How can we overcome class divisions in the church?

There is much talk at the moment about the Church of England and inclusion. Yet the largest social and ethnic group that are under-represented in the Church are white working class, and the failure to engage with working class culture has long been the bane of the C of E.

Natalie Williams and Paul Brown have written a fascinating and challenging book Invisible Divides: Class, culture and barriers to belonging in the Church which addresses the issues here, and I had the chance to ask Natalie about their book.

IP: Some of the statistics you cite are striking—not least that 60% of the UK population thinks of themselves as ‘working class’, and yet most churches are not culturally welcoming. Would it be an exaggeration to say that, if we could engage with working class culture more, our issues of church growth might be resolved?

NW: I think this is exactly the case. Our churches are missing a huge section of society. Paul mentions in the book that many churches tend to have strategies for reaching out to the people they want to come – we might have dedicated student activities, or events specifically for people with young children – but we don’t hear of many churches intentionally reaching out to those who would describe themselves as working class. Instead, much of what we hear is from working class people saying they tried church but didn’t fit it, or they’re sticking with it despite feeling at odds with the majority around them.

If more churches were deliberately reaching out to people who are working class, and really thinking through how church activities might appeal to them or alienate them, then I think we would see church growth on a significant scale. More than that, my understanding is that most revivals have started among people who are on lower incomes, so perhaps if we were trying to attract people from working class backgrounds to our churches, it would usher in revival!

IP: Paul offered a fascinating reflection being a building apprentice: watch, do it, make mistakes, learn, do it again. This looks very much like a biblical model of discipleship with Jesus! Are there other important connections between biblical ideas and working class culture that we are missing out on?

NW: For me, I grew up with a stronger sense of what it means to be a neighbour to someone than I first found in the church when I became a Christian. The idea that my neighbour’s home is open to me, that they will give me dinner if I need it, that they will help me out of any sticky situation in which I find myself – that idea of actually, literally loving your neighbour is a concept that I think is more real and evident on estates across England than in some of our majority middle class churches.

This isn’t just a class issue; it’s rooted in individualism. But I think the working classes in some parts of the country have held onto the sense of community for longer than the more affluent areas of our nation.

Sometimes it seems that we’re very focused on how things are done. But I would argue that if the desired outcome is achieved, we might be better off sometimes not scrutinising how we got there. Not always, of course, but I think sometimes our focus on the how means we don’t entrust greater responsibility to someone, because they didn’t do things the way we would do them.

IP: At several points you comment that the basic cultural assumptions expressed in how we ‘do church’ seem quite alien to people from a working-class culture. What do we need to do differently on Sundays to address that?

NW: Our Sunday gatherings have a whole load of unspoken rules that are unfamiliar to the uninitiated. One of the key things for me is to start by paying attention to how weird a lot of what we do is, if you’re not familiar with it. I remember really struggling, when I became a Christian, with 45-minute sermons unless the speaker was really, really engaging and told stories. I also know of someone who stopped coming to Sunday meetings because she couldn’t read the song words on the screen. Something like that shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue – you shouldn’t have to be able to read to participate in church meetings.

But it’s not just about the content of the meetings, it’s the social side too. So many of the questions we ask people when we meet them for the first few times are based on assumptions. We assume people work, for example, and go on holidays. Subtle changes in the language we use can make a huge difference to whether people feel included or excluded. So asking someone what a typical week looks like for them, rather than what they do for a living, is a much broader question, leaving space for several different ways of answering. Likewise, asking someone if they have any plans for the summer, rather than if they’re “going somewhere nice”, is more open-ended and gives someone the opportunity to talk about a variety of things they might be thinking of doing.

We all make assumptions all of the time—by putting words on a screen we assume people can read, by hosting events on mid-week evenings we assume people don’t mind coming out then, and so on—but the key thing is recognising our assumptions and looking for ways to set them aside and be more open to difference. I think the onus is on the majority to let themselves be made uncomfortable, so that newcomers, especially those who might feel they don’t fit in, feel more comfortable among us.

IP: The culture of mid-week groups and use of homes is another area where you highlight significant cultural differences. What is at the heart of these differences, and what does that mean for our mid-week meetings? Should we be planning to use public spaces more often? And is there another connection here with first-century culture we find in the New Testament?

