Where are the working class?

Gary Jenkins writes: It is extraordinary how often working class people are ignored, overlooked or written out of the story altogether. A prime example was at the November meeting of the Church of England General Synod. A new vision document for the national church of a more diverse church made no mention of working class people at all—a huge group in the nation, heavily under-represented in the church. We were promised diversity of ‘age, colour and ethnicity’ but there was no mention of class.

That working class people literally never got a mention in Synod is a scandal and not just a scandal, but a gospel issue that should profoundly concern us because it is about the spiritual welfare of millions of souls. As far back as 1985 the Archbishop’s report on urban priority areas, Faith in the City, stated:

The Church of England’s most enduring problem of the city has been its relationship with the working class’ (ACUPA, Faith in the City, London: Church House Publishing, 1985, p 28).

Not much has changed since. It has been race, and latterly gender and sexuality, rather than class that has been uppermost in the church’s thinking. Class as a category has been ignored and working class people themselves have been overlooked, not just because of a kind of collective amnesia but also, I believe, because of a deep rooted prejudice against working class people which is endemic in British culture.

‘The English working class’ says Julie Burchill ‘is now the only group of people the chattering classes are happy to hear mocked or attacked’ (Nick Cohen, What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way, London: Fourth Estate, 2007 p 207). We all recall  Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman,’ Emily Thornberry’s white van man and, from across the pond,  Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables.’ No wonder Dagenham-born firefighter and trade unionist, Paul Embery, has called his new book on why the left loathes the working class, Despised. Of course no one at General Synod said they despised the working class, they just didn’t mention them at all. That, if anything, is worse.


Very often working class people are simply absent from the church and its councils. They are not there to plead their cause, and few are prepared to speak on their behalf. Whilst it is absolutely right to address the under-representation of BAME people in the leadership of the church, it is strange that so little recognition is given of that fact that the working class of England are so sparsely represented not just in the church’s leadership, but also in its congregations.

This is a scandal which, quite scandalously, does not scandalise the church.

Who are working class people? Paul Embery suggests they are drawn from:

the stratum of society whose members often do the toughest and most grinding jobs (consisting for example of physical labour or work in blue collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline public services); those whose wages and social status are generally at the lower end of the scale; those who own little or no  property or wealth, beyond perhaps their own homes and some modest savings; those who are likely to have little authority or control in the workplace….those who are unemployed or more likely to be in receipt of benefits (Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Despises the Working Class, Cambridge: Polity, 2020, p 12).

They are not all poor. They are not all council tenants. They are not all white. Many own their own homes, take the kids on holiday to Florida, and have well paid highly skilled jobs. Many run their own businesses and drive the white vans that so impressed Emily Thornberry. The working class are, I believe, a missiologically significant cultural group. By this I mean they are a group of people with particular cultural values, customs and ideas in common that we need to take into account if we are to engage in effective mission towards and with them—as we would with any other cultural group. They include some of the poorest in our society but they are not just socially deprived people.

A key moment for working class people and one that illustrates the huge cultural gap between the working class and the liberal middle class elite was Brexit. It is estimated that two thirds of working class people voted leave (Embery, Despised p 50). For once the working class ended up on the winning side. The founder of the Blue Labour movement, Lord Glassman, gleefully exclaimed the day after the referendum: ‘the losers won!’

And how they have paid for it, ever since! Never have working class people been so abused, ridiculed, and patronised as they have been since the Brexit referendum. They have seen the entire political (and ecclesiastical) establishment do all that it can to delegitimise and frustrate the decision they made at the polls. Whatever you think about Brexit it has been both a triumph and tragedy for working class people, and the 2019 fall of the red wall in the north has been a crucial part of this story unfolding.


What about the church’s relationship with working class people? There are many reasons for the estrangement of the working class from the church. It is a long term problem with deep historical roots. There is no easy answer but aspects of the church’s strategy have arguably made the situation worse and contributed to the problem. Let’s consider a few of them:

1. There has never been a level playing field. Evangelical Christians have spent a disproportionate amount of money and manpower on evangelising those who attend independent schools, elite universities, and city centre churches. The most gifted clergy are steered in the direction of these institutions, and most books, videos and study courses from Christian agencies are focussed on the top half of society. Mission to working class people has always been severely under resourced, notwithstanding the fact that there are many wonderful examples of imaginative, gospel focussed, sacrificial, urban mission projects across the country (often run on a shoestring).

2. The trickledown theory of mission (focus on the rich, powerful, clever and the influential first in order that the effect may trickle down to the lower orders in due course), much loved by English evangelicals, is not only contrary to the grain of Scripture but has demonstrably failed. Rather, the effect of this policy has been to produce a strongly middle class church, peculiarly ill-suited to ministry among working class people.

Theologically, the trickledown policy is completely awry. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians

Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1.26–27).

If that verse reveals something of God’s general plan and intention, the question must be askedwhy so many evangelical Christians in England have prioritised ministry to the educational and social elite.  A more biblical missiological strategy (one that goes with the grain of God’s intentions, rather than against them) would have been to concentrate first on the bottom of the society, not the top. We would be in a very different place today if that had happened.

