Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Feeding Britain is the title of the Report published on Tuesday by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom.

The title page explains that it reflects the views of MPs with an interest in the issue (it is not an official report of either House of Parliament), and ‘was funded with generous support from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Charitable Trust’.

It is 56 pages long and available here . In the courteous jargon of an official report Government policy gets a hammering, with special reference to its benefits regime, though Matthew Holehouse in the Daily Telegraph manages not to notice. There are too many observations and recommendations to list here, but Patrick Butler offers a good summary in the Guardian . There is also a good article by Maria Eagle in the Independent , which also shows a graph describing the Tressell Trust ‘s statistics on why people come to food banks: benefit delays 29.54%, low income 22.04%, benefit changes 15.04%.

Read the Report and this looks like the biggest domestic disaster of the year. It far outweighs, for example, the floods in the earlier part of the year: the numbers rendered homeless, the numbers killed, etc, though unmeasurable are in a different league. Perhaps you can remember something on a similar scale but I can’t.

Yet somehow our leading politicians seem unable, or at least unwilling, to take it seriously. Here we are 5 months away from a general election and the Government looks set to continue its policy of refusing to accept the evidence. The Labour Party and UKIP are more concerned about other things. The mass media are already forgetting about it.

I don’t have any expertise in how to win elections, but if the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties are right to think their interests are best served by keeping silent on this dramatic deterioration in living standards, so much the worse for politics. We need a better political system. At the very least the voters need to be better informed about what is happening.

I wonder whether part of the reluctance to engage with the issue is that it has Church stamped all over it. Most food banks are run in, or at least by, churches. Most volunteers are churchgoers. Most of the food is donated by churchgoers. It was very largely the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative that made this Report happen. Yet the British political left, and the Guardian, are traditionally suspicious of churches. Would they have made more of this Report if it had come from United Nations or Compass?

Or are they fearful of losing votes if they show they care? If it is about votes, then we must conclude that politicians seek power by appealing to the worst, most uncaring, aspects of human nature. Perhaps this is where the churches score. Although they too spend a lot of time worrying about their popularity, they can at least stand up for what they believe in without being voted out. Churches tend to define themselves by what they believe in, so they have reason to stick to their principles. We used to expect the same of political parties, but that was a long time ago.

I suspect that behind all this lies a more metaphysical issue. Churches have a habit of believing in God. Church-based food bank volunteers and donors tend to have value systems which can, if they think about it, relate to their beliefs about God. At the very least, God functions as an authority that affirms their instinctive compassion for the hungry.

Political discourse, on the other hand, has dispensed with God. Therefore, though it prefers not to admit as much, it has deified something else. That something else is best summarised as ‘the economy’. It is a commonplace of political discourse that governments get judged most of all on their competence at managing the economy. Austerity, national debt and market forces are all features of this deity who must be appeased regardless of the suffering caused by the powerless social classes.

What we now have is what happens when we replace one god with another. The God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam is a transcendent authority telling us we should have an ethic of love. Everybody can do something loving to their neighbours. When they are hungry, feed them.

The Economy, as god, tells us something different. It tells us to give our support to whoever has the best technical expertise in economic management. Apart from that, there is nothing for us to do. We leave it to them. We are permitted to ignore our desperate neighbours. However, the residue of a moral conscience often survives, so it needs to be suppressed by stories about how generosity to the poor only encourages laziness.

Our society is struggling with a conflict between two opposed accounts of how we should live. One, inherited from Christianity, tells us to care for our neighbours. The other, inherited from secular economic theory, tells us to maximise our own income and leave our neighbours in the hands of the experts. If you are wondering which of the two works better, read this Report.