Is Philip North right about the Church and the poor?

Tiffer Robinson writes: I was at a conference recently with some truly inspirational lay people who had only recently come to faith, and who were really full of ideas and energy. At one point I responded to a suggestion with the words “Well what you’d need to take into account is how to resource that idea” and one of them said “No, that’s what you need to take into account – I don’t need to worry about that”.  And she was quite right: some of us are called to be visionaries, and some of us are called to keep an eye on the details.  

For those who haven’t heard, Philip North gave a talk at New Wine last week about ministry to the poor, which has been widely acclaimed as prophetic and important. I want to start by saying I am a huge supporter of Philip North, albeit at a distance, and I was very saddened by the behaviour of many in the Church when he was announced as the next Bishop of Sheffield and later withdrew. I also agree with the main thrust of his talk, and he has identified a few practical issues that need to be dealt with, as well as a more general spiritual problem in the Church of England—namely a lack of presence in poorer areas.  It might seem odd to want to challenge something that you agree with, but I hope it’s more than mere pedantry—we need to be able accurately to identify the problems as well as being able to recognise where improvements have been made. It also needs to be said that this was a talk to a particular group of people, and not an essay or an article, but it is now being read and quoted much farther afield so I feel a critique is justified.  

My first issue with this talk is the use of a statistic that Bishop Philip has used before:

Nationally we spend £8 per head of population on ministry. In some rural areas that figure rises to £24 per head. On the estates we spend just £5 per head, by far the lowest. The poorer you are, the less the church values you.

This is a shocking statistic that is very powerful, and really helps to make his case. But it’s also very misleading. Essentially what it is doing is taking the number of stipendiary clergy and dividing their cost to the diocese by the number of people in their parish—so of course parishes with small numbers of people will have a higher “cost per head” because of population demographics. A rural priest might be leading 8 or more congregations meeting in different buildings, which serve a population of 5000. A colleague in an urban parish might have two or three times the population but only one church building. This isn’t about rich or poor, but simply where people live—and there’s usually far more churches of other denominations in urban parishes too, as well as those of other faiths.

But the key error here is that it assumes that the money for clergy is all sitting in a big central pot and then being dished out to richer areas, when in reality most stipendiary ministry is paid for by the churches that receive it themselves through the parish share system. If you were instead to look at how much central money goes towards supporting ministry in areas which cannot afford to pay for their ministers, you would find that poorer parishes receive far more financial support than other contexts—as well they should!

My second concern is to the way he accuses the General Synod of increasing fees for funerals and weddings and pricing the poor out of ministry in the church. He is correct that in 2013 the fees for weddings and funerals went up considerably, but he gives no background to why they increased. First, they had been kept very low for many years, and hadn’t kept up with real costs—indeed they had been frozen for the previous year. Secondly, the increase was part of an overall change which made it illegal for churches to charge for many extras that would now need to come out of the main fee, which was increased to account for it. Thirdly, and most importantly, the right to waive fees in cases of financial hardship was given to incumbents as part of this change, meaning that no one should be unable to afford to get married or buried in the Church of England. While I would admit that clergy haven’t all caught up with this change (it’s only been 4 years after all!) I would suggest that Bishop Philip overlooking it here doesn’t help matters. Charging higher fees across the board and then waiving them for the poor is surely quite a kingdom approach to such things, rather than keeping all the fees low and making everyone pay the same, whether rich or poor.  

Then there is a slight confusion around church planting.  He says:

The church-planting movement, which is making such a difference in so many areas, needs to put the poor first rather than last.

But earlier he has already said

The best person to speak the Gospel into an urban estate is someone who has grown up there, so we need to be courageous and take risks in raising up a local leadership. Catapulting in 200 white, well-educated, beautiful people from the nice bit of town will dispossess and disempower local residents.

There is a tension there I would admit, but it does rather imply that white well-educated beautiful people (I’m 2 out of 3 myself!) are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Obviously church planting into estates needs to be done sensitively and in a culturally appropriate way, but please could we have a bit more clarity about whether it’s being encouraged or not?  

Bishop Philip makes reference to the new funding formula for dioceses, where some central funds are given out to support ministry.  The old “Darlow” formula was felt to be subsidising failure, and the dioceses that were in receipt of it were not necessarily those in the poorest parts of the country.  This has now been changed so that 50% of this money is given to strategic development projects—as Bishop Philip mentions.  Yes this includes church planting, but also ministry to Black and Minority ethnic communities and other mission initiatives.  What Bishop Philip fails to mention is that the other 50%, around £24 million, is being given to “Lowest income communities” to ensure mission and ministry is supported in areas which cannot manage to pay for it all themselves.  This doesn’t sound like a church that is seeking to leave the poor without ministry—rather the opposite.

There’s an assumption behind the talk that the poor are mainly found on estates.  But no one has a monopoly on the poor. In rural parishes the poor live alongside the rich within the same catchment areas, and so average one another out on poverty indicators.  It’s simply more hidden, and arguably harder to address as a result. Bishop Philip explains why these estates have particular issues, and why they need to be properly resourced, and I agree entirely.

Clearly we have a huge spiritual problem, including amongst the clergy, around the reluctance to minister in poor and challenging estates, and to effectively empower and raise up leaders from these contexts. The picture the Bishop paints is a bleak one, and one which hopefully has convicted many clergy and lay people to seriously consider their priorities, and I too have been challenged by his call to arms. But I would argue that the spirit is willing even if the flesh is weak.  We must not make excuses, but neither should we ignore the work that is already happening, even if we need there to be more, to ensure the Church of England does not continue as a Church for the rich, but as a Church for all.

Revd Tiffer Robinson is Rector of Rattlesden with Thorpe Morieux, Brettenham and Hitcham in Suffolk and a member of the General Synod.

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70 thoughts on “Is Philip North right about the Church and the poor?”