NW: My experience of growing up in a working class neighbourhood was that there was less structure and formality to having people in your home. Even now, I have friends who are working class who would tell me off if I knock on their front door rather than just walking straight in. So it’s not so much meeting in homes that’s the issue, it’s more what happens when we’re in someone’s home, what we’re expected to bring, and how we put people at ease.

Singing in a circle in someone’s living room is probably odd no matter what class you are, yet once we’ve been in a church small group for a while, we can easily forget how unusual it is. But yes, I do think using public spaces is helpful. It’s easier for a lot of people to meet new people in a pub than in a home, for example.

IP: An area you don’t explore is the question of what might be called biblical and theological literacy. What does engaging with working class culture mean for the way we read and engage with Scripture? Does that have implications for our approach to leadership training, both for the ordained and for lay leaders?

NW: I often have this discussion with a friend of mine who has a theology degree and can read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. Sometimes when I talk to him, I have to stop him to tell him that I’m starting to feel like giving up on reading the Bible for myself because he’s making it sound so hard for me to really understand what it’s saying. That’s not necessarily a class thing. It’s not even about how smart someone is. It’s about whether or not you’re an academic. Jesus picked fishermen among his disciples and said that one of them, Peter, was the rock on whom he would build the church. So I really cannot believe that we all need to be academics in order to really understand and engage with the Bible. And some of what Jesus said is easy to understand and some of it is really hard to understand.

I think that’s true for everyone, no matter how intellectual you are. As one of my friends points out to me, Jesus used object lessons frequently, just like we do in kids’ Sunday schools. He didn’t put everything in high and lofty ways that the average person can’t understand. Neither did he explain all of the confusing things he said. So somewhere, in the mix of all this, I think the core teachings of Jesus (and the Bible) are very simple and understandable to all, and yet some of it is actually too lofty for all of us, because we’re human and fallible and God wants us to be humbled by the knowledge that we don’t know and understand everything. One of my favourite Scripture passages of the last year has been Jeremiah 9:23-24 – we can all boast in different things, but I just want to know and understand God, and that begins with fearing him, which anyone can do.

IP: You set out plenty of challenges. Are you hopeful that the Church can rise to these? Have we done so in the past—and what can we learn from that?

NW: Yes, absolutely, we wouldn’t have written Invisible Divides if we didn’t believe it might make a difference. I don’t have much personal experience of the Church of England, but I believe God is working across denominations at this time, reminding us that we’re called to be a diverse group of people where our divisions have been broken down, but our diversity brings him glory and reveals him to the world around us.
I think it’s really important that if a community is diverse, churches in that community are diverse too. Where I am, in Hastings, go back a decade to when the last census was taken and the population was about 97% white British. So a majority white-British church in that community, at that time, shouldn’t be criticised for its lack of ethnic diversity.

But our churches should be diverse in whichever ways the community around us is diverse. I really believe that God’s plan for the church – one of the things that should set us apart from other groups around us – is our unity in diversity. I’ve often heard it said in churches, “Where else would you find young and old, rich and poor, black and white…” and so on. For a while I really thought that set the church apart from other institutions. But then, one day about 7-8 years ago, I was in an office run by a political party, and I heard them say that exact same thing.

Different people mixing isn’t unique, but people from very different backgrounds who are in genuine, devoted relationships with each other, really meaningfully doing life together – that, I believe, should set Christians apart. Jesus said that people will know we’re his disciples by how we love one another. Unity when we all have similar experiences isn’t anything special. Unity is only powerful where there’s significant diversity.

I find it interesting that often when I hear people quote Revelation 7:9 they miss out “people” or “peoples”. The verse is often paraphrased to “a multitude from every nation, tribe and tongue”. But all different people will be there too, worshipping Jesus together. I believe that the church—local, as well as global—is supposed to offer the world a glimpse of what is to come, a foretaste of that day when people from all walks of life will be unified around the throne of the Lamb. It’s fascinating to me that Jesus has demolished every division, but our diversity seems to be preserved for all eternity.

Natalie Williams grew up in relative poverty in Hastings. She is now CEO of the Christian charity Jubilee+ and Community Engagement Director at King’s Church, Hastings & Bexhill.

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151 thoughts on “How can we overcome class divisions in the church?”

  1. an excellent article, thank you.
    The C of E seems to have got stuck in focussing on Sexuality and Race (perhaps because these are easier to identify) so we get plenty on that, but a deafening silence on Class, which, looking round the congregation I’m part of, is the elephant in the room.

