These approaches are fluid and evolving and, on occasions, merge into each other. They do not represent a rigid typology nor the entirety of Christian responses to poverty in the UK. Nevertheless, these approaches, identified during our fieldwork, reflect a range of well-established Christian approaches to social ethics and responses to poverty. These approaches exemplify a range of ecclesiological perspectives and frame the role of the Church in the public sphere in differing ways. However, all four articulate the need for change in one or more of the following areas. The change envisaged can focus on individuals in relation to personal empowerment and resisting and overcoming stigmatising political discourses about the places we live. It can relate to individual spiritual change in the context of worship or in relation to personal beliefs about the implications of Biblical teaching on poverty. Alternatively, such change can relate to the nature of congregational life, the role local churches play in the public sphere, the impact that social action in relation to poverty has on other areas of church life and on understandings of mission, for example. Third, such change can relate, primarily to the role the Church plays in actively seeking to bring about structural economic and political change, locally or nationally as a means of embodying the Church’s calling to “transform structures of injustice”. Arising from our experience during fieldwork, this paper argues that the Church needs to recognise the need for transformative change at individual, congregational and systemic levels as it seeks to respond to the multidimensional crisis of austerity-age poverty.

4.1.1. A ‘Caring’ Response to Poverty in the UK

The most widely adopted Christian response to austerity-age poverty that we encountered during our research reflects a ‘caring’ social ethic and the emphasis on loving our neighbour in the teaching of Jesus (see John 13:34–35, Matthew 22:39 and Matthew 5:43). This welfare-based tradition was the approach most widely cited in our national Church leader interviews and regional Church leaders’ survey. We acknowledge that in historic terms the Church in the UK played a role in maintaining an unequal status quo and justifying poverty as an expression of God’s will. This, at least in part, stimulated the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America in the 1970s.
During the ‘Age of Austerity’ as statutory authorities withdrew local churches were key players in the development of ‘caring’ responses to growing poverty. The value of such a pastoral response is immense but the temptation to frame this approach as inherently apolitical would be a mistake. As we discovered during Life on the Breadline it remains the case that many Church leaders frame welfare-based ‘caring’ responses to poverty as expressions of an ethical commitment to ‘loving your neighbour’, rather than interventions in the political arena. However, our research implies an alternative conclusion. In the face of persistent austerity policies that undermine, not just the common good, but also the wellbeing of individuals, the conscious prioritising of people forced into poverty as a result of Government policies represents an implicit intervention in the political sphere. The interconnection between the personal, the political and the relational within ‘caring’ responses to poverty is emphasised within feminist political theory and social geography as demonstrated, for example in Hall’s (2020) work on austerity politics
An example drawn from our fieldwork makes this clear. The Christian involvement in foodbanks exemplifies the ‘caring’ response, as illustrated by our case study of the B30 Foodbank in South Birmingham. A client at B30 Foodbank reflected: “This is amazing, it really is, I don’t know what I would be doing without this place. I really don’t” (Interview 2019).9 In Lent 2014 an ecumenical group of Church leaders wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing that his government’s policies had forced a rapidly growing number of people to rely on foodbanks to survive.10 This action exemplified a fusion of the ‘caring’ ethic and the ‘advocacy’ approach to challenging poverty to which we refer below. A few weeks later in his Easter sermon Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said he sensed the presence of the Risen Christ in foodbanks, describing volunteers as prophetic witnesses to the Easter Gospel of God’s solidarity with people living in poverty.11 However, B30 volunteers were ambivalent about foodbanks—“are we just papering over the cracks?” (Interview 2019).
It became clear during our research that the ‘caring’ approach will not enable the Church to fulfil its commitment within the Marks of Mission to ‘transform structural injustice’, unless it moves beyond pastoral care to agitate for systemic economic change, as the Trussell Trust, the largest Christian provider of UK foodbanks recognises.12 During the 1980s and 1990s Christian denominations in the UK reflected on their sense of purpose and understanding of mission. In 2000, the British Methodist Conference adopted ’Our Calling’—four commitments that summarised a Methodist understanding of Christian teaching and mission. Within the statement it was suggested that Methodists are called to” be good neighbours to people in need and challenge injustice”.13 Whilst Methodism’s ‘Our Calling’ sought to broaden understandings of mission it has tended to place an overwhelming emphasis on welfare-oriented ’service’ in its publications, resources for local churches and promotion of its work, rather than proactively ’challenging injustice’. In 2021 the Methodist Church established its ‘Walking with Micah’ initiative, which has sought to articulate a clearer theological and missiological understanding of the calling to ’challenge injustice’. However, it is the ’Marks of Mission’, which first emerged from the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 that have, arguably, had a wider influence on Christian engagement with poverty in the UK. Zink (2017, p. 144) suggested that they “have attained an omnipresence within Anglican and Episcopal thinking”. The Marks of Mission have also influenced the thought and practice of ecumenical bodies such as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, which includes more than forty Christian denominations, as well as being adopted by other denominations such as the Church of Scotland.14 The reach of the ’Marks of Mission’ is extensive and ecumenical, adding to their significance as a summary of contemporary missiological thinking in the UK. Consequently, their inclusion of campaigning for structural change as a key feature of Christian mission has the potential to influence social action within a wide range of denominations. As the fourth Mark of Mission notes a central aspect of Christian mission is to, “seek to transform unjust structures in society”. We ask, therefore, if the Church needs to adopt a more theologically radical ’campaigning’ approach to austerity-age poverty in its attempt to challenge structural injustice.