3. Much well-intentioned efforts by middle class Christians to ‘help the poor’ have backfired. They have been self-defeating in missional terms because they have created a sense of resentment amongst the working class who have been turned into recipients of charity by them. Inadvertently, the gap between working class people and church people has been widened. The late Bishop David Sheppard once said ‘working class people have not been helped by the church to believe that Christ could be for them’ and some (but not all) charitable activities have contributed to this. Middle class Christians enjoy helping the poor much more than the poor enjoy being helped. ‘Charity’ is a dirty word in working class culture. It is something you have to receive if you are desperate but it makes you feel bad about yourself and it hurts your pride (another key word in working class culture). It may not help you to see that the church could be your true home, even if you are grateful for the help the ‘church people’ give you.

4. The church has tended to be sterner on working class sins than middle class ones. Drinking, smoking, gambling, and matters of personal sexual morality have been highlighted, but the church has been much more relaxed about tax evasion, amassing large sums of money, the owning of multiple houses and buying privileged positions in education and society for one’s children.

5. The middle class captivity of the church has meant that the Gospel and the interpretation of Scripture has been framed in strongly middle class terms. The aspects of Scriptural truth that resonate most with middle class culture (focus on the individual, morality, rule keeping) have been accentuated and the aspects that resonate most with working class thinking (focus on the group, loyalty, solidarity) have been underplayed. It is as if a definite decision has been taken to communicate the Gospel to French people in German.


Here is a comparison I have drawn up from my own ministry experience of suburban and urban congregations, designed to show some of the cultural differences between middle class people and working class. Although both types of people occur in both types of congregation, this chart shows the contrast between the middle class culture that is dominant in suburban churches and the working class culture often dominant in urban (but not city centre) churches.

SuburbanUrban
Large congregationsSmall congregations
Doing things wellDoing things spontaneously
SeriousnessHaving a laugh
Lots of moneyLack of money
PrivacyOpenness
AchievementAcceptance
IndividualGroup

 

If we are serious about reaching more working class people for the Gospel then a greater effort needs to be made to create indigenous working class churches, not just to graft working class converts into middle class churches. We need to divest the Gospel of its middle class clothing. Training methods, styles of teaching, and the recruitment of pastors and teachers needs to take into account the needs and preferences of working class people.

The reaction of the crowd in Acts 4 to early apostolic preaching reminds us that the first leaders of the church were ordinary working men, transformed by an encounter with Jesus:

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4.13).

Having more working class people in upfront ministry is crucial but so is a serious commitment to cross cultural mission by middle class Christians. Investment of  time, effort, and money needs to be made in the tougher areas of our nation.


The really strange thing about the problem of the church’s relationship with the working class is that it is simply not perceived as a problem at all. The issue of class is scarcely on the agenda, but if we recall the famous saying of Archbishop Temple that the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of its non-members, the church will do well to reconsider its most enduring problem of the cities—its relationship with the working class—because in many areas those are the people most likely to be its non-members.

So much Christian effort is devoted to being fairer to the church’s existing members. It’s about dividing up the cake more equally amongst those who gather round the table but in the process a whole group is being forgotten, a massive group, comprising millions of people. They are not even at the table.

They are not yet at the table but they do need the Bread of Life.


Canon Gary Jenkins is Vicar of St James and St Anne, Bermondsey in south London, Area Dean of Bermondsey, and a member of the General Synod.


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75 thoughts on “Where are the working class?”

  1. Really enjoyed this. I always value Gary’s wisdom and compassion.

    For me this is a very personal matter being one of the few clergy who entered ministry from a working class background. But just to share one story which might illustrate some of the challenges. 600 yards from my church is what was, when I arrived, the most linguistically diverse school in Europe, and very much the one to be avoided by all church going middle class families. I was asked by one of the senior staff to see if we could arrange some mentoring for ‘ white working class’ boys, as that group was so visibly falling behind.

    I actually managed to find about eight men, all from working class backgrounds and some with strong working class tastes, who had done well. The scheme floundered a bit due to lack of communication and organisation, but the hardest thing was getting most members of the church community to see the group as wort the trouble.

    Reply
    • Hi, Ian
      You say that about the school, “…very much the one to be avoided by all church going middle class families”. I suspect you could have dropped ‘church going’ from that sentence and it still would have been correct. Many Christians are no different from the wider population in making ‘the good school’ a high priority.

      Reply
      • And what is wrong with that? If a particular school is not performing well, if that applies to that school, why would you choose to send your kids there, knowing that they may not get as good an education as elsewhere?

        Sounds like working class snobbery.

        Peter

        Reply
  2. Thanks Gary.

    One of the most cringey things I see in C of E circles is how common it is for vicars to talk with (almost) pride about ‘how deprived’ their area is. It strikes me that it is only in churches that I hear people talking like this and referring to indices of deprivation as a badge of honour. This is one indicator of the sense of a C of E vicar being a visiting alien from another world, seeking validation for how hard their ministry is. But few others who live long term in an area want to ‘talk-up’ its deprivation.

    I also think that working class people more accurately assess the dangers of charitable activity. David Sheppard’s words are important to show the importance of asset-based work which empowers people:

    “Middle class Christians enjoy helping the poor much more than the poor enjoy being helped. ‘Charity’ is a dirty word in working class culture. It is something you have to receive if you are desperate but it makes you feel bad about yourself and it hurts your pride.”

    I think its worth saying that much of the engagement with working class people in my experience is happening outside the C of E. I think the C of E could learn from other evangelical churches which *are* connecting well with the cultures around them. I would love to see this kind of earthy humility and honest assessment from the ‘established church’.

