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.
|Large congregations||Small congregations|
|Doing things well||Doing things spontaneously|
|Seriousness||Having a laugh|
|Lots of money||Lack of money|
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.
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.