4.1.2. A ‘Campaigning and Advocacy’ Response to Poverty in the UK

The ‘campaigning and advocacy’ response to austerity poverty is the inheritor of a longstanding theological and ecclesiological tradition that emphasises the primacy of social justice over welfare. This approach focuses largely on the structural implications of God’s preferential option for the poor. This tradition dates back many centuries as exemplified by the early Franciscans and Anabaptists, the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Victorian Christian Socialists and Latin American liberation theology (Bradstock and Rowland 2002). Whilst, like theologies of the common good, liberation theology is influenced by Catholic Social Teaching, pioneering figures like Gutiérrez (1974) interpreted the assertion of God’s preferential option for the poor in a more politically radical manner. Petrella (2006), however, cautions against recycling a theological movement that was a contextual response to the twentieth century particularities of Latin America. We suggest, however, as we noted above in Section 2.3.4, that the perfect storm of pre-existing inequality, austerity and the ongoing ‘cost of living crisis’ present a new arena of struggle within which the foundational methods and values of liberation theology can resource the Church in Britain to ‘transform structures of injustice’.
Life on the Breadline uncovered many examples of this approach to poverty. Here, we highlight two of our case studies. First, drawing on its nationwide supporter base, Church Action on Poverty initiated and led the End Hunger UK campaign between 2016 and 2019. This reflected Church Action’s commitment to challenging structural injustice, as our interview with Liam Purcell shows—“We need to talk about the root causes of poverty … It’s not enough to do local social action” (Interview 2020). End Hunger drew support from Churches across the UK and almost forty Christian NGOs and exemplified the kind of concerted action needed to ‘transform structural injustice’ (Lambie-Mumford et al. 2019). By 2020 the campaign had helped to secure more government funding for projects tackling holiday hunger, a U-turn in relation to cuts to Universal Credit and, in 2021, the introduction of a governmental assessment of levels of food insecurity.15 Second, the work of the Revd Mike Long (Minister at Notting Hill Methodist Church) with the homelessness charity Shelter following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, exemplifies the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. In the conclusion to Shelter’s (2019) Building for our Future report, Long argued that social housing had been “devalued and neglected” by successive UK governments and insisted that “everyone, no matter their income, deserves a decent place to live … The time for the government to act is now” (Shelter 2019, p. 5).
Many of the Church leaders who participated in Life on the Breadline emphasised the Church’s commitment to challenging systemic sin and ‘transforming unjust structures’.16 Speaking about the collective trauma of a decade of austerity policies, Revd Micky Youngson, former President of the British Methodist Conference said:
John Wesley suggested that the reason the rich don’t help the poor is because they don’t spend any time with them … I think there’s a continuing lack that has got worse with this latest government of empathy, of understanding of what it means to live on the breadline, to make that can of spam last two meals.
(Interview 2020)
In a similar vein Revd Dr Richard Fraser of the Church of Scotland suggested that “the failings of the system that led to the financial crisis of 2008 have been paid for by the poorest in society”. He argued that the Church needs to move beyond a “sticking plaster” response to poverty. For Fraser “our campaigning is … driven by our reading of the Gospel and a recognition that Jesus had a particular bias to the poor and to the people who were inhabiting the margins of society” (Interview 2020). This commitment to embody God’s preferential option for the poor—transforming structural injustice, as well as meeting the immediate needs of the homeless and the hungry—has major implications for the Church’s engagement with austerity-age poverty. However, our interviews with Church leaders illustrate an ambivalence towards social action that is intended to stimulate structural economic and political change. Whilst some Church leaders called the need to ‘transform structural injustice’ a “gospel imperative”, others were nervous about moving from charitable activities into more explicitly political action. A Baptist Church leader from Northern England summarised, “Responding to poverty is prioritised as an act of serving others or offering hospitality. Campaigning and advocacy are more political and therefore may be seen as too partisan” (Survey 2020). During Life on the Breadline some national and regional Church leaders expressed an uncertainty about engaging in civil society politics. Here, however, this Baptist leader reflected a fear of the Church being perceived as being engaged in Party politics.