    The key to all this is surely authenticity and proper engagement with the community. In all places, but especially within working class cultures, faith needs to have arms and legs and to be embodied in reality if anyone is going to have respect for it.

    Reply
    • “Middle class Christians enjoy helping the poor much more than the poor enjoy being helped. ‘Charity’ is a dirty word in working class culture. It is something you have to receive if you are desperate but it makes you feel bad about yourself and it hurts your pride.”

      From my experience (born and bred in the working class NE, having ministered in a mining town and very much more middle class parishes) it comes from a warm heart but can be unintentionally patronizing. It’s the visit of power to helplessness and isn’t truly incarnational or empowering.

      I don’t ‘t entirely dismiss it as I don’t dismiss sending aid to somewhere I’ve never been and are unlikely to do so.

      Reply
      • As someone from a working class background, one of the most frustrating issues I found in the church was the ability of middle class people to network.

        As someone who felt a calling to be involved in teaching in the church, but who significantly lacked confidence and thought people would laugh at someone like me expressing such an aspiration, it was so frustrating to see middle class couples join the church and within a couple of months being asked to undertake some significant role.

        I do not at all think they did this deliberately or consciously. They simply had the confidence and social skills to make their abilities obvious.

        When I hear churches today wanting to focus upon identifying those from disadvantaged groups who are gifted, but do not mention the working class, I do not think any lessons have bern learned.

        Reply
  3. The Scriptures say far more about class and poverty (exclusion) than about sexual matters. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the effort that went into the (strikingly upper middle class & ‘Remainery’) CEEC video were put into a resonant proclamation of the gospel that would connect with the rejected majority? I know where Jesus would be hanging out – in a ‘wet’ pub, and quite possibly in breach of the latest COVID regs…

    Reply
  4. Spot on. I think this is one area where the Anglo Catholic tradition has been more missional than the Evangelical, and Philip North continues in that fine tradition.
    But, it’s still very much the working class being ministered “to”. There’s nothing akin to liberation theology, with its base communities. Indeed, teaching Luke to a group of ordinands, I was disconcerted to discover that none of them had even heard of liberation theology.
    Another problem is discipleship courses. They are mostly so very middle class and demand a high degree of literacy from participants. One, I won’t name it, discusses pedagogical methodology in its leaders’ notes!

    Reply
    • My parish is next door to Philip North’s last parish and I too am on General Synod. Two things occur to me. Firstly, terminology is so important. I don’t go round my parish every day and think ” there is Mrs. Bloggs a deprived working class person,” but rather ” Hi Pauline.” The economic and social labelling comes in in other contexts not always helpfully. Of course this might also stop the idea we sometimes find, that the working class is a project to undertake. This is a little unfair, but still….

      It brings me nicely to my second point. We should be seeking help these folk realise their God given gifts, so that they are no longer people to be done to, but folk who in both religious and secular terms can do it for themselves and alongside us. Of course it would be very helpful if these working class people were a better fit for the missiological and evangelistic structures we develop!

      Graeme Buttery

      Reply
    • “Spot on. I think this is one area where the Anglo Catholic tradition has been more missional than the Evangelical, and Philip North continues in that fine tradition.”

      Roman Catholic priests, being childless (one imagines) would not have the push to leave the area in order to find the ‘good school’. Perhaps that bleeds over into Anglo Catholicism.

      Reply
  5. One of the things I notice is that the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church have lots of working class people in their congregations. What can we learn from this, and can we even accept and put into practice what we learn? We need a completely different sort of church which sees itself as servant to its community and is able to make the changes in worship and organisation that will be needed. I don’t have much hope for the CofE. It loves status too much.

    Reply
    • I have been following this blog with great interest for several years (and the Minister of my conservative evangelical village church reads it too) – and I have found it inspiring, mind-opening, quite shocking at times, but above all immensely educational especially when reading all the comments to some posts! I have never commented before, and hardly dare to, in front of all the high-powered theologians here! But in response to gill’s post, surely the theological explanation behind what she notices, and what she then advocates (which I heartily agree with) is the dichotomy between C/catholic ‘salvation by works’, which naturally leads to charity and community involvement, and individual believer centred ‘faith alone’ – which can lead churches to concentrate on the bible-teaching in their own small congregations, and apart from hoping to bring more into the inner circle with evangelistic efforts, tends to separation between Christians and the World, so much less ‘serving’ of those outside. Or am I being too simplistic? And on middle-class Anglicans, when I went with a few from our church for a meeting with the bishop, I particularly noticed the extremely expensive William Morris curtains in his study!

      Reply
      • Thanks for commenting.

        I think there is an issue there—but in general research shows that evangelicals are highly activist. In our city, the main social action initiatives have been led by evangelicals, and the city’s biggest homeless project is run by an evangelical charismatic church.

        Reply
    • One of the things I notice is that the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church have lots of working class people in their congregations. What can we learn from this’

      I believe there could be a variety of reasons for this valid observation, one maybe that the position of authority which is the basis of the majority of relationships in these types of churches makes it easy for (so called) working class folks to relate easily as they are used to people with authority telling them what they need to do to be accepted. This fits into the hierarchy of the class system that surrounds us all but which is not acknowledged enough.