  1. There are other factors too. A small struggling church on an estate or inner-city which is not growing hugely is much more likely to lose the support it has, to be ‘pastorally-reorganised’ with other churches, thus depriving that parish of pastoral care and missional initiatives.

  2. Good morning, Ian and Tiffer! (I’m not quite clear which of you is the author and which of you I should accuse of fishing for compliments – two out of three, indeed, when it is obvious to all your admirers that you both score a full 3…. No, really! Well, 2 1/2 perhaps, until you lose the beards).

    I may well be missing something – statistics is my least favourite subject – but on the question of parish share: (most stipendiary ministry is paid for by the churches that receive it themselves through the parish share system), this is indeed part of the problem. In my diocese, for example, we are theoretically twinned with Uganda and Newcastle. Uganda receives 100% of the funding and attention in the parishes – at least in my deanery. I only discovered the supposed Newcastle link by accident. I imagine this is replicated all over the country, where people prefer to give to Africa, as we have done for hundreds of years, than to look closer to home.

  3. Thanks Tiffer (& Ian) for this helpful reflection on the issues raised, it’s a really valuable contribution to the conversation. Can I offer a couple of things:
    A. I was there at NewWine last week and saw +Philip there and he was clearly engaging with the event, honouring the leaders, pastoring clergy from his diocese, making new connections and enjoying friendships. I understand second hand from those there who know him personally that he was very positive. Because headlines can misrepresent, it’s clear that +Philip was not specifically rebuking NewWine as a movement, but he was offering a prophetic challenge widely to leaders in the church, as you say in a particular context. To add to that, many leaders within NewWine valued his challenge and were hasty to re-tweet the Telegraph article. It’s really important to note that +Philip used the first person ‘we’ throughout his address not ‘you’. This was not an attack on anyone, but a call to action within God’s family.
    B. I myself am a person who reacts rather than responds all too often myself to situations where the church is not in line with kingdom values, I know all too well the instinct to speak loudly and boldly and critically of one another. Often this is labelled ‘prophetic’ and there’s Biblical precedent for this (Jeremiah is part of my current daily diet of scripture this month) I value your honour and respect for the core point of what +Philip was saying, whilst adding alternative perspectives and details. We need to be able to hear what +Philip was saying through a kingdom mindset of family conversation, which will empower one another to make changes and rethink priorities, rather than political debate which forces everyone into defensive posture and creates an ‘us & them’ context of stone throwing, rather than a call to work together for God’s priorities. I think both you and +Philip do that well here and I urge all of us to continue in that vein rather than let social media twist a healthy conversation into a reactionary mud-slinging battle.

  4. Its important that we have the right facts and Tiffer’s analysis of Bp Philip’s stats are useful. However, let us not miss the challenge in Philip’s clarion call to invest in the poor. I was humbled and deeply challenged by Bp Philip’s message – probably the most ‘prophetic’ word I’ve heard in 20 years and hundreds of charismatic events! His comment about current Anglican policy of investing resources in pragmatic church planting amongst the ‘low hanging fruit of middle class graduates’ is surely apposite. I began my ordained ministry in UPA in Bradford (and couldn’t get away quick enough) but spent the last 20years of my ministry with the affluent in Oxford but Philip moved me deeply, and my wife and I are praying whether we shouldn’t end our ministry where we began and ‘know the place for the first time’.

    • Hi Simon.

      If Bp Philip’s message encourages more clergy of higher calibre (if I dare use that term) to accept the call to minister in poorer areas then it is surely a good thing. I do think though that ministering on inner urban estates comes with challenges of its own, and is (generally) very hard graft, and can be demoralising for a person who has not been specifically equipped and called by God to it. I think Philip bordered on the middle class guilt trip at points, which is unhelpful.

      I also don’t think we need to be critical of strategic mission to ‘low hanging fruit’. Rates of decline in the church and drop out following university are so high that we should be sure we are grabbing any fruit we can, and early adulthood is a crucial time in people’s lives as they work out what they think and who they are. 20s-30s is also a key gap in the church.

      Targeting graduates is also strategic from a cultural point of view, since they are much more likely to be culture and opinion formers, and with the current state of culture we need all the help we can get. The NT shows how Paul and others were in no way averse to strategic thinking, targeting major urban centres for churches and making special mention of the ‘members of Caesar’s household’. I don’t think we need to eschew a culturally strategic approach to mission, alongside ministry to the poor.

      I can see that Philip’s message has positively affected many people and given them pause to think. Maybe prophetic messages have to be unduly negative and unfairly critical in order to achieve their aim. But I do wish it wasn’t so.

      PS: I really appreciated your talks at New Wine! I hope they give you a bigger venue next time…

      • Thanks Will – I know that your and Tiffer’s questions and critiques are well aimed. Indeed, I spoke afterwards with a pal and we voiced similar reflections. You are absolutely right that Paul’s mission strategy was to evangelise cities and establish vibrant church centres and leave it to these to spread the gospel in the surrounding areas, and I have always loved the verse you highlight about ‘members of Caesar’s household’. I am uncertain about underwriting the Parish system and think we are better served and serve better through fewer but better churches. I certainly don’t think it practical or possible to have flourishing churches in every UPA. But I do think we need to ask whether the large and wealthy Parishes & ‘resource churches’ could do more to see and support and benefit from the churches in poor areas. Recently we have partnered with a UPA parish of a different churchmanship and we have gained far more by that link than they. Yes Philip’s talk spoke to me deeply and personally and has challenged me about how I want to spend my next/final ministry role. I sensed it also had a wider prophetic provocation to New Wine about where we are and who we see. Generally speaking, despite effort and desire, we are drawn from white middle-class; perhaps only 1% at NW were of ethnic minorities? And too few from poor Urban or rural parishes. I think the new new-wine leadership team get this and indeed, they invited Bp Philip to speak to this subject having previously heard him on it. You may be right about prophetic messages needing to be unduly negative – although the weight of Bp North’s was not heard by me as a lambast of the CofE but rather an inspiration to get a vision and vocation to ‘remember the poor’. I didn’t feel Bp Philip was ranting, but rather was an evangelist exhorting us to see ‘the fields are ripe to harvest’. I’m praying about my response…… Thank you for your generous encouragement re- my own talks at NW – thanks Will.