A related Christian approach to poverty that we encountered during Life on the Breadline focuses on ‘advocacy’. The practice of Church leaders speaking truth to power is not new. As far back as 1942 Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and Social Order challenged policymakers to forge a new inclusive social contract. Forty years later Church of England Bishops exemplified such prophetic truth-telling in their 1985 Faith in the City report which critiqued Margaret Thatcher’s social policies for deepening poverty and fuelling inequality. In 2013 Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, argued that 2012′s Welfare Reform Bill would entrench damaging levels of poverty and inequality. More than forty Church leaders signed an open letter in 2014 critiquing the government’s welfare reforms and in the 2015 the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team (representing the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the United Reformed Church, the Quakers and the Church of Scotland) challenged the government to re-think its austerity agenda (Joint Public Issues Team 2015).17
Our Life on the Breadline fieldwork illustrated the ongoing importance of Christian anti-poverty ‘advocacy’, but also its problematic nature. Since its 2019 formation by Ben Lindsay, Power the Fight has focused on the growing problem of serious youth violence in London that has arisen from the interconnection of pre-existing poverty and deep cuts to youth and children’s service provision. Power the Fight has drawn on an alliance of evangelical and Pentecostal churches to support its work with young people impacted by knife crime, provide community building training and agitate for structural change. As a result, Power the Fight has been able to advocate on behalf of socially excluded young people, their families and communities as part of the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit.
The views that the Church leaders we interviewed shared about ‘advocacy’ seemed to reflect the size of different denominations and their links to the State more than theological disagreement. A minority expressed nervousness about the role of faith groups in the public sphere and being perceived as ‘political’. A Church of God of Prophecy Bishop from the North of England highlighted this problem—“Our theology, which focuses less on earthly matters, contributes to us not fully grasping the issues at hand” (Survey 2020). However, the most senior Welsh Anglican leader, the Archbishop of Wales told us that, “The Church has a duty … to speak up on behalf of people who are unjustly treated … There will always be those who say it’s nothing to do with us but, frankly, they are wrong” (Interview 2020). The Rt. Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, illustrated the way in which Church of England Bishops can exercise this ministry of ‘advocacy’ in Parliament because they are leaders of the Established Church. For Bishop Paul, who speaks on Welfare in the House of Lords, this has enabled him to put his belief that “Jesus was always on the side of the poor” (Interview 2020) into practice by challenging Government Ministers to reform Universal Credit. Dr Nicola Brady, General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, reflected a similar sentiment, suggesting that the Church has a responsibility to publicly challenge “the stigma” surrounding homelessness and “give leadership in highlighting structural issues and working for a more just and compassionate society” (Interview 2020).
Other Church leaders doubted their ability to influence government austerity policies. Some suggested that their denomination was too small for their voice to be heard. The Senior Pastor of the Church of the Cherubim and Seraphim, Pastor Adegoke, reflected this view—“… Smaller churches have no voice. It is difficult for us to demand protests or a march to Downing Street” (Interview 2020). A similar perspective was expressed by John Fulton, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland—“We’re a small denomination. Why should the government be bothered about anything that comes from us? If the Church of England or the Church of Scotland make a noise they’re big enough to have clout …” (Interview 2020). Other Church leaders argued that the “government is not interested in the views of ordinary people, still less the Church” (regional leader, Church of Scotland, Interview 2020). Revd Andrew Lunn, Chair of the Manchester and Stockport District of the Methodist Church, expressed a similar view, “The current government take a doctrinaire approach and seem unwilling to hear criticism or challenge” (Survey 2020). Most regional Church leaders spoke of the importance and effectiveness of networked social action. A regional leader from the Church of Scotland recognised the progressive potential of the Church’s enduring social capital—“UK churches together have a membership large enough to exert pressure on government” (Survey 2020). A central question, therefore, is how the Church uses its social capital in relation to austerity poverty. These comments from some of the national and regional Church leaders we spoke to during Life on the Breadline exemplify broader historic and contemporary debates about the extent to which the Church should move beyond welfare-based responses to poverty to a proactive engagement in civil society politics intended to facilitate structural change.