  2. Fascinating stuff, and something we’ve always deliberately engaged with. I would say that it’s not just about how we ‘do’ church, but what sort of relationships we’ve built in our neighbourhoods. Relationship is key, and essentially trinitarian.

  3. C of E ‘Statistics for Mission 2021’ was published earlier this month. No analysis by class of course, but attendance was 27% lower than in 2019, that year itself a record low. Congregations continue to age – now 36.4% are 70-100 years of age (2019: 33.5%).

    As far as I know, the Wesleyan revival was primarily among the working class (a meaningful term in those days). By the power of God Wesley and others inspired poor people to repent and then to hear the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (as the ESV puts it, Phil 3:14), to train themselves for godliness. There was also a revival in the 1850s and 60s, though I am less clear about its social composition.

  4. E R Wickham’s study of Sheffield (1920s?) makes the same point about social class and church attendance.

    This is not at all a problem for Irish traveller gypsies who are often among the most enthusiastic and vibrant Christians, if not necessarily in poverty either.

  5. When we speak of working class today, it needs a great deal of unpacking.
    Working class used to refer (and still does) to the lowest social class.
    But now the lowest social class is to a significant degree characterised precisely by *not* working and drawing benefits.
    If the system allows no development of family responsibility
    -in sexual behaviour
    -in aspiration for children’s education
    -in terms of joining a church community
    then that is what we will get.

    This is nothing to do with poverty and everything to do with being outside family and non-selfish structures.

    • All of those problems are a consequence of lower levels of trust. The Christian response shouldn’t be contempt for those who grew up with weaker social bonds.

    • May I ask what makes you think that poor people don’t have a sense of family responsibility in sexual behaviour and in aspiration?
      All the research I have read – and I work in the area of poverty and benefits – says that we poor people do have good morals, work ethics, aspirations, family values. It’s also what I see in my neighbours, who are all living in the ‘working class’ income and job group.
      I’d even argue that we have better family values than the middle class, because – as Natalie says above – we are more community oriented and less individualistic. Some children might not grow up with both birth parents, but they could well have far more family around than the average middle-class child whose only local family is siblings and parents – not the aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and so on who are often just streets away from a working-class family. Our sense of family responsibility extends beyond responsibility to our own under-18 children.

      In terms of work: I know that culture talks about Monday Morning Blues, or how sad it is to finish a holiday and return to work. And maybe we all feel that: that if it were possible not to work, we’d rather not, unless we are in a job that is a vocation or sense of calling or contributing to society. But I am not sure that that extrapolates to an attitude that says it’s better to be on benefits than in paid work. There’s a difference between a specific ‘I’d like to be on holiday right now’ (which I dare say many middle-class people feel) and an underlying ‘I’d rather be on benefits than in work’. The poor recognise, possibly better than do the middle-class, the value of earning one’s own income and doing work; our undercurrent is a strong ‘it’s better to work than be on benefits’, and we hold fast to that even if we hate our specific job.

  6. Lots of interesting thoughts here – thank you. A couple of points from my perspective; firstly in my experience the church is particularly poor at reaching white working class men; working class women seem to be better represented.
    Secondly I have also found some horrendous snobbery from middle class Christians about those places and people they consider working class. In practice as noted above, working class communities often display many positive attributes sadly lacking in middle class communities.

    • I am a white working class man. If you think the church is unusual in its disdain for people like me you need to pay more attention.

      If the church has something different to say than wider society that might invite interest

        • I would say the risk is to over complicate the issue.

          I’m not interested in attending something designed for children. Children are important, but I happen not to be one myself.

          I am not interested in gimmicks – if I want football interest, I will watch some football.

          Tell me the truth. I’m not thin skinned, but don’t tell me I am toxic because I am a man

          That’s about it

  7. I spent 13 years as the (middle class) Vicar of a (largely estate) parish, with a very mixed congregation, and remember a conversation around 2010 with a (middle class) curate where we realised that most of the accents being heard from the front were like ours. We sought quite consciously to champion and enable locally-accented voices to be heard, with some limited success. I do think accents heard has an impact on whether people could imagine themselves being an active part of church life.

    • Yes, that is true on all issues of diversity. It is harder to have a diverse and/or representative church is you don’t have a diverse and/or representative leadership, visible at the front.

          • That is a non sequitur. You would need to show that a “Supreme Governor”, to whom you swear allegiance, is not in a position of “leadership, visible at the front”. To do so, you would need to show that words do not actually mean what they say!