  5. Hi Tiffer.

    I’m glad to see someone taking the bishop to task for this.

    I heard his trailer for the talk in Impact and was already complaining about the way he was presenting things and doing the CofE down. I missed the talk itself unfortunately but was dismayed at what I read in excerpts on Cranmer and in coverage in the press, which I think has been largely unhelpful.

    He argues at one point that the church has been trying for decades to do mission and outreach and that this has only produced accelerated decline. His explanation and solution? It’s because we’ve been neglecting the poor. This is a hopelessly simplistic explanation, and anyway is simply not true – the Church of England has not been neglecting the poor, it has continued to subsidise ministry in poorer areas and provide various ministries and projects.

    Your points about funding are bang on – the Church of England more than any other mainstream denomination heavily subsidises ministry in poorer areas, both through central funding and the parish share system. Failing to take into account the extent to which parishes pay for their own ministry is also, as you say, very misleading and someone really needs to ask the bishop to stop quoting this statistic.

    As someone who lives on an inner urban estate and whose wife is a vicar here I can also add that a massive dimension to the challenge of sustaining ministry and mission on many such estates, which often goes unmentioned, is that a large proportion of their population is now of other religions, especially Muslim. Even the Christians among the migrants and minorities tend to form and attend their own ethnically based churches. These factors dramatically reduce the number of people who would naturally look to the CofE for their religion, and form instead very hard and sometimes hostile ground for mission. Many churches fear to engage in mission among Muslims especially (or object to it theologically), and it is in any case not a straightforward undertaking where the usual methods rarely work. When the Christian population of these estates is so small, and even those there are have their own (ethnic) churches, is it any wonder that Anglican churches struggle and dioceses don’t see the value of maintaining the subsidy?

    I agree with the bishop that the Church needs, somehow, to sustain its ministry in poorer areas. But I think I bit more realism and honesty about the situation in those areas would be welcome, and less dodgy statistics and over-egged rhetoric. I don’t want to see the Church withdraw from poor estates. But we need to be realistic about the resources we have and the likelihood of success and of churches achieving or returning to sustainability. Sure, there might be revival (or rather, in many cases, mass conversions). But banking on revival is not a responsible mission strategy!

    • I agree, Will, that North’s explanation for decline’s both simplistic and misdirected. I suspect he’s offered it ’cause, in pinning the blame for decline on church policy, it offers an illusion of control. We broke it, we can fix it. The alternative’s much worse: decline may be an inevitable consequence of modern society.

      Once freedom of belief’s established, religion tends to struggle when life becomes more comfortable: I doubt it’s any coincidence that the most irreligious societies tend to be rich welfare states. Better the material world is, the less incentive exists to look to the hereafter. Oh, there’s always rich enthusiasts, but that’s different in kind from religious populism.

      I doubt many, if any, in the CoE hierarchy could stomach the dismantling of England’s social safety net, frayed as it is. Even then, people driven to religion by desperation aren’t willing converts, they’re coerced by circumstances, and will flee at the first opportunity.

      The unpalatable truth may be that, in the world of the shopping mall and smartphone, there’s simply no realistic way to get numbers close to what they were. In a consumer society, most appear to reject what the churches are selling.

      • Hi James.

        I agree that prosperity does often appear to lead to decline in religion, especially in modern conditions. However, I am not convinced it is deterministic, and I think there are other factors in Western society which have contributed significantly as well (see my Grove booklet As counterexamples to the thesis I suggest 19th century Britain (where rising prosperity especially in the middle class went along with rising participation in religion), 20th century America, and present day South Korea.

        I agree about the illusion of control. Many people are attracted to diagnoses which suggest the solution is within their power to effect.

        • Good point about the Victorian MC, Will. Material comfort alone’s insufficient to undermine popular religion: other advances that push back the fear of death are necessary. Penicillin’s perhaps the greatest enemy that God ever had.

          South Korea’s an interesting one: the brand of Christianity on the rise there’s megachurches heavily influenced by the “prosperity gospel.” It’s transactional: scratch God’s back, & he scratches yours.

          If the church morphing into huckster Christianity’s the price for revival in modern society, is the price too high?

        • Good point about the Victorian MC, Will. Material comfort alone’s insufficient to undermine popular religion: other advances that push back the fear of death are necessary. Penicillin’s perhaps the greatest enemy that God ever had.

          South Korea’s an interesting one: the brand of Christianity on the rise there’s megachurches heavily influenced by the “prosperity gospel.” It’s transactional: scratch God’s back, & he scratches yours.

          If the church morphing into huckster Christianity’s the price for revival in modern society, is the price too high?

        • Good point about the Victorian MC, Will. Material comfort alone’s insufficient to undermine popular religion: other advances that push back the fear of death are necessary. Penicillin’s perhaps the greatest enemy that God ever had.

          South Korea’s an interesting one: the brand of Christianity on the rise there’s megachurches heavily influenced by the “prosperity gospel.” It’s transactional: scratch God’s back, & he scratches yours.

          If the church morphing into huckster Christianity’s the price for revival in modern society, is the price too high?

  6. Not at all sure I agree on all the early points about so called visionaries. Yes not everyone has the same level of eye for the details and practicalities. But in my former work life – thankfully I am now retired from that – and sometimes in the church context, I have seen those who have expounded and promoted fanciful “blue sky out of the box” visions. They have then walked away with minimal sense of responsibility or ownership, perhaps later blaming others for “failure” to deliver.