4.1.3. An ‘Enterprise’ Response to Poverty in the UK

The third approach to Christian engagement with poverty that was revealed during Life on the Breadline revolves around social and business enterprise. We found this response to be most common amongst evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The ‘enterprise’ approach is characterised by an individualistic self-help ethic whereby the Church’s role is to empower and enable individuals to develop their creative potential and business talents to build a social or business enterprise. Life on the Breadline researcher Robert Beckford identified “a range of enterprise projects within African Caribbean heritage churches” which have arisen from “economic resilience to the disproportionate impact of fluctuations in the economic cycle” on Black Britons (Beckford et al. 2022, p. 43). Beckford cites two examples from our fieldwork. First, he notes the work of Dr Karl George at the New Jerusalem Church in Birmingham which “promotes an enterprise culture within the congregation” that is intended to “build financial resilience and resource amongst church members” (Beckford et al. 2022, p. 43). Second, Beckford cites the Pentecostal Credit Union which was established by the New Testament Church of God to provide people with an affordable means of saving their way out of poverty and developing small businesses with start-up loans. Beckford suggests that both examples have enabled greater “financial resilience” (Beckford et al. 2022, p. 43) within marginalised communities. However, Beckford notes that the ‘enterprise’ approach can also be critiqued as a “promotion of neo-liberal economic thought, which, ironically, has had adverse consequences for Black communities in Britain” (Beckford et al. 2022, p. 43).
Our case study with Inspire Centre in Levenshulme, Manchester, also included aspects of an ‘enterprise’ approach. Inspire Centre is a social enterprise and community centre established in 2010 with the involvement of Inspire Church, a United Reformed Church. The church continues to be involved, but staff and volunteers at the Centre are people of any and no faith. Inspire Centre hosts a variety of activities including their café which serves cheap, nutritious food and incudes a pay-it-on-scheme for people who cannot afford meals or hot drinks. Ed Cox, the founder of Inspire and Minister at Inspire Church explained their approach:
… a place where people from different backgrounds can come together in order to live more whole lives … it’s a response to how do we live together in a neighbourhood, rather than how are we going to help poor people.
(Interview 2020)
Their approach therefore emphasised well-being through ‘enterprise’ rather than poverty language. This overlaps with the ‘community building’ approach, and contrasts the top-down approaches more commonly found in ‘caring’ approaches to poverty.

4.1.4. A ‘Community Building’ Response to Poverty in the UK

The final approach to Christian engagement with austerity-age poverty that we identified during Life on the Breadline revolves around ‘community building’ and self-sufficiency. Other approaches to engaging with poverty can fall prey to a top-down model of social action and the adoption of decontextualised external interventions. The ‘community building’ approach is characterised by bottom-up, inside-out community development and, as Revd Al Barrett from Hodge Hill noted, the “avoidance of rescuer language” (Interview 2020). This means such an approach is not always labelled as a ‘poverty’ response.
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) exemplifies this approach and was used by our case study of Hodge Hill Church and local residents in East Birmingham. The origins of ABCD are found in the work of Kretzmann and McKnight in the USA. Arising from their research into community building in poor neighbourhoods, Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) argued for a new model of community development that inverted the assumption of deficit-based approaches. ABCD begins by identifying the assets already present in socially excluded communities, arguing that sustainable change relies on bottom-up long-term community building, rather than top-down short-term interventions that are premised on the need to solve problems. Hodge Hill’s ABCD approach to austerity-age poverty revolves around a commitment to long-term community building that is informed by an incarnational ecclesiology of presence and solidarity as way of overcoming what vicar Revd Dr Al Barrett called “a deficit in empathy” (Interview 2020). Local resident Allannah explained “I believe in building people up” (Focus group, Interview 2020). The Firs and Bromford estate in Hodge Hill could be depicted as a ‘problem’ neighbourhood—one of the 10% most multiply deprived in England and Wales.18 However, the ABCD adopted by Hodge Hill Church in its Street Connecting, Open Door Community and Worth Unlimited children’s and youth work paints a more holistic picture of an economically poor neighbourhood that is resource rich because of the assets of people’s gifts, skills and experience (Denning et al. 2021). Russel (2016) suggests that ABCD liberates because it begins with what is strong in a community, rather than what is wrong. Local resident and volunteer in Hodge Hill, Sahra, suggested that: “people in this area cannot do enough for you” (Interview 2020). Hodge Hill’s use of ABCD gave rise to an initiative called Street Connecting which strives to subvert the negative self-image of local people that resulted from the internalisation of the stigmatising narrative that depicted the neighbourhood in a negative light—full of “scroungers” and “the undeserving poor”. Challenging what Barrett called the “poverty of relationships” and the “poverty of identity” (Interview 2020) Street Connectors introduce neighbours to each other as a first step in enhancing agency, fostering a politics of empathy and a shared commitment to building community. Street Connector and local resident Clare explained that she wanted to “look at the good in the area” (Focus group, Interview 2020). ABCD seeks to foster a more inclusive community within which a sense of the common good is built from the inside-out.
A second example of a ‘community building’ approach is drawn from Church Action on Poverty. As part of its commitment to enabling the dignity, agency and power of people living in poverty Church Action has supported the development of small Self Reliant groups whose members meet, save and develop ideas for a local social enterprise. This approach to engaging with poverty aims to foster an ethic of sharing by encouraging different Self Reliant groups to meet occasionally to share good practice.19

