The funeral of Bishop John Jukes brought together people from across the church and labour worlds.
An auxiliary bishop in Southwark, Bishop John always kept working people and the social teachings of the Church at the heart of his mission.
Reading the obituaries, it was interesting to hear how he first worked in the civil service, taking on the role as representative at the Inland Revenue Staff Federation National Conference. He then decided to study agriculture at university, which led to him spending a year working on Romney Marsh. It is believed that at this time he became in contact with the Franciscans in Rye, which eventually led to his joining that order.
Later in life, he became chair of the World of Work at the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, where he served for 20 years from 1980.
Bishop John believed that Catholic Social Teaching had much to contribute to the world of work, going back to Rerum Novarum (1891). Indeed, he helped organise a centenary conference in Liverpool to mark this encyclical in 1991.
Each year at the TUC Congress, Bishop John celebrated mass for delegates. In his sermon at St Mary Magdalene's Priory, Brighton, in 1999 he urged Catholics to put gospel values into practice by becoming active members of trade unions. And he urged the TUC to promote ethical values to counter some of the negative effects of globalisation.
Bishop John was prophetic, predicting the injustice for workers of much of what has flowed from globalisation and unregulated markets. The loss of job security; degradation of the human being, individuals or groups forced to work in inhuman conditions.
Reading about how Bishop John shared a platform at a TUC rally in Hyde Park, with National Union of Mineworkers President Arthur Scargill, brings one up short. How far things have slipped since those days?
Earlier this year there was no Catholic Church representation on the platform for the 500,000 strong TUC rally in Hyde Park against the cuts and for an alternative way forward.
The decision of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to do away with the World of Work committee in 2001 was one of the worst it has made in recent times. The thinking can only have been due to neo-liberal managerialist voices being given too much sway in the decision making process. By this time Bishop John had retired, moving to serve a parish in Scotland.
Those crucial links that Bishop John and those who worked with him at the Bishops Conference had built up with trade unions and business have long since elapsed. As a result the Church was totally caught out when it came to the present economic crisis which is actually all about the world of work.
Had the World of Work Committee still been in place much of the evidence based research would have been there regarding the state of the jobs market, growth, globalisation and the injustice of neo liberal development model.
The bishops would not have been cobbling together committees made up of theologians, MPs and others to get a handle on how it was going to respond to the government’s Big Society agenda.
There would have been a ready voice on subjects like cuts to benefits, the living wage, migrant labour, the trade unions, pensions and worker's rights. The response would have been one based on justice, not a charitable response to help plug the gaps being created by an ongoing voracious neo-liberal market system.
Had Bishop John still been in post he would certainly have had something to say about the wholly unjust attempts of employer organisations to claim they can only be competitive if given even greater freedom to sack people.
The Church desperately needs to restore the function of the World of Work committee, so that it has the authority to speak out on matters in the workplace. Given that most people spend a huge amount of their lives in the workplace, surely the Church should have a credible view on this aspect of life?
If the Bishops Conference of England and Wales wants to mark the passing of Bishop John, then the best thing that could be done is to restore this function of the World of Work to which he gave so much of his life. His passing provides a timely reminder of the expertise that used to reside in this area. The Church needs this expertise in order that it can speak out on all work related matters, after all, are we not all workers in God’s vineyard?