      Reply
  6. “If we are serious about reaching more working class people for the Gospel then a greater effort needs to be made to create indigenous working class churches, not just to graft working class converts into middle class churches.”

    Is this not the exact opposite of Jesus’ example? It certainly risks being both patronising and offensive. The “working class” are not the problem, the problem is with our middle class churches.

    We need to invite people different from us into our middle class spaces and allow them to be our teachers. Allow them to show us how arrogant and narrow minded we are. Allow ourselves to feel awkward when we run out of conversation. Actually ask them what they think about us. Allow them to reveal to us our prejudice, disrupt our precious hegemony and show us the plank in our own eye. In other words invite them to be Christ to us.

    Reply
    • With respect, I think the last thing people from working class backgrounds want to be is some kind of middle class feedback group. They just want to feel treated as equals, accepted into church communities and people’s homes and lives as friends, and treated as people with equal giftings and leadership potential as those from better-off backgrounds.

      Reply
    • Amen. My only point of difference would be that instead of inviting them in we go to where they are and begin by just being with them and allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable and listen

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  7. Thanks for this. My question would be; Who now are the working class? Are Data inputer`s working class? And what makes a persons definiton of class? Is there income, where they live , the job they do or perhaps more liley, the values they hold?

    Reply
    • Good question, with no definitive answer. I would view my parents, now passed, as working class as they would also have seen themselves. They both worked in primarily physical low paid jobs (though like many such jobs essential to society, unlike quite a few so-called middle class ‘careers’), rented their council housing home for a long period of time until Maggie Thatcher enabled them to buy it, had little savings, 1 holiday per year and not abroad, once retired relied mainly on the state pension rather than their measly work pensions, and made sacrifices over the years to enable all of their children to go to university. I think my mum particularly could have done well educationally but in those days it was common to leave school at 14 and get a job. I still remember her helping me with some maths problems at school, and I think she was surprised herself that she could solve them. I went on to study maths (and physics) at university, sadly my mum was never given that opportunity.

      Reply
  8. From a working class family and a Council estate, the comments section is very revealing: the writer of the article and Ian Tatum are those who get it, from the inside. And talk of Liberation theology caps it off.
    It’s not an academic exercise. It’s not middle class parachuting in, doing good, come to liberate and educate.
    And as the author shows working class is not one homogeneous group.
    Working class communities, such as coal mining, may have had some strength but it was frequently a strength without God. My cousin eulogises about growing up in a time when people could leave their doors unlocked, yes a different century, I know.
    Pride is at large in all communities, even as communities fracture and splinter, imposed from without or imploded from within through individualism.
    For what it’s worth the Trades Union movement has a genesis in Christianity – the Tolpuddle Martyrs not Marx. At the risk of moving off topic, discuss.
    For current examples of the Church working in communities, it could do worse than look at 20 Schemes, in Scotland.
    But and this it a big but there has been no mention of the Good News of Jesus absent in the article and comments.

    Reply
    • Hi Geoff… I don’t think that this is correct.

      “but there has been no mention of the Good News of Jesus”

      Here is the link…

      “The late Bishop David Sheppard once said ‘working class people have not been helped by the church to believe that Christ could be for them’”

      I know its disputable but I don’t think it’s disputed by the author.

      But I assume that the issue in hand is how this is done and the barriers that exist. As a working class ordinand in the 70s at a clear cut evangelical college (Oak Hill) we had a unit on Liberation Theolgy put on as an extra at the decision of the college. It did not dilute the desire to share the Good News and to pray for conversions.

      I had three one year placements (less involving than today’s I think) Walthamstow, Bethnal Green and (Tad different!) Hadley Wood. The Bethnal Green placement coincided with the Worker Priest initiative led by Ted Roberts at St James the Less. The point was to keep the call and the training in the parish to avoid the descent 🙂 into middle class ordained ministers. I’m not sure it worked… Maybe the model was wrong rather than the training?

      In the later 19th early 20th my grandmother (with others) were too poor to go to the local High-Church CofE and that’s how the local Chapel started. Built by the people with no aid… Genuinely a community. The (paid) minister was loved beyond words.

      Reply
      • Hello Ian H,
        David Shepherd wasn’t from a working class community was he? but from your quote it seems he understood the centrality of the gospel. In contrast David Jenkins sought to show solidarity with Co. Durham mineworkers who had solidarity without him, and he had nothing to offer that they didn’t already have, certainly not the Good News of Jesus.
        I have nothing against liberation theology, per se : it is when it replaces and excludes the true liberation of gospel of Jesus that I find it lacking in eternal weight.
        I was on a support group for a friend, without a degree, as he was undergoing ministry training in the Methodist church through a Durham ecumenical course. He entered as a working class believer and his faith was tested and ridiculed, with a red pen! It wasn’t really encouraged nor supported with apologetics, nor critique of Bultmann et al.

        Reply
      • Liberation theology comes in different boxes in a practical sense (not theory) I remember doing some research regarding ‘community’ and discovering that in Brazil Roman Catholic priests were leaving their churches and robes behind and living with the marginalized poor sharing everything including the bread and wine and applying the gospel texts directly to their lives. Not approved of by the hierarchy but very effective.

        Reply
    • Geoff

      I apologise if you thought that by Liberation Theology, I meant something top down, academic and Marxist. As the Labour movement owes more to Methodism than to Marx, Liberation Theology owes more to the Magnificat than to Marx.
      I wrote that the working class don’t need ministering to in a paternalistic way. Hence the concept of base communities.