    Yes we do need to have our expectancy and visions lifted. 2 Corinthians 12, about thorns weakness and strength is always in my view – I would probably not now be a CoE Reader if it was not. But I consider it an abrogation of responsibility to fail to consider the road for getting there. What is deliverable and achievable over what timescale, what resources we need to deliver than vision and if we do not have them, how do we get them.

    So yes, they do need to worry about it. I would look for an attitude of “how can we work together in a constructive and positive way to develop this vision and make it happen”. Always assuming of course the vision itself has emerged through prayer and listening – Ps 127v1. What are the risks and pitfalls on the way and how can we deal with them. Rather than “not my problem guv”.

  7. Thank you for this article. I like many others agree with Bishop Philip’s encouragement and challenge to reconsider my (and the CoE’s) priorities in life and mission, and within that to not neglect the poorer and deprived areas of our nation.

    I also think that it’s not completely fair to target church planting initiatives like that of HTB and so on who have very intentionally been investing in urban centres, 18-30s and young professionals (and been doing excellently, and planting out of plants etc) – they are intentional in reaching a significant part of the ‘lost generation’ for robust reasons, and I wouldn’t want to see their efforts discouraged simply because we realise there are other significant groups to reach too. The models and praxis will look different, and it is important to allow these initiatives to operate with their own integrity.

    Only last year I heard from a NW supported plant into an estate in Bolton at the NW leaders conference in Manchester – the talk from the vicar who had led the team was challenging, honest, theologically robust (on perseverance, vulnerability etc) and rooted in their context. The Urban venue at NW the conference us full of people invested in poorer areas, sharing experience and encouraging others to get involved.

    It is also helpful to be reminded that Bishop Philip was speaking to a specific group, NW, and that will have informed his rhetoric and examples used. I think it’s vital that movements like NW continue to invite and welcome voices that challenge us to look upwards and outwards (so thank you NW leadership!), and help us to reflect on our life and practice. NW, as a network, can only do so much organisationally to act on Bishop Philip’s charge (and is not entirely made if of Anglicans), so as he says, the CoE has a key role to play.

  8. An angle which very few have mentioned is that part of th problem is some northern dioceses (and perhaps some southern ones too) is that they would rather see churches stand empty than fill the post with someone who is traditional on women’s ordination… something Philip North should be only too well aware of.

    • “…they would rather see churches stand empty than fill the post with someone who is traditional on women’s ordination ….”

      So you have some actual evidence for this Phill?

      • What happened to Philip North, perhaps?

        Two clergy in my deanery (both have been appointed in the last 4 years) have found it hugely difficult to get posts, both having to apply for 30 odd positions. It’s a similar story with some of my colleagues who are conservative on that issue.

        • Don’t necessarily blame the diocese for this. Parish representatives have an effective right of veto, and many parishes won’t accept a priest who doesn’t support the ordination and equal ministry of women.

          There are fewer and fewer parishes where that conservative theology is considered acceptable.

  9. Is there not an additional factor in that the entry bar for tertiary level theological training skews ministry towards the middle (and upper) classes. Where are the training courses within the CofE specifically designed to develop people for ministry to the poor and the estates rather than the suburban middle classes?

    (I ask as someone who is part of the problem. With a postgrad education I would struggle to know where to begin and find it harder and harder to engage outside my tribe the older I get. This is an issue that needs to be addressed among a new generation for some of whom it will become their live long calling and magnificent obsession)

  10. It was very trendy 40 years ago to go on about “Bias to the Poor”, something which the Bishop has presumably just caught up with after many years in fashionable places such as Walsingham and London. As a member of the Establishment, always decked in the finest robes for any occasion, he is not speaking out of any personal experience of poverty, but simply a facility for penning slogans.

    • I don’t think that’s fair: I have no idea to what extent he has experienced poverty, but I’m glad to hear people from privilege speaking up for those lacking it. I’m reminded of Russell Brand’s words, “When I was poor and complained about inequality they said I was bitter; now that I’m rich and I complain about inequality they say I’m a hypocrite. I’m beginning to think they just don’t want to talk about inequality.”

    • I think Alan if you look at his career as a parish priest that is a rather dismissive and unfair caricature I very much doubt that Camden, Sunderland, Hartlepool or indeed Blackburn are free of poverty. Perhaps he hasn’t been poor, but he has been ministered to by them, and served them in many places.

    • Last time I checked Burnley wasn’t all that fashionable?! It’s easy to criticise the Church of England but it does still have more of a presence in poor communities than almost any other national organisation. We saw in the wake of Grenfell that church leaders were able to bridge the gap between ordinary people and the establishment – and the more fractious and divided the country becomes the more important that is.

    • Robes aside (not a metaphor)…. Is it necessary to have the experience before one can speak? I’d agree it gives it depth. Is London entirely fashionable? I’m retired in the NW these days and have a grumpy Northerners outlook on things down there (monetary bias to the South) but it’s not a uniform green and pleasant land is it?

  11. One factor that ought to be borne in mind: in some Dioceses incumbents have to consult the Archdeacon before waiving fees. So I am not sure that this much vaunted right of the incumbent to waive fees amounts to much, as Archdeacon are known to refuse to agree to the Incrmbents request.
    If the Incumbent has the right to waive the fee despite an archdeacon not agreeing to do so, I would be pleased to know.

  12. Like Tiffer Robinson, I don’t want to miss the overall message – which is surely right, however I am glad of this critique.

    The HTBs etc of the world are doing a very important work in reaching say university students, a group which in fact has a shockingly low church attendance rate.

    The numerical decline which he uses to support his argument comes from census data about how people perceive themselves. This does not demonstrate the failure of the church planting movements he impliedly criticises, but rather the death of nominal Christianity. It doesn’t tell us anything about if the church planting evangelical churches have actually succeeded in their goal. I can only admire their work.

