How does this affect our understanding of poverty? There is one group of Christians who tend to think of Christianity as an exclusively spiritual matter, where we are all equal spiritually and the church community is secondary and not the primary social focus. That can sometimes translate into an individualist approach to social policy.
On the other hand, there has been another tendency since the nineteenth century to hand over the incarnational mission of the church to the state – in other words, to see the state as the more complete realisation of the church’s social mission than the church itself. It is sometimes said that we can’t stop at charity, and that all Christian reformers have wanted to go onto law. One can see the serious point of this and in certain respects such an advance is crucial, and yet there is a profound question mark over that whole tradition which William Temple exemplified. It is a rather Hegelian one that tends ultimately to surrender things to the state, as if the political lay beyond the social. Modern Anglican social thought has always been divided between that approach and one (associated with J.N. Figgis and Vigo Demant) which less stresses state intervention, but much more interpersonal action and people taking the initiative to do things for themselves.
The temptation to advocate legislation often means losing focus on interpersonal relationships, and losing focus on the notion that you treat recipients of charity as human beings. It is because the Christian vision keeps people’s humanity central that we accord them the dignity of demanding something from them. The problem with the dominant alternatives to this vision is that they are devoid of this social concern and therefore deeply impersonal. We either get the pure market theorists who think welfare will trickle down in a perfect economy and it will all sort itself out, or else you get a left-wing version of the same impersonality where you want to redress the balance so that everyone can act equally in the same depersonalised market – an approach with dire consequences for the inevitable “losers” in such a agonistic game.
If the church is confused about its response to poverty, then more specific confusion exists over how to approach the issue of child poverty in particular.