      Reply
  9. Such a helpful article and equally helpful comments…

    True mission and awakening in our world today must happen at grassroots level, i.e. bottom up rather than top down. Check out movements in South America and Africa and the Far East. I’ve witnessed that in my travels and within my own circle of ministry in Africa. The joyous grasp of the most profound biblical truths often arises among the humblest, those a good friend of mine has called ‘the little people.’

    Reply
  10. Michelle Guiness addressed this issue thoughtfully in her book “Promised Land”. Nonconformist churches, undoubtedly evangelical, have a history of reaching the urban/rural poor; the Salvation Army flourishes in working-class settings…… Something I noticed when living in Belgium was that the Protestant churches were overwhelmingly working-class and racking their brains over how to attract the middle classes!

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  11. Thanks for this excellent, penetrating article.
    1. A major reason for the church’s ineffectiveness amongst African Caribbean people is that the majority also are working class; not just ‘racism’ as such.
    2. At the time of Faith in the City Clifford Longley wrote that the church’s lack of impact on working class people the sort of problem that is held not to exist because no-one has a solution to it. We haven’t yet moved on.

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  12. When I arrived at theological college one tutor remarked “We don’t have “real working class people” here usually.” It wasn’t the last time such comments were made to me either in training or later.

    I also note almost none of those I trained with ticked “outer estate” or “inner city” on choices for placement in curacy.

    Reply
  13. I’m a very middle class guy ministering in a free church in a working class Northern town. It’s a mistake to think that working class people necessarily want to hear more of their own voices up front – it might be nice but they don’t really care. The Prime Minister and Nigel Farage both have super posh backgrounds but they do fine in working class eyes. What working class people want is what everyone wants in church leadership – that the person up front is gifted at what they do.

    Beyond being gifted, in my experience working class people just want bible teaching that is bold, straight and unapologetic. They want positive, energetic and strong leadership. Nuanced, hand-wringing type preaching, “one interpretation is … , but on the the other hand …” – that stuff just doesn’t cut it.

    I think that kind of leadership is more the exception than the rule in my town, and even when it is found the person usually moves on after a few years, and what fruit has been created evaporates. The contrast between the lengthy service of the Pentecostal pastors and the revolving doors in the other denominations is stark.

    Reply
    • Spot on…. To not coin a phrase…

      “Beyond being gifted, in my experience working class people just want bible teaching that is bold, straight and unapologetic. They want positive, energetic and strong leadership. Nuanced, hand-wringing type preaching, “one interpretation is … , but on the the other hand …” – that stuff just doesn’t cut it.”

      Reply
  14. Thanks, Gary, glad someone is blowing this trumpet.
    I would add another differential to your chart: falseness vs. straight speaking. I had a working class upbringing (no phone, no car, 2 adults and 5 children in a 3-bedroom council house). I married a very middle class girl (we have been good for one another). She found visits to my house both shocking and liberating (saying what you really thought, wandering around in underpants – and string vest [Dad]). In her house there was this false atmosphere of not saying what you were really thinking.
    I moved upwards socially (I guess) via 11+, Grammar School and University. As a teacher I hated the staff room – full of false laughing and unreality. I had a career move?? to the building site as a bricklayer – loved it: straight speaking (instead of splitting the infinitive with adverbs, it was splitting infinitives and even verbs with imaginative variations on the ‘f’ word). Real people rather than people with masks.
    I’m sure the attraction of politicians like Farage is that people know they say what they really think. This is not territory that the Church operates in. People without the “required manner” of speaking, dressing, conforming are despised. I think honesty and candour from leadership is the first thing that needs to change if we are to be truly Church for all people.

    Reply
    • With respect, and Im not doubting your own experiences, but you seemed to have just described stereotypes. My dad was working class but never walked around the house in his underpants and vest – he always had other clothes over them! As for teachers, well yes my experience of them as an adult is that quite a few treat other adults like the children they teach. But I think it’s a stereotype that middle-class families dont say what they think whilst working class ones just let it all hang out (literally in your dad’s case!). And actually sometimes it wise not to say what you really think…

      As for Farage, Im not sure he does say what he really thinks, he simply panders to those with racist/little Britain/ ‘us and them’ mindsets. He was quite happy to take a large salary for years from the EU despite supposedly hating the institution. Well, I suppose he made a good life for himself from it, but he has little integrity. More fool those who listen to him. But I digress.

      Overall you seemed to have painted the working class as ‘real’ people and the middle class as wearing false masks like the actors of old. I just dont think that’s true for many.

      Peter

      Reply
  15. I think there is a genuine welcome at the door of most churches for every type of person. The problem is the settling in part, becoming a regular, when any culture gap starts to be felt. Middle and working-class conversations flow differently. Working class people think they need to ‘put on a show’ in church and will temporarily adopt aspects of middle-class culture but after a while they get bored with talking/acting in a way that isn’t natural for them. And the sense of humour gap is immense – with the cruder more combative humour of working-class people being met with awkward silences.

    Working-class people often do feel inferior. They have less of everything – less money, less impressive careers (or just a job), less tidy families (more social dysfunction). But they know how to deflect attention away from any of these personal shortcomings when talking to each other. Middle-class people typically miss “change the subject” cues when getting to know someone from a working-class background and the working-class person feels silently humiliated.