  13. Whilst I don’t agree with everything he said, as someone who has spent the last 8 years as vicar on an outer urban estate I commend most things that pull the church back towards remembering the poor, and away from its natural middle/upper class bias. Even getting a conversation going is good. We need to get beyond the sympathetic raised eyebrow people give when they met someone doing intentional estate ministry.

  14. Certainly it’s hard to minister in these areas (I have done some) and I can see a young minister might be wary of the cost to his/her children. But there is some excellent ministry (evangelical and Anglo-Catholic) in such places where people ‘fit’. Money helps but it’s not that easy always.

    I’d guess that many parishes which are not classed as poor are finding it hard going financially. They are expected to pay their own costs and more for those who can’t pay (or assumed to be unable). The good will and love to do so is there but it doesn’t mean they can come up with the money. A diocese can view some parishes as cash cows to transfer across to others in a parish share scheme of some kind whilst spending money centrally as if that’s not part of the equation.

    Back in the mid 70s Ted Roberts at St James the Less (Bethnal Green) tried locally selecting, locally training and ordaining men to minister locally. I’m not sure it had any overall effect. Many families wanted to move out and ‘better themselves’. That’s not my value judgement. The East End largely gentrified… I still think there’s something in that ‘keeping it local’ thing but how to do it…and what would ‘it’ look like?

    PS. I think the CofE hierarchy sometimes finds real interdenominational work hard to get its head around. I’d gladly withdraw from some patches if another denomination was making a significant impact. Every blessing on them… there’s plenty of other fields to work in.

  15. Jesus was the visionary who sent us to Samaria and the end of the earth.
    The disciples worshiped him, but some doubted.

    Disciples today are still worshipping and doubting, but we continue to be called to a seemingly impossible task to reach Muslims, white working classes, black youths, and other Samaritans. Praise the Lord we have the same Spirit who was at work in Peter & Paul, and the same good news that remains powerful for all.

  16. The stipend comment, while from a world perspective holds up, from a Kingdom perspective is bull****. Lets remember that its all God’s money and where we choose to spend it says a lot about our values. Saying we have paid for our vicar in our parish share suggests this is our money and we want it spent on us.

    Imagine how bad the stats would be if we included spending on non stipend staff and then measured the financial value to a church of retired clergy and self supporting ministers, because I don’t meet many who choose to volunteer/retire to poor areas.

    I feel really uneasy with, to borrow Keller’s title, ‘City Centred Church’. While we can get glimpses of some kind of Pauline strategy “going after the rich and influential”, he clearly spent most of his time with the poor and in prison. Sometimes being strategic is an excuse for doing what we fancy rather than recognising that Gods strategy is better than ours. Gal 2:10 comes to mind.

    • How can you tell that Paul spent ‘most of his time’ with the poor and in prison? He presumably spent a lot of his time with his travelling companions. And with the church leaders, who owned houses. And debating with people in lecture halls. What gives you the impression he spent most of his time with the poor?

      • Hi Will
        Justin Meggitt in ‘Paul, poverty and survival’ and Bruce Longenecker in ‘Remember the poor’ argue that most of Paul’s churches comprised the very poor. And the church leaders, such as Prisca and Aquila, likely operated from small workshops and tenements not Domus/villa houses. I think the stuff on houses and meeting places may also have come from Edward Adams. Meggitt possibly overstates his case a little, but fascinating book.

        • Hi Penelope.

          Interesting. And there is 1 Cor 1:26-9. However, against that there is 1 Tim 3:7, stipulating that elders be well-regarded by outsiders, and Acts 17:12. There is also: Joseph of Arimathea, Levi, Luke, Paul, Apollos, Titius and Crispus (Acts 18:7-8), Lydia, Tertius, Gaius and Erastus (Romans 16:22-3), Philemon, the members of Caesar’s household etc.. There is also the recurrent teaching to slave masters, who would not have been poor.

          Even fishermen were not the poorest of the poor.

          I’m no expert on this, but it seems pretty clear to me that the church included numerous well-off and educated people and relied on them heavily for leadership and resources.

          • Hi Ian and Will
            I’ve only skimmed Longenecker (a while ago) and think Meggitt overstates his case, though it’s good read. One of the interesting things to come out of more recent research is that even poor people owned slaves and that many households/families were small (more like modern nuclear families!). Eddie Adams?
            Were these people more likely to be proselytised by Paul, and Prisca and Aquila in their workshops?

    • Peter ‘Saying we have paid for our vicar in our parish share suggests this is our money and we want it spent on us.’….

      It might…but it might also be saying that we have tried to be self-supporting…. or that the diocese said if we didn’t pay up then we wouldn’t have a vicar….I don’t believe all the ‘non-poor’ are so self centred.

      Rich and poor are lost outside Jesus… Let’s not forget that.

    • I think you have assumed I am saying something I am not saying Peter Shaw. I am making an observation about where the money comes from and where it goes.

      So if a priest costs 45k, and a benefice pays 55k parish share, then they have effectively covered the costs of their own priest and contributed towards other diocesan costs.

      If a poor estate only pays 35k parish share but still receives a parish priest then they are obviously being subsidised for their parish priest to the tune of 10k not to mention the 10k of central costs.

      So where the first benefice is a net contributer to costs, and the poorer parish a net receiver, then it is more accurate to say that the Church of England spends more money per head on people living on poorer estates than anywhere else.

      Of course this doesn’t take into account all parish share systems or the fact that not everyone pays what they are asked to pay, but is nonetheless the point I was making.