          • I just don’t think that, when a person walks into a church, it makes them think of eg the King leading a service. They relate (or not) to the person at the front of the building who is speaking.

          • True enough, but they also see the C. of E. legitimizing the pinnacle of the class system by hobnobbing with “the firm” on the television.

          • True enough, but they also see the C. of E. legitimizing the pinnacle of the class system by hobnobbing with “the firm” on the television.

            Are you suggesting that the working class don’t see the monarchy as legitimate?

            Because if you are I have news for you.

          • No, of course I am not saying that the working class do no see the monarchy as legitimate.

            Then what did you mean by ‘but they also see the C. of E. legitimizing the pinnacle of the class system by hobnobbing with “the firm” on the television’?

          • About a third of the population of UK citizens do not want the monarchy to continue. The proportion is much higher among young people. Some of us are deeply offended that the monarchy is imposed on us and restricts our democratic rights (it has prevented me from voting, since I moved to Canada). The Church of England is part of the monarchy’s propaganda machine and this is a real turn-off for me, and I guess for others who identify with all classes or none. I could never be a member of the C of E, for that reason. What bothers me about England is the “them and us” thinking that continues to divide people from each other. If the church is to become a place where everyone can feel that they belong, it needs to value everyone equally and give everyone a voice, regardless of parentage. What might Paul say today? “In Christ there is no male and female, upper class and lower class, royal and commoner”. Yet it seems to me that the C of E perpetuates the divisions, and from the top of its structure. It gives the front seats (literally and figuratively) to a family of wealthy celebrities, at the expense of everyone else. I hope that helps, S, though it may not fully answer your question.

          • About a third of the population of UK citizens do not want the monarchy to continue.

            Wrong; it’s about a quarter.

            The proportion is much higher among young people.

            Yes, the youth are notoriously foolish.

            Some of us are deeply offended that the monarchy is imposed on us and restricts our democratic rights (it has prevented me from voting, since I moved to Canada).

            That simply can’t be true. The monarchy has nothing whatsoever to do with the franchise, unless you actually are the monarch or a royal duke. Are you the monarch or a royal duke?

            I hope that helps, S, though it may not fully answer your question.

            It doesn’t answer my question at all! In case it wasn’t clear, my question was: what has the Church of England’s association with the monarchy got to do with its problem appealing to the working class, given that support for the monarchy is at least as high among the working class as it is in the population at large, if not actually higher?

            Your own personal weird hang-ups about the monarchy may be interesting to some people but not to me.

          • S, I’m not saying that splitting from the monarchy will allow the C of E to appeal particular to any one class. Sorry if I gave that impression. Disestablishment would, however, be a step towards a prejudice-free church.

            Those who move to commonwealth countries, including the UK and Canada, have to “swear true allegiance to the king, his heirs and successors,” before they are allowed to vote.

          • Disestablishment would, however, be a step towards a prejudice-free church.

            It wouldn’t though. Disestablishment and prejudice are totally orthogonal; they have nothing to do with each other. There are good reasons to disestablish the Church of England, but it wouldn’t make one jot of difference to the ‘prejudice-free’-ness of it.

            Those who move to commonwealth countries, including the UK and Canada, have to “swear true allegiance to the king, his heirs and successors,” before they are allowed to vote.

            That’s got nothing to do with the monarchy. If you had moved to the United States, which is a republic, you would have to swear to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to’ ‘ the Constitution and laws of the United States of America’. If you’d moved to the Republic of Ireland you’d have to swear that you ‘solemnly declare [] fidelity to the Irish nation and [] loyalty to the State’.

            Every country requires an oath of allegiance before you can become a citizen; that’s nothing peculiar to monarchies.

  8. Andy. Did you consider judging and involving people on the basis of their character and competence ?

    It has been tried in a number of places over the years with surprisingly positive results

    • Well, character, certainly. You can’t judge someone’s competence for a thing (eg leading a service) they’ve never done, you just have to invest time in helping them do it and encouraging them. Otherwise, the danger is we’ll only ask people to do things where they already have transferable skills (“she’ll be able to lead the service, she does presentations at work”; “he’ll be good at leading the intercessions, he’s a teacher.”

  9. I heard about a Christian website which spent the run-up to Christmas debunking any suggestion that Jesus was born into poverty, and emphasizing how middle class He probably was. Maybe that wasn’t so helpful with attracting working class people?

    • Try Specsavers…. If you’re trying to characterise Ian Paul’s blog contribution…

      Otherwise.. To which website are you referring?