    Reply
    • I suspect you are right, but it shows the mindsets of ALL need to change.

      Peter

      PS crude jokes are often hilarious. I watched Dumb and Dumber To the other night and the first 40 minutes were laugh out loud. Ive never seen a cat farting feathers before…

      Reply
  16. I think the working class vote for Brexit was a grasping for real identity in the face of scathing critique. They want to be British not multi-cultural and that doesn’t automatically mean racist. There really is a host culture perhaps, as most are, better defined by what it isn’t. Funny how some multi-culturists are very enthusiastic about other national cultures but loathe their own! Perhaps there is an existential crisis that the Church can speak to? Part of being culturally British is to be Christian much more than say being Muslim or woke. Being a British citizen isn’t the same as being culturally British in their (and my) eyes. Part of that Christian Britishness is to be tolerant of other cultures. Is it ghastly to attach Christianity to a sense of culture? CofE is a national church after all. It’s really not the path of ‘ein volk’. Many middle class Christians will be uncomfortable with these statements seeing them/ me truly as deplorable. There are values that divide and judgements that may have to be lifted. Perhaps that’s why the middle-class Church doesn’t reach out to the working class – it doesn’t much like them!

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    • ‘They want to be British not multi-cultural and that doesn’t automatically mean racist. ‘

      – perhaps, but in many cases it does.

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  17. Interesting to see the analysis of urban v suburban churches: actually I think for “urban” you could say “urban or rural”, but we still have an under-representation of working class folk. Alas.

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  18. I agree we face a challenge. But is there a subtle assumption here of the church / Christians being the Anglican Church? Perhaps some free churches are addressing this issue more successfully. (If so, why?)

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    • Well the author is ordained in the C of E and is commenting on the situation of the C of E. As others have commented, it is not quite the same in other denominations.

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      • I wonder if the core of this issue lies in not understanding that the Hebrew root for worship shares the same root as work “Avodah”. When we understand that our work is our worship ‘whatsoever thy hand finds to do do it with all thy heart’ maybe we will see ministers aflame with love for God and love for people. Maybe that’s why Jewish teachers of the law had to first learn a trade before they could teach? Paul a tent maker and Jesus a carpenter. Yes I did graduate from a California Bible school but honestly I feel much better letting you know that I help builders build buildings and solve problems. If my love for Jesus bleeds through in the process I’m overjoyed.

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  19. This has been an ongoing problem for many years, when I came to faith in a small c of e church in Dagenham, I was desperate to share the good news with my neighbours, the only resources around at that time seemed to be the wonderful alpha course videos and I used these for many years and by Gods grace many came to faith, but I still cringe at Nicky Gumbles very middle class illustrations and even a snipe at the working classes with his joke about Ave Maria.

    I was ordained in 2002 because the Bishop of Barking (Roger Sainsbury) saw past my working class accent and lack of formal education and was able to see God at work.

    In the 1990’ I and a small group from our church were invited to speak at a faith in the city conference where it was recognised that God and faith was alive and well in the working classes even if the Church of England were lacking in response

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  20. “Having more working class people in upfront ministry is crucial…” Agreed. But it should never have been an issue in the first place.

    Christ our Saviour, Lord and King was a carpenter and probably worked in construction and when He was crucified, He probably didn’t even have a denarius.

    Peter was just a fisherman and to quote Acts 4: 13 is definitely right!

    There are no hints whatsoever of ‘classes’ in the requirements for Elders and Deacons in 1 Timothy 3: 1-13, Titus 1: 5-9.

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  21. Thank you Gary for such an excellent article and the best I have seen on this issue. I am working class (now ‘middle-class’ vicar) raised in a Pentecostal Church. In my last church before ordination, I spent around seven or eight years trying to work out what made the middle-classes tick. There are still things I don’t understand and I imagine it must be equally difficult for people to work out how the working-classes tick also.

    After eleven years in an urban priority area I definitely agree with John Warren’s comments that working-class people want ‘Bible teaching that is bold, straight, and unapologetic.’ In my experience, the middle-classes and working-classes generally tend towards different sins, though most sins are common everywhere to some extent. However, the idea that the working-classes are ‘straight-talking’ is a myth in my view.

    Within the Church of England, if we are going to reach the working classes then we have to communicate the gospel with much greater simplicity. Not because the working-classes lack intelligence, but because our own presentations often lack intelligence through their lack of clarity.

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  22. I agree with Gary’s article as someone who also ministers in a council estate. Rarely is the cause of the working class trumpeted, so thank you. What I have discovered is that they still want to engage in challenging topics such as suffering with profound insights, but may come at in a less analytic way than a middle class person. The reasoning maybe more narrative based, more circular, more colourful but no less insightful. There are wonderful people who also are passionate to serve their community as much as any middle class person.

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    • I very much agree Peter that the understanding is ‘no less insightful’. Conceptual argumentation often fails through subtly inconsistent logic, though not always of course. My experience is that the working-class culture generally expresses things that are intuitive in a less abstract manner. I am not suggesting it is more accurate, but certainly no less as you suggest.

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  23. It is not a sin to make a financial self-sacrifice to send your child to a better school. Look at Africa, where parents are willing to work themselves to the bone to get their child an education.