4.2. The Strengths and Weaknesses of Responses to Poverty in the UK

Life on the Breadline represents one of the most extensive empirical studies by academic theologians of Christian engagement with austerity-age poverty in the UK since the 2008 financial crash. We do not claim that the approaches we have discussed represent the only forms of Christian engagement with austerity-age poverty. Rather, our focus in this paper, has been on those approaches that were evident during our Life on the Breadline research. As we noted above, these approaches should not be seen as fixed ideal types, nor should our analysis be viewed as a formal typology. These approaches overlap, converge and diverge over time. Nevertheless, we suggest they reflect differing theological, ecclesiological and missiological emphases. These ‘caring’, ‘campaigning and advocacy’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘community building’ approaches to poverty are clearly identified within our case studies and Church leaders’ interviews and survey. This paper represents the first empirically based theological analysis of this breadth of Christian engagement with contemporary poverty and the capacity of these approaches to transform structural injustice.
Before examining the challenges and opportunities facing the Church as it responds to deepening levels of poverty, we summarise the strengths and weaknesses of existing approaches. ‘Caring’ approaches address immediate need and reflect a politics of empathy and community building that challenges the cultural narratives demonising people in poverty. However, whilst such person-centred forms of Christian social action feed and clothe millions of people in the UK, this welfare-based approach does not have the capacity to ‘transform structural injustice’ because of an abiding reluctance to engage proactively and consistently in activism intended to stimulate structural economic change. ‘Campaigning’ approaches embody God’s preferential option for the poor and a determination to fulfil the calling in the Marks of Mission to ‘transform structural injustice’. As we noted, this approach, often combined with ‘advocacy,’ represents an effective means of agitating for systemic changes such as the introduction of a real living wage or reforms to Universal Credit. However, such ‘campaigning’ can reflect a disengaged top-down model of activism that is driven by activists or Church leaders, rather than people with lived experience of poverty. Furthermore this ‘campaigning’ approach can neglect the need for cultural and spiritual change to accompany systemic reform. We have suggested that ‘advocacy’ has proved a powerful means of speaking truth to power by Church leaders over the last decade. However, some of our participants have argued that the advocacy of Church leaders can reflect a lack of everyday engagement with the raw realities of austerity. It can energise the supporters of networks such as Church Action on Poverty and the Joint Public Issues Team but it can also be an approach not available to smaller denominations that have no ties with establishment. We have argued that ‘enterprise’ approaches can enable people to develop new skills and realise their entrepreneurial potential. However, this approach is often highly individualised, lifting individuals out of poverty but leaving structural injustice untouched. Finally, the ‘community building’ approach fosters greater agency, empowers communities from the bottom-up, challenges the perceived need for external ‘rescuers’ and forges a deeper relational politics of empathy. However, unless it is combined with the ‘campaigning and advocacy’ model of action ‘community building’ can lack the capacity to generate wider structural change.
The approaches to the Christian engagement with poverty that we identified during Life on the Breadline all have their strengths but none engage sufficiently with the ways in which pre-existing inequalities and social location impact on our experience of multidimensional poverty to heal the traumatic damage it wreaks and “transform structural injustice”. A more integrated Christian response to contemporary poverty is needed that draws on the strengths of the approaches we have described in increasingly interconnected ways. Only an approach that recognises the need for conscientisation, individual empowerment, the immediate care for people in poverty and a bold translation of a commitment to God’s Preferential Option for the Poor from Church leaders into sustained grassroots action intended to ‘transform structural injustice’ can begin to force austerity-age poverty into retreat. Life on the Breadline has illustrated the progressive potential of the Church’s enduring social capital. Such a resource, as we have shown, has immense liberative potential. The time has come for the renewal of a vision of Christian community as an inclusive grassroots liberative movement that embodies God’s preferential option for the poor in every aspect of its life. How can a Church arise that can live up to this commitment?