  17. Bishop Philip is spot on in his analysis, but he touches on one very important point in passing. We still make it too hard for working class men to get ordained. Until the parish itself chooses and recommends potential ordinands and until their training gets back to being hands on, local (really local) and not academic, we will never get our heads round this problem and find answers.
    The Church does far too much centrally. It is now high time to throw open the doors and invite the estate parishes to suggest and work towards their own solutions.
    And one last point. Look at how the Church is growing in the poor parts of Africa and the Middle East.
    Repentance from sin and faith in Jesus’s blood still converts the poor, but only when Christians are willing to act as the eyes, heart and hands of our Saviour. Faith without works is still as dead as ever!

  18. As someone who has known Philip for a long time, and currently serves in the next door parish in Hartlepool to where Philip served, I would offer just a couple of thoughts. Firstly, we can correct much in the speech but hopefully not lose the general thrust. Secondly, there is a divide in the C of E, but I suspect it is as much a “distance from London and the SE” divide as it is north v south. There are factors in the north east which exacerbate matters however. The outcome is it is like pulling teeth to get clergy to come and stay and we can’t afford to pay them even if they do!

    The people are lovely and honest to your face, but are being left behind in the race of life. They cope by rationing their energies on things that matter most to them. Politics, education, health and more, all find engagement with significant parts of this community, difficult. We have to stay here, remain faithful and find ways of proclaiming the Gospel – without changing it, that will resonate with people. After nearly thirty years ministry in what one local teacher calls, the raggedy places, I have no new answers, just old sure and certain hope.

  19. I came across this quotation today:

    “An ordained ministry, drawn almost exclusively from the educated classes, seems to need supplementing for evangelistic effort by a lay ministry, which, from actual experience of the manner of life of the working classes, is able to enter fully into their thought, their difficulties, and their requirements; and the want of such a ministry may be one reason for a certain tendency on the part of the people to look on the Church as a class institution.”

    It is from the Bishop of St Albans…… in 1894. (In T.G.King’s book Readers: A Pioneer Ministry, p95)

  20. Not sure if I’ve come too late to this party.

    I have to admit that I start from a position of being a bit wary of Bishop North. This may be grossly unfair, but to me, he is the Brexit Bishop. Perhaps he wasn’t saying last year in the Church Times that we should all vote Leave so as to identify with the people on the estates in his diocese. However, what he wrote read like that. He seemed to be implying that what should decide which way one voted, was not what one personally considered to be the best decision, but who one wanted to identify with. The logic of that would be that if the people the church thinks it most needs to reach, or is neglecting, are (say) prejudiced xenophobes, then we have a duty to become prejudiced xenophobes too.

    I think though this time round, it’s Bishop North who is being unfair. He’s right to point out that we are failing in evangelising the nation. However, it is hardly ‘prophetic’ to say that. We all know that. It’s what we’re trying to do. We have our individual successes but in comparison with the Wesleys or St Francis, we know that cumulatively we are not succeeding. That is why many of us get discouraged.

    It is not automatically a sequitur that because he points this out, what he says we should be doing in stead would necessarily be any more successful, particularly since I am not sure his seven points actually have much meat in them.

    Is even his statement,
    “Every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised”,
    historically true? The first half is, but is the second?

    If there is a lesson one can deduce from history, do effective renewal movements actually start with someone seeing a problem and thinking ‘how do we solve this?’ or even ‘we ought to be doing something about this – how or what?’

    They seem rather to start with God. Sometimes a person or a group becomes more profoundly committed to Jesus Christ, probably in a way that most people around them, even in the official church, regard as disturbing or obsessive. They then get a dynamic urge to share that experience with the world around them. Other times God seems to surprise a person or group in some way, almost unpredictably.

    Indeed, are there examples of ‘effective renewal movements’ that have actually started with ‘the poor and marginalised’? And even if there were such, would it be an honest use of language to describe a movement that was actually the existing church putting more money and time into work among the poor and marginalised, as ‘starting with the poor and marginalised’?

    • Hi Dru.

      I agree that the sweeping claim about the link between effective renewal movements and the poor needs some scrutiny. Can anyone cite any research on this? On the face of it it seems unlikely. The Great Awakening was led by John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards – all educated men. The Second Great Awakening was led by Charles Finney.

      • Will, you will know better than I, but my understanding is that whilst the men you mention were indeed of the educated upper-middle classes, the revivals they fanned took root amongst the working class. I believe this was also the case in the Welsh Revival of 1904 and Azusa Street revival of 1906. Whilst there were adherents across the social divide, in both the working classes were the ones to quickly embrace the move of the Spirit.

        • Hi Simon.

          I don’t know about the charismatic revivals. But for Evangelicalism more generally this is what David Bebbington has to say (Evangelicalism in Modern Britain):

          ‘The Methodist membership list for Bristol in 1783, which includes occupations, may be taken as an example. Of 790 names… there are only 13 labourers. The list is fairly representative of evidence from elsewhere…. Unskilled men were few… Evangelicalism was rarely the religion of the poorest and outcast.’ (p 25)

          ‘It can be concluded that although Evangelicalism enjoyed substantial working class support it never secured the allegiance of the masses of the labouring population.’ (p 111).

          ‘An analysis of 1,317 [Billy Graham] enquirers in 1966 showed that 360 were unskilled or semi-skilled industrial workers.’ (p 257)

          He says that historically servants, artisans and skilled manual workers (and women) formed a large proportion of evangelical adherents.

          • Thanks Will – good catch. I must dig out my Bebbington which I haven’t opened in 20yrs. I am disappointed by the stats. But I note the Methodist membership list was for Bristol 1783 – a highly prosperous trading city then and also nearly 50 years (2 generations) after the Awakening began. I wonder if those stats would look very different for say St Austell Cornwall in 1740’s where Wesley was regularly active? And how do these stats relate to the thousands of colliers in Kingswood and miners in Gwenaap Pit who came to listen to him and embrace his gospel? I wonder, also, if in those two generations, the Evangelical revival brought about a social transformation which led to converts becoming temperate and literate and socially upwardly mobile? Did the labourer converted in 1740, have a family of artisans and skilled manual workers by the 1780’s?