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    • No, indeed, and the decision is complicated. But if you do that, then you are able to give them an advantage which others don’t have, and it means that you remove both them and yourselves from contributing to the ethos of Government schools.

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        • Well yes, and of course I am called not only to love my own children, but to love my neighbour as well.

          If we lived in a competitive world of nuclear families, where the only thing that mattered was ensuring that my children fought their way to the top at the expense of others, I think that is obviously the right strategy.

          If there are other issues at stake, the question becomes more complex.

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          • Then we are back at the old grammar school vs. Comprehensive argument. The genetic lottery means that brains are not allocated according to income. Many children from poorer backgrounds may be smarter than children from wealthy backgrounds but inequalities in education hold back their potential achievement. I know places where the state grammar schools produce better results than independent schools because the intake is more able, however the state comprehensives do poorly there as the top 25% are in grammar schools. Education was traditionally the ladder of social advancement for the working class. Has this ceased to be so?
            My preference would be for genuinely Christian schools for Christian parents, equally supported as all state-funded schools should be. (As an aside I cannot help noticing how much Stonewall has been building a presence in state schools. I have seen its advertising and promotional materials in several state schools I have visited, but I don’t imagine they will be found in Muslim schools. )

          • Please explain why it is at the expense of others. Are you against homeschooling for the same reason?

            Furthermore, since there is no tax relief or voucher system in the UK, parents who pay to send their children to private school to get a better education are still subsidising State schools even as these schools do not have the financial burden of educating those children. So it is the parents who get a raw deal, not society or State schools, and people who voluntarily give themselves a raw deal – also known as self-sacrifice – obviously ought to be able to do so.

            I am not talking about private *boarding* schools, which I consider a horror, or about whether there should be State grammar schools. For the sake of clarity, I regard those as separate discussions.

            “We needed the grammar schools so that we could compete against the public schoolboys” as one PM said.

        • “Provided that your giving them an advantage”

          Isn’t the bigger issue about the need for “advantage”? Why is that “needed”? Is it because the playing field is far from neutral?

          Parents who can afford to send their children to a private school are, surely, already at an advantage. Advantage does not just come from “education” but from the setting it is s given in. Relationships with “people in power” in our society often pay extra dividends.

          I’m not arguing for or against. More that those with “advantages” don’t always see how great they are in comparison with (the overwhelming majority of? ) others.

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          • Unless everybody has nothing, some people are always going to have more money than others. There are many reasons for that, some good (entrepreneurship), some bad, but my point is that it is not sinful to choose to spend some of your money on your child’s education if you can afford it. I am making this assertion because Canon Jenkins’ article at top states clearly that it is sinful. This is not about use of money to hire a hit man, and Matthew 20:15a comes to mind.

          • PS Let’s divide the ethical issue into two to shed light on it. Suppose somebody offers a scholarship to a private school for pupils who do outstandingly well in exams at a State school. Is it wrong to offer such a scholarship, or wrong to accept it, or both, or neither?

          • Anton… Thanks. I can’t reply under yours.. The “reply” isn’t available…

            Is Matt 20:15 applicable? The context is the boss paying the part timers a says wage. His “unreasonable” generosity is the issue… The “haves” /”entitled are grumbling.

            “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”

            On your second ethical issue…. Why would this pupil want to go to a private school? He/she doesn’t “need” it, clearly.. In any case what one person might do (and might be right to do so in some circumstances ) it doesn’t address the wider issue that makes it an appealing choice…. or the inequality which is ever deeper in 21st century Britain.

          • Dear Ian (Hobbs): There seem to be two reasons for a private education here, namely a better education and the old boy network. Where the latter functions ahead of meritocracy, I deplore it. But that is a matter for the people who hire others, not the schools themselves. In any case it functions only in regard to a very small number of elite boarding schools, and I am talking about getting one’s children a better education, of the sort Margaret Thatcher meant when she said “We needed the grammar schools in order to compete with the public schools.” What I am looking for from others in this discussion, and have not yet seen, is a clear statement of why it is supposedly sinful to sacrifice part of your standard of living in order to send your children to a better school. Who is that a sin against, and why? Please remember that the State system still benefits from the taxes of parents who send their children to private schools yet does not have the financial burden of educating those children. I believe also that the presumption should always be of liberty and wold deplore the forcible closure of private schools; wouldn’t you?

  24. In relation to this discussion about schools, it seems to me that predominantly middle-class ideas of success or ‘what makes life better’ are already back on the agenda. Would many of the working-class people wish to have more middle-class jobs and options, or would they prefer to be respected for who they are and the kind of work that pleases them?

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  25. As with every circumstance I doubt that you can “understand” or appreciate poverty or being working class unless and until you’ve been there yourself.

    You can observe from outside but nothing can emulate the feelings that are generated by attitudes towards you, if that’s where you find yourself. It’s destructive nigh on soul destroying to be patronised or to be told (or implied) that you are worthless and fit for little more than working to someone’s else command. Heaven help you if you have the talents and feel the call to lead: someone will soon try to slap that out of you or put up so many barriers (unique to people “like you”), that you’ll give up. Of course, it’s all meant to test your resilience but how resilient do you have to be to get to that point?

    As for the humble brag of clergy about how deprived their church/parish is – well, it says rather more about them than it does about the people.