4.3. The Church’s Moment of Truth—Challenges and Opportunities

The term ‘cost of living crisis’ runs the risk of trivialising debilitating poverty and decoupling it from systemic patterns of inequality and structural injustice. When added to the combined effects of a decade of traumatising austerity and the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022’s ‘cost of living crisis’ is, we suggest, better viewed as capitalism’s perfect storm. This structural and existential crisis represents a pivotal moment for the Church. We have suggested that the Church has been in the frontline of responses to deepening poverty and inequality during the ‘Age of Austerity’ and argued the need for a new conversation about ecclesiology. What does it mean to be the Church in the face of deep-seated structural injustice and what form should Christian social action when the common good is consistently undermined? In responding to these questions, the Church needs to engage with four challenges drawn from our Life on the Breadline research as it re-imagines Christian community at this critical moment.
First, the Church retains a deep reservoir of localised social capital in neighbourhoods across the UK. Soon after Hitler rose to power in 1933 Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked whether the Church should be content to “bandage up the wounds of the broken beneath the wheels of injustice” or be willing to ram “a spoke into the wheel itself” (Bethge 1995, pp. 316–17). Our research poses a similar challenge to the Church in its response to austerity-age poverty. Shaped by an egalitarian vision of the common good that is premised on the teaching of Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets, is the Church ready to ram “a spoke” into the “wheel” of structural injustice or will it be content to “bandage up the wounds” of those traumatised by austerity-age poverty? Whilst we have identified examples of anti-poverty activism that embody God’s preferential option for the poor, our research highlights an ongoing nervousness on the part of many Church leaders about the use of the Church’s social capital to ‘transform structural injustice’.
Second, our research suggests that whilst poverty is multidimensional and our experience of it is interconnected, the Church’s response is often one-dimensional as a Baptist Minister from Yorkshire implied—“Poverty is complex … [but] most churches … lack a bigger picture of the influences and changes which affect poverty” (Survey 2020). Theological analyses of contemporary poverty have often focused exclusively on food poverty, thereby ignoring the interrelation of other aspects of marginalisation such as fuel poverty, homelessness, low pay, period poverty, personal debt and poor housing. However, we have shown the need for an understanding of the multidimensional nature of poverty that resonates in austerity age Britain where government policy has compounded the effects of multiple pre-existing forms of marginalisation and inequality. This paper argues that only an interconnected response to austerity can resource models of Christian activism that have the potential to defeat the multidimensional violence of poverty. In our Life on the Breadline interviews, the Rt. Revd Paul Butler, the Anglican Bishop of Durham (Interview 2020), Nicola Jones (Interview 2020) of the Irish Council of Churches, Martin Charlesworth (Interview 2020) of Jubilee Plus and Revd Micky Youngson (Interview 2020), the former President of the British Methodist Conference all acknowledged that the Church needs to adopt such a mindset if it is to address the multidimensional damage caused by systemic poverty. B30 Foodbank illustrates the need to cultivate a matrix mindset, policy agenda and theological methodology. The core purpose of B30 is to respond to the scourge of food poverty and insecurity. However, volunteers recognised the danger of responding to food poverty in isolation from other forms of social exclusion. When clients visit the foodbank, they receive advice and signposting in relation to housing, legal matters, benefits and fuel poverty. Whilst B30 Foodbank cannot meet all of these needs there is a recognition that a three-day food parcel is of limited value if the client cannot heat the food because they are not able to pay their gas bill and that fuel poverty can be worsened in poor quality housing, which in turn can damage physical and mental health.