            I like this letter from the snooty Duchess to Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon, patron of George Whitefield and the Calvinist Methodists: ‘I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers. Their doctrines are most repulsive, and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks, and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your lady-ship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.’ Clearly Methodism was shaking the structures.

          • Hi Simon

            Bebbington notes the process of ’embourgeoisement’ that you refer to. It surely played some role. But the Great Awakening was not the only evangelical revival, and he does say that the 1783 Bristol list was ‘fairly representative’.

            On the Azusa Street revival, Wikipedia says: ‘Members of the audience included people from a broad spectrum of income levels and religious backgrounds… People from a diversity of backgrounds came together to worship: men, women, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, illiterate, and educated.’

            The point, surely, though, is that Philip’s claim was: Every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised.

            And this is manifestly false. They have generally started with a broad spectrum of people of all different backgrounds (including the poorest).

            I’m fully in favour of doing mission amongst the poorest, and think it is thoroughly biblical. But the idea that ‘this is why we haven’t seen revival/growth’ and thus ‘this is where we need to start/prioritise in order to see growth/revival’ – which seems to be what Philip is saying – doesn’t hold water. First, because we are doing mission amongst the poorest, and second, because the poorest aren’t some special spiritual place where God ‘always’ starts renewal, but are simply among those with whom renewal starts.

          • Thanks Will – ’embourgeoisement’ – what a funny word 🙂 I do agree with your criticism of BpNorth’s claim – not every renewal has begun with the poor and the marginalised. I am bemused why he made it? Maybe dear +Philip’s category of renewal is narrowed to renewal movements within Anglo Catholicism??? Certainly in my context of the so called evangelical charismatic tradition, renewal movements such as the House Church & Restoration in the 1960’s or the Anglican and Catholic charismatic renewals of the 1970’s or Third Wave renewals of the 1980’s or Toronto renewal of the 1990’s were definitely not amongst the poor and marginalised.

  21. Hello Will.

    The simple thing is, that without research, the statement “Every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised” becomes wishful thinking, what a person theologically would like to be so, rather than what is. My suspicion, as in the examples you cite, is that the evidence will turn out to be against it.

    I suspect that the evidence would suggest that renewal comes either from profound consecration + a something extra by someone or a group, or from God suddenly intervening in some surprising and unexpected way. It’s about the vision of God, not our ideas for society.

  22. ‘Charging higher fees across the board and then waiving them for the poor is surely quite a kingdom approach to such things, rather than keeping all the fees low and making everyone pay the same, whether rich or poor’

    Yes- how about a means-testing system? It could be quite simple- there could be a formula for qualifying for reduced fees. I think this is a really important issue- it should be formalized and not left to discretion.

    ‘Well-educated clergy are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t’.

    I’m afraid I think that is exactly the problem- the inequalities in our society mean that our well-educated priests inevitably end up ministering to parts of society where their privilege becomes all too apparent. There is no way of making this right, or assuaging the guilt- but it also shouldn’t stop privileged priests ministering. The only thing to do is plough on and try to work for a fairer society.

    As for a well-educated class of priests supplemented by a working-class lay ministry- this may be a helpful practical solution for the here and now, but it is hardly an inspiring vision. We should be looking to break down cultural barriers and trying to end up with well-educated priests from all backgrounds/diverse cultures, not aiming for an Eton set supplemented by the working class. This won’t be possible overnight but it should be the aim.

    • Hi James.

      We should be looking to break down cultural barriers and trying to end up with well-educated priests from all backgrounds/diverse cultures.

      This misunderstands the nature of class. A person from a working class background who becomes well-educated and moves into an educated job such as the priesthood ceases to be working class. One of the main reasons that the working class remain relatively poor and not highly educated is that that is part of the definition of working class. In the estate where I live, most people who succeed in education and get a well-paid job leave before very long for better areas – they become middle class.

      A working class lay ministry works pretty well (though can be rough round the edges), and those involved in it are more likely actually to stay put in the community – for a while anyway. It isn’t long before the best are off to vicar factory!

  23. I did avoid using the word ‘class’ in that statement for that reason. Surely what matters is here is background, not class per se- it’s the ability to understand and relate to the issues faced by less well off people. A person from a working-class background will not lose that ability just because they have been educated. I’m sure its true that many will go off and become middle class, but isn’t it better to try to ensure we are bringing people into the priesthood from less well off backgrounds? Of course, there are many examples of well-off people who do understand and relate to poorer folk, so it’s not simple.
    If the best working class LLMs go off to vicar factory, I guess in some ways that helps.

  24. It’s rather a pity that in our society, we don’t seem to be able to debate this other than in terms of class. An interesting question, which one does not hear asked, is whether this really is because class is the fundamental flaw of our society, so far as its engagement with the kingdom of heaven is concerned?

    Might it not be that what has actually happened is that we’ve got too used to hearing Marxists and others who have got much of their intellectual furniture from them explaining everything in class terms. They have made it such a prevalent assumption that it has become a very convenient way of winning support, something orators and others can appeal to.

    If we want to speak for the kingdom, might it not be worth asking ourselves whether this assumption is something we should be speaking against rather than taking for granted.

    • Dru – my 22 years ordained and 19 years ministry in Oxford have taught me that ‘class’ is not a semantic category and tool employed by the Marxists but often by those the Marxists take aim at. I do agree though that its not a kingdom concept where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female, lower or upper class, but…’

    • Hi Dru.

      I don’t think I quite understand your point. Are you saying that it’s Marxist, and not biblical, even to think in terms of class? Class thinking predates Marx, though.