      Yours, actually, Ian H… Distinctly working class background but not necessarily the same as others…

    • Ha ha!

      If you did read that website carefully, you will have noticed three or four things:

      a. The family of Jesus was ‘poor’, because *everyone* was poor in the first century.

      b. The motif of ‘Jesus was born in poverty’ is mostly deployed by the comfortable middle class in order to encourage other wealthy middle class to be nice to ‘those poor people over there’.

      c. Joseph’s (and therefore Jesus’) occupation was that he was a builder. So he was very much like the Joe that ran the paving business which relaid my drive in the summer. Joe is not poor; his business turns over several million, and he owns at least two houses. But he is working class.

      d. Describing anyone in the first century as ‘middle class’ is completely anachronistic. Modern class categories are post-industrial.

      So I think the question of poverty, per se, isn’t really relevant.

      • I can see no evidence at all that Jesus was preoccupied with poverty, as you suggest.

        He was preoccupied with the Kingdom of God, of which he is King.

        Social class is a disadvantage. That is all

        The Church has lost its grip on reality because it treats disadvantage as the cardinal problem and then compounds the blunder by swallowing a set of myths about oppression generated by American Universities fifty or so years ago

        A truly extraordinary episode of mass social delusion, though to be fair very few working class people have swallowed the koolaid

      • In this article Natalie references poverty in at least three separate places, clearly regarding it as a proxy for ‘working class’. The picture of her is captioned “Natalie grew up in relative poverty…”

        Those who maintain Jesus experienced relative poverty do so in order to bridge the class divide in the church. It is a worthy aim, and not entirely inaccurate given that he had “nowhere to lay his head”.

      • Describing anyone in the first century as ‘middle class’ is completely anachronistic. Modern class categories are post-industrial.

        I’ve been reading a lot lately on the thesis that now those ‘modern’, ‘post-industrial’ class categories are in fact fast becoming out of date. In the classical ‘class system’, the ‘working class’ are those who work as they are directed; they lack ownership of capital or a stake in the economy, and also, crucially, they lack agency: they do as they are told.

        The ‘middle class’ on the other hand are the professionals and the managers: they either work for themselves, or they are in charge of workers. They have agency and, in the case of those who work for themselves, they have a stake in the economy in the form of their own businesses.

        Not consider how badly this maps onto modern jobs. The Joe you mention would, in the classical class system, be definitely middle class / bourgeoisie because he owns his own business (the classic member of the bourgeoisie is a sole trader, right?). But our culture in general would regard his as working class.

        Or on the other hand, consider a computer programmer. Hard to think of a more middle class person, right? But in the classical class system, computer programmers would be squarely working class, same as any other assembly line workers: they don’t have any agency, they don’t own any capital, they work as directed by their employers.

        So you can see the old categories of ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ no longer align with how we culturally divide up jobs. So what distinction does make sense now? Well, the best suggestion I’ve seen is that the big distinction now is between those whose work involves manipulating the physical world, and those whose work is in some sense ‘virtual’. So your Joe is a member of the ‘physical class’ because his work involves building real things, while a computer programmer is a member of the ‘virtual class’ because her work doesn’t directly involve building real things.

        Think about this and you can see how it maps onto the rough way we use the hangover categories ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’. Computer programmers are seen as ‘middle class’ while people who work in car manufacturing are seen as ‘working class’ even though in almost all ways their jobs are comparable: why? Because the car factory makes physical things while the software factory makes streams of bits.

        And the greatest growth has of course been in ‘virtual class’ jobs, because anything administrative — HR, finance, helpdesk, the whole service sector basically — is ‘virtual class’.

        So how does this relate to the Church? Well, it relates because the Church of England seems to be quite dominated by the ‘virtual class’, clergy especially. They’re comfortable in the world of ideas and essays; they’re not comfortable in the world of practical physical skills (obviously there are exceptions). And they can give off the vibe (again, there are exceptions) that those skills aren’t valued. That idea-work is seen as the important work, while physical work is just something you hire unimportant tradespeople to do.

        Which you know, for people who worship a carpenter, is a bit weird.

        But physical-class people aren’t stupid. And they can pick up when they are seen as being less-than, and patronised.

        So that would be my big first step the Church of England has to take: stop patronising those whose work involves the material stuff of the world. The builders, the electricians, the plumbers, the manufacturers.

