Yesterday, The Times (paywall) reported that the railways might well need to be subsidised “in perpetuity”. Richard Hughes, chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility, said that ticket revenues for the trains may never recover because of the rise in working from home. At the very moment the government is arguing the answer to our climate troubles is the implementation of better, cleaner transport – like trains – we are being told that to maintain the services, government intervention will be required.
To a Socialist like me, this doesn’t trouble me one iota. I have long argued that decent transport links for the regions are vital. Most people in towns like Oldham rely on buses and trams that – for the most part – simply do not serve them very well and are over-priced. It will require government intervention to fix these things and a credible rail network is just one part of the jigsaw. But the government have already floated Great British Railways as the nationally owned vehicle for operating the railways. If they are going to subsidise rail as well, we may as well go the whole hog and just re-nationalise train operators too. That is, let the existing contracts lapse and then implement a national rail operator. It does have the unusual combination of being both a sensible thing to do and very popular. Only a particular ideology stands in its way.
But the point is that if we want to keep the railways going, we are going to have to subsidise them somehow. The question many will be asking is this: do we really want to keep them going? For the most part, I imagine the answer to that will be yes. Getting people out of their cars will warrant a decent electrified rail network. The desire to limit haulage – coupled with the HGV driver shortage – makes rail freight a considerably more appealing prospect than before. A nationalised service, that makes whoever wants to use it for freight pay to do so, makes an excellent case of itself. Few, I suspect, will want rid of the rail network. Which means, necessarily, we will have to subsidise it if we want to keep it.
This issue must also be considered in respect to the church. In certain areas, if we really want to keep churches there, we are going to have to reach into our pockets and subsidise them. Just like the railways, there are certain areas where the church is not, and unlikely to ever be, self-sustaining. Just as certain transport routes are inherently unprofitable because, though some people rely on them, not enough people use them to make them sustainable for a company, the same is true for the church in many places. Towns that wouldn’t otherwise have a church in its midst, but on whom those people rely if they are to hear about Jesus Christ and the message of salvation, often rely on being subsidised from outside.
There are all sorts of reasons this happens. Some church plants are just very small and don’t have the weight of numbers to sustain their ministry. Others are reaching the most poor and deprived people, so even when their number go up, it is amongst those with deep material needs and little ability to give to the work of ministry. But if we think having churches in poor communities is important, we are going to have to get used to the idea of subsidising them for the long-term. In some cases, it might even mean doing so in perpetuity.
To not have a self-sustaining church is not a sign of failure. We see the Jerusalem Church needed help and support from other churches. In fact, some churches may well be seeing real fruit in their communities – people saved and growing up in the Lord – but from the poorest neighbourhoods and backgrounds, those people aren’t going to be able to sustain a church financially on their own. We need gospel-hearted subsidy if we are going to see the church flourish in certain communities.
If we want to see healthy churches sustained, we are going to have to finance them for the long-term. There is nothing in the Bible about leading a self-sustaining church. Rather, if our concern is the gospel, we should want to see healthy churches in places where there are currently none. That means subsidising gospel work, through churches, for the long term.