      Class is just the name we give to the broad structural features of society which emerge out of persistent relations such as the differential levels of income which attach to different forms of occupation. It doesn’t really make sense to think of it is as bad or good, right or wrong, since it is just a fact about society which emerges from structural (and mostly unchangeable) economic relations. Looking down on those of lower class is obviously wrong (though it is natural to regard lower paid occupations as less desirable). It is not possible (beyond the scale of the small commune) for all occupations to receive equal pay regardless of factors such as supply and demand and education (and neither is it possible to eliminate private property) and any attempt to do so violates various principles of justice and fairness and is socially and economically dysfunctional. We can make society more equal in various ways, but there are structural limits to this.

      1 Cor 7:24 suggests scripture is relatively at ease with accepting class-like distinctions in conditions of life. There is little evidence in the NT for a levelling imperative amongst the early church, beyond a generosity to support those in need. The initial set-up of having possessions in common doesn’t appear to have endured beyond the very early Jerusalem church, and the epistles give no sign of such an ethic being taught. 2 Cor 9 suggests that giving was particular and voluntary.

      The main thrust of the NT as I read it is that we each need to come to God in the condition we are and offer to him our resources and ourselves and serve him, while remembering the poor and those in need. We don’t need to feel guilt about who we were born to, or our education, or our profession or income. We just need to heed God’s call on our lives and be wise stewards, being aware that ‘from him to whom much has been given much will be expected’ (Luke 12:48).

      • No, Will. I’m not saying it’s Marxist and non-biblical even to think of class. I am though saying that it is Marx’s influence that means so many of us since the 1920s to see class as an overwhelming parameter, one that even if it does completely dominate a person’s assessment of the world around them, is really fundamental to it, rather than just one factor among many others. If it were not for the pervasive influence of Marx and Marxists over the last century, would any of us give class the importance we do or even regard it as so significant which class we or anyone else seeks to identify themselves as belonging to?

        A Marxist would say that to deny that is a form of delusion, a failure to be enlightened by the understandings of the real world that they claim Marx has enabled them to see. What I am suggesting, is that perhaps the Marxists have not just been wrong all along, but their analysis has introduced a conceptual bacillus into the prevailing intellectual weltanschauung that we might be better off without.

  25. James Edmonds makes an important point, which has not been picked up. There is a huge difference to the recipient between ‘the vicar has discretion to waive the fees’ and a clear right to lower fees or free service depending on income. The first approach is patronising and humiliating – forcing the recipient to show that they are the ‘deserving poor’; the second makes people feel their situation is recognised as a need.

    When I was in this situation due to disability, I refused to go to a churchwarden and beg ie present my case for help with fees for the parish retreat. But if a discount for people on certain benefits had been offered I would have gladly accepted it.

    This point is very relevant to a debate on how to engage with poorer people, the first step is to understand that very few, rich or poor, want charity, they want to be treated as equals.

  26. Yes, I agree 100%. In a way, if we are going to deal with the fact of class, we need to name it- but we should be careful that our language isn’t showing that we take it for granted.

  27. Will are you sure we don’t need to be concerned about our profession (what if I’m an arms dealer), our income (CEO on 20x salary of average employee), what conditions we were born into (vast inherited wealth) or the other ways in which our privilege might be built on the backs of others’ sufferings. Of course this doesn’t mean god loves us less, and we should recognise that these things weren’t our choice and that there is only so much we can do about who we are, but sometimes we might have to think twice about our profession, our income or whether we ought to be holding on to what we’ve been given. Your reading sounds like a recipe for middle class complacency- which I’m sure you wouldn’t recommend.

    • Hi James.

      Yes, we should offer everything we have to God, be generous particularly to the needy, and let him lead us where he wants us to go – ‘sell everything you have and give to the poor’. This may mean leaving a profession of questionable moral standing, and for those who earn much may well involve being very generous indeed. I didn’t mean to negate those ideas. But most people aren’t in those situations, and I was addressing the class structure of society in general and the situation of a typical middle class Christian. I was countering the notion that in general people should feel guilty about having more than others or having a good job or that there is something inherently problematic with differential incomes for different occupations or with the variegated (‘class-based’) structure of society and the economy.

  28. I think it is brilliant the way so many contributors to this blog are asking how they can support, or even join, the ministry in deprived areas. I’ve worked in Salford for 18 years. I am shortly going to leave it to return to a middle-class area, and am realising just how changed I have been by the whole experience, and what I am really going to miss.
    My curacy was on an outer estate where my car was burned six feet from our front door, over three years every window in church was broken, my sons were mugged and even the trees were sometimes set alight. It was tiring being burgled so much. However, it taught me how to be straight-talking (!) and I learned what compassion feels like. My sense of humour improved. Once I had passed the ‘test’ of not running away, and I began to be trusted by people I started loving them so much that I know why Jesus preferred the company of ‘sinners’.
    What the CofE does not allow for is that it is a different culture. To learn how to relate is to become a missionary, and then a neighbour. Nothing in poor areas is simple; the needs are acute and parochial structure is a real burden to anyone trying to build community, rather than a framework within which people can minister; it is not possible for a minister to ‘succeed’ in any terms that other clergy recognise. But God is so obviously active there, and being a Christian is easier there because right and wrong is in better contrast.
    After a while one ceases to care about little things, like dog-dirt in the churchyard, or differences in churchmanship. It is a really good place to be a minister: people don’t need to be persuaded to believe, and they are easier to teach, and accept you ‘as you are’. They are also generous, and spontaneously grateful for very small things. The clergy in Chapter are not competitive, and really help each other. If God is nudging you to join this ministry – don’t delay, just do it!

  29. Philip North seems to be the man of the moment – the new Lancelot Andrewes. I would be interested to understand his ideas around Eucharistic Presence and how he reconciles a Caroline Anglo-Catholic Ecclesiological emphasis on Eucharistic Celebration with the Evangelical Homiletic emphasis on Gospel Proclamation.


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