Third, Life on the Breadline highlighted the tension between the Church’s commitment to an egalitarian vision of the common good and a lack of everyday engagement with the traumatic realities of austerity-age poverty. Our B30 case study reveals the sense of stolen potential and repressed shame of depending on food parcels. Stuart was a client at B30 and summarised in articulate terms—“Poverty affects people’s moods. Everybody seems to be miserable, depressed, anxious, worried, a lot of debt, struggling for food and … the basics of life” (Interview 2019). Our Hodge Hill case study exemplifies the cultural violence to which Galtung (1990) points. As Revd Al Barrett noted, the neighbourhood felt like a forgotten estate for many years and was dismissed in pejorative terms. Such disempowering cultural violence robbed local people of their sense of self-worth by stigmatising the Firs and Bromford estate. The long-term ABCD of Hodge Hill Church and the solidarity of Notting Hill Methodist Church with the trauma of the Grenfell Tower fire exemplify an engaged long-term bottom-up model of Christian social action that that is rooted in the raw realities of austerity age poverty. Despite this, our survey and interviews of national Church leaders suggest that, whilst local churches are keen to support people living in poverty, they are often disengaged from the everyday realities of austerity. A Church of Scotland survey respondent summarised, “Christians care but … are isolated from the worst effects of extreme poverty” (Survey 2020). Revd Micky Youngson, the former President of the British Methodist Conference, told us that “The problem is we’re less in communities of abject need than we are in more comfortable communities” (Interview 2020). The Bishop of Durham noted that “Part of the stark reality of austerity is that those of us who are on middle or higher incomes have hardly noticed” (Interview 2020) and a United Reformed Church survey respondent from the South of England suggested that “… on average congregational members are relatively comfortable and tend to see the issues as more personal than structural” (Survey 2020). The challenge of engaged activism relates to three modes of Christian social action, each of which articulates the need for change even though the process and nature of cultural transformation is envisaged in significantly different terms. First, there is an institutionalised model of Church and the strategic top-down interventions and the ‘advocacy’ of national Church leaders that we pointed to above. This approach reflects a distance from everyday austerity, a well-meaning but disengaged ecclesiology and the kind of outsider “rescuer language” that Revd Al Barrett from Hodge Hill Church bemoaned (Interview 2020). Second, we noted a contrasting bottom-up approach which reflected an ecclesiology characterised by deep-seated long-term engagement with the everyday realities of austerity-age poverty. In Hodge Hill this was evidenced in a use of ABCD and in Notting Hill in relation to solidarity with people traumatised by the Grenfell Tower fire and ongoing housing injustice. Third, we uncovered a hybrid model of Church that combined elements of top-down and bottom-up approaches within a fluid and geographically dispersed network motivated by a common commitment to the assertion that in a structurally unjust society God necessarily has a Preferential Option to the Poor. Such an approach envisions Church as a fluid social movement rather than a solid institution. The work of Church Action on Poverty case study exemplifies this approach.
Fourth, our research highlighted an ambivalent tension within Christian responses to poverty. Almost all of the regional and national Church leaders whom we interviewed suggested that challenging poverty represents a core Gospel value. However, for most, this stopped short of the sustained denunciation of inequality and injustice within the teaching of the Hebrew Prophets and the ministry of Jesus. A Methodist leader from the North of England argued that, whilst the national Church has committed itself to ‘transform structural injustice’, within many local congregations “There is a sense that it is still the individual’s fault if they are poor” (Survey 2020). We have shown that there is a need to move beyond a welfare-based ‘caring’ model of Christian social action that fails to ‘campaign’ for systemic economic change to reflect God’s preferential option for the poor. Life on the Breadline has shone a light on the immense value of Christian engagement with austerity age poverty but in this paper we have argued that the Church needs to politicise its empathetic social action and move beyond a theology of good intentions. Revd Micky Youngson, pinpointed the challenge: “There’s a theological gap between loving my neighbour and challenging Caesar” (Interview 2020). Now is the time for the Church to overcome its nervousness and challenge Caesar.