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  26. My parents are middle class and I went to a grammar school, leaving school at 16 to start an apprenticeship with BT (or Post Office Telecommunications as it was known then) – very much a working class career and with its crudeness, practical jokes and drinking a shock to my naive younger self.
    But I and my faith survived 16 years, before getting made redundant as a Logistics manager (having regained my middle-class heritage).
    Teenage years are always awkward, but I do recall feeling that there were few men, in the church, who I could identify with, who I felt could or would survive in my world. I remember calculating (from church time spent on teaching, prayer, and socialising) that the spiritual hierarchy for occupations was:
    1. Overseas missionaries
    2. Full-time Christian Work
    3. Caring professions (e.g. Medical and Police)
    4. Office jobs
    With BT engineer being just above unemployed (although having had a couple of years of unsecure work I may revise that – Jon Kuhrt it is nice to know that in some C of E circles this might have bounced me up the ladder!)
    There’s an old adage that too often the church’s outreach strategy seems to be:
    1. Behave – You need behave in a morally good way to come to church
    2. Belong – When you behave properly you can come along and belong
    3. Believe – By attending church and hearing good preaching you will eventually believe
    Whereas the Biblical model is either
    • Belong, Believe, Behave (The Disciples)
    Or
    • Believe, Belong, Behave (The Jailer in Acts)
    If that is the aim, the question remains how to change our culture to be more accepting of the “working class”?
    (And indeed, all the non-churched)

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    • That’s interesting personally…

      Changing “middle class” in this to”working class “describes my start… Including the employer (THQ TDD Circuit Laboratory)

      ” My parents are middle class and I went to a grammar school, leaving school at 16 to start an apprenticeship with BT (or Post Office Telecommunications as it was known then)”

      I was converted in fairly working class church so I never felt that my job was the bottom of any pile.

      Your hierarchy list still applies I think… but” teachers”need adding. When I started preaching it was sometimes assumed I’d been a teacher. Engineers, after all, are illiterate… Grr

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      • In relation to Tim and Ian, I grew up in an almost completely working-class church and became a Christian there. My Dad worked mending telephone boxes for the GPO (pre-BT) and he knew his Bible well. At school, no one even told me about university, getting a degree, and how A-level results were needed to get in. Before ordination when I was in a very middle-class conservative church, some thought that I talk too much (which I do… sometimes…) I am now a vicar in a working-class area and I preach for 20 – 30 mins each week with no script or notes and I memorise Bible passages beforehand. The sermons are not thin on the Bible. Many other preachers tell me that they could not do this, but when I started this style of preaching I had so much positive feedback from the congregation when I hadn’t even asked! In view of this, I wonder how much we are willing to reimagine things in order to reach the working-classes? The most striking point I read when thinking about sermon style was ‘why should anyone ever remember our sermons if we can’t?’

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        • “preach for 20 – 30 mins each week with no script or notes and I memorise Bible passages beforehand. The sermons are not thin on the Bible…… I wonder how much we are willing to reimagine things in order to reach the working-classes?”

          What’s the heart of this?

          Apart from memorising the bible passage this, generally, describes the way I preach. I’ve rarely been able to write a sermon out… I work through it in my head and on numerous sheets of paper… but I can’t keep pace with my thinking enough to write. Unless I can get a framework in my head I’m really uncomfortable. When it’s there I don’t need any more than headings or (eg) just 3 words.

          I’ve been an ordained minister in “all classes” of parish and found the style appreciated in both. People happily listen for longer than some contemporary comment would suggest. It’s certainly not a lecture… more immediate… flexible. It’s not, I think, more genuine than other styles but it more easily (for me) comes across that way.

          Working class… Is “immediacy” the better method?

          PS… I think I’m the oldest here. Apprenticeship started in1966..

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          • Thank you Ian. I was aware that there are preachers that do this, especially outside the CofE. However, I think the ‘well-read’ and ‘not-so-well-read’ script is common. In fact, I watched a college or preachers presentation where the entire talk assumed that we would be using a script! I also agree with you, that this is not necessarily about class but about immediacy for most people. In practice, though, I think the middle-classes are generally more willing to listen to written sermons delivered orally. Yes, both styles can be genuine, but I think the lack of script tends towards a simpler choice of words that arises naturally from an oral delivery.

  27. Having kicked off my Reader ministry at St. James, St. Crispin’s and St. Anne’s in Bermondsey way back in the early sixties, I can remember the thoroughly working class nature of those parishes. I was elected onto the old Church Assembly for Southwark and tried to put the case for the working class in that august body. But although everyone was very nice and very complimentary, I could tell that it was in one ear and out the other. Nothing much has changed.

    If I were to mark out the main things that militate against our engaging with the working classes it is our inability to tell it straight – they tell you exactly what they think of you – in the church you get plenty of smiles, but who knows what goes on behind your back. Telling it straight applies to communicating Jesus as well, plenty of pictures, good stories, no beating around the bush, and no dragging it out.

    And the other thing is humour. They love a laugh. How miserable most Evangelical clergy seem to be – they are so serious, so boringly po-faced! I am happy to say as a convinced Evangelical, that Catholics are generally more willing to have a laugh, which may go a long way to explaining why they have always fared better in working class parishes.

    Mike

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    • ‘If I were to mark out the main things that militate against our engaging with the working classes it is our inability to tell it straight’

      I agree. At times C of E culture has this code, and passive aggressive element, where no-one says what they think to someone’s face. Ghastly.

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