5. Conclusions

In this paper we have drawn on qualitative data from our Life on the Breadline research, as well as a multidisciplinary range of theological and social science literature to analyse Christian responses to the rupturing of the social fabric of British society during the ‘Age of Austerity’. Our analysis emerges from fieldwork in the UK but can provide practitioners and policymakers in different but comparable contexts with three valuable insights. We have argued that the depth of contemporary poverty and systemic injustice from the ‘Age of Austerity’, COVID-19 impoverishment and the ongoing ‘cost of living crisis’ when set alongside the Church’s enduring social capital in the UK places us at a watershed moment. In doing so we have considered three questions that need to shape the Church’s response to this challenge.
First, was austerity a political choice or an economic necessity and was the burden of austerity borne equally? We have argued that austerity was a political choice rather than an economic necessity. Austerity policies have deepened poverty and increased inequality over the last decade. This became abundantly clear during Life on the Breadline. In our project survey most of the regional Church leaders from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales suggested that austerity policies had been targeted primarily at people and communities who were already socially excluded. Revd Dr Richard Fraser from the Church of Scotland suggested: “the poorest in society have … had to pay for the misdemeanours of those in power” (Interview 2020). Our Grenfell Tower, B30 Foodbank, Hodge Hill Church and Power the Fight case studies have highlighted the traumatic damage, economic and existential insecurity, debilitating stigma and exclusion from civil society that austerity policies have caused over the last decade. A B30 Foodbank client made the point clearly, “People are killing themselves you know bab … I’ve contemplated it. Why struggle like this for another ten, fifteen years?” (Samantha, Interview 2019). Contrary to political assertions and the teaching within some conservative evangelical Christian traditions, poverty is caused by systemic injustice and not individual failings.
Second, what steps need to be taken to develop more holistic and multifaceted understandings of austerity-age poverty? In this paper we have critiqued the tendency within government policy, Church-based social action and theology to respond to poverty in reductionist terms. We have demonstrated that such approaches fail to grasp the multidimensional and interwoven nature of austerity age poverty, and argued that understanding of poverty as a form of direct, cultural and structural violence can foster more effective action and analysis. We have shown that it will only be possible to develop a more holistic understanding that can resource the work of all who seek to ‘transform structural injustice’ if we grasp and engage with our interconnected experience of multidimensional poverty.
Finally, what implications does austerity have for the self-understanding and practice of the Church and what form should Christian social action take when the common good is consistently undermined by government? During Life on the Breadline, we identified four broad overlapping Christian responses to austerity-age poverty. This paper brings these approaches together within a matrix of Christian anti-poverty action for the first time, enabling the most holistic fieldwork-led analysis to date by theologians in the UK. We have discussed the theological foundations and impact of ‘caring’, ‘campaigning and advocacy’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘community building’ models of Christian social action and shown how these approaches can shift and converge over time. We have argued that no single approach can resource the kind of integrated Christian social action needed to heal the damage done by multidimensional poverty. In closing, we make four suggestions. First, the Church needs to commit itself to collaborative and sustained action in the public sphere that is explicitly aimed at transforming “structural injustice”. Only by overcoming its nervousness about political action will the Church realise the full liberative potential that is embedded in its extensive social capital. Second, to do this there is a need to move beyond the current welfare-based model of Christian social action to assert a clear Preferential Option for the Poor as the only credible basis for a genuinely egalitarian vision of the common good in the face of structural injustice. Third, such re-imagined Christian social action needs to be rooted in a renewed vision of Christian community. The Church needs to become a fluid social movement that is deeply engaged with the everyday realities of structural injustice, rather than a caring but disengaged institution that struggles to shake itself free from a hierarchical model of organisation and practice. Fourth, if the Church is to play a key role in beating-back austerity poverty it needs to be characterised by a commitment to enhancing the agency of those who have been side-lined or disempowered. A vital, but often overlooked, step on this journey relates to the existential damage caused by political or theological narratives that demean people living in poverty, blaming their marginalisation on their own inadequacy or lack of faith rather than systemic injustice. The Church needs to challenge such traumatising cultural violence and reinforce the central Christian belief that all people are of equal worth because every person is made in the image of the same God. Such a process of conscientisation is an essential first act in the battle to defeat the hegemonic justification of austerity-age poverty and ‘transform structural injustice’. Poverty is multidimensional. Only a multifaceted response by the Church can meet such complexity. The traumatising violence of poverty damages individuals and communities. Consequently, the Church’s response must take multiple forms, addressing individual need (pastorally sensitive caring responses to immediate need, empowering individuals and enabling enterprise) and communal (campaigning, advocacy and community building). Above all, the Church’s response to contemporary poverty must be grounded the fundamental values of liberation theology and actively embody a commitment to God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalised. This is a moment of truth for the Church in breadline Britain. Now is the time for action.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, C.S. and S.D.; methodology, C.S. and S.D.; formal analysis, C.S. and S.D.; investigation, S.D.; writing—original draft, C.S. and S.D.; writing—review and editing, C.S. and S.D.; visualization, S.D.; project administration, C.S.; funding acquisition, C.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number ES/R006555/1.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The Life on the Breadline research project was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Research Ethics Committee of Coventry University (protocol code P47441 and date of approval: 13 August 2019).

Informed Consent Statement

All Life on the Breadline participants gave the informed consent for quotations from their interviews or survey responses to be used in publications arising from the project. Participants who are named gave their written permission.

Data Availability Statement

Further details about the Life on the Breadline project upon which this paper is based can be found at, accessed 26 July 2022.


Whilst this paper was written solely by the authors, we recognise and acknowledge the colleagueship or our Life on the Breadline Co-Investigators, Robert Beckford and Peter Scott.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Further details the 2018–2021 ‘Life on the Breadline’ research project, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council can be found at accessed 1 December 2018.
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Millions of People turn to Food banks in latest evidence of food insecurity, 29 July 2021,, accessed 29 July 2021.
All fieldwork participants and interviewees whose names are used gave their explicit consent to be named.
(Interview 2019/2020) and (Survey 2020) in the following text refer to the interviews and surveys performed in the Life on the Breadline research in different years.
Nicholas Watt, 20 February 2014. ‘Bishops Blame David Cameron for Foodbank Crisis’, The Guardian,, accessed 22 June 2022.
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Figure 1. ‘The Jigsaw of Poverty’ by Life on the Breadline artist Beth Waters, 2018.
Figure 1. ‘The Jigsaw of Poverty’ by Life on the Breadline artist Beth Waters, 2018.
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