        And definitely stop equating ‘working class’ with ‘in poverty’ as if working-class people (a) can’t hear you and (b) have no pride!

        • I think you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head. And, progressing the thought a bit further, the real life experience of the two different forms of occupation (‘class’ has always been an overtly judgemental characterisation) produce different outlooks on life – in fact different attachments to reality. Despite both forms of occupation playing an irreplaceable role in the economy (the totality of activity that sustains and enhances our lives) we still regularly apply a judgemental hierarchy of worth to the different forms of occupation. We do that because it’s a universal human characteristic consciously or unconsciously to place a relative value on everything we encounter.

          But of course the Kingdom of God is radically different. When we become Christians the idea of ‘class’ no longer applies within that kingdom. But we do find it hard to adjust to that revolutionary idea because we also remain part of and involved with the prejudices and judgements of the secular world. Should Christians’ new attitude to their Christian brothers and sisters be reflected in a new attitude to everyone they meet in the secular world? I think it should. And of course it’s far from satisfactory if that new attitude is not evidenced within our churches. If it takes conscious effort to extract ourselves from unhelpful attitudes in the Christian world, so be it. We have recently seen some striking examples in the evangelical world where a clear unwillingness to change attitudes led to disgraceful forms of abuse – a truly disastrous witness.

          In practice for all of us Christians, whichever ‘class’ we assume we fall into, I think it requires a new humility, a new warmth of approach to others, and a new openness. Together these attitudes should break down ‘class’ barriers and they should be a striking way by which we Christians can be recognised as a group because we all ‘love one another.’ It should be the case that Christian leaders with the longest experience of learning what life in the Kingdom of God is all about should naturally show the greatest indifference to anything resembling judgement on the basis of another Christian’s ‘class’; they should be setting a good example and thus creating an atmosphere which spreads right through the churches.

      • He might view himself as working class, but Im not sure others would if they were aware of his personal wealth, including property. To me ‘class’ is largely determined by income and ownership of land. I think it’s pretty laughable to view someone as working class when they have a high yearly income and own large amounts of land/property. They may come from a working class background but that in itself does not make them working class. His parents probably think that he has ‘bettered’ himself (as it seems all parents want of their kids) and he has left working class behind.

        • He might view himself as working class, but Im not sure others would if they were aware of his personal wealth, including property

          This is why the old class divisions don’t work any more. For example, a university-educated HR manager would certainly consider themselves superior in class to a business-owning builder who left school at 16, even if the builder has an income three times that of the HR manager and a much higher net worth, plus owning their home.

          • (And if the two should happen to meet at a Church of England church, and the HR manager were to discover that the builder was much wealthier, I fear that the resultant cognitive dissonance would cause the HR manager to patronise the builder something chronic.)

      • Re (d), Ian, there were distinct classes before the industrial revolution: major aristocracy, smaller landowners, field workers, and in towns literate merchants and members of the professions and guilds.

    • I heard about a Christian website which spent the run-up to Christmas debunking any suggestion that Jesus was born into poverty, and emphasizing how middle class He probably was. Maybe that wasn’t so helpful with attracting working class people?

      Maybe what isn’t helpful in attracting working class people is implying that being working class means being in poverty.

  10. Thank you…. There is a problem… I find it hard to tease because it’s not, I think, a single thing.

    Eg “working-class culture.” As someone from a clearly working class background, I’d say there isn’t a single homogenous culture. There are things I just don’t identify with… and not forgetting that it once was something to escape from… “better one’s self” etc.

    A church and its leadership need to be a part of the community they are set in. For some it’s home territory but for others (the imported leader or transfers from other churches) they will need to look, learn and adapt to that particular parish culture… not to a vague “working-class culture.”

    I think the hardest call can be a mixed community especially when the middle class (not always homogeneous either) form the leadership. My perception is that wealth blinds people to the lifestyle of others, the poorer not necessarily the “poor”. Eg what price a Harvest Supper ticket? It makes expensive assumptions about “getting involved”.

    I have never bought the “shorter sermons…. Object lessons needed” analysis. We/they are not stupid. A good sermon needs to be appropriate to those in front of the preacher. There is no single style which is a “must have”.

    • Thanks, that is really helpful.

      One of the sermons I remember most clearly, from when I was 20, was a 45-minute exposition of why the gold lamp stand in the tabernacle was beaten not moulded—preached by a working class church leader.

    • Working class white men respect common sense and intelligence. They have no time for self pity and narcissism

      It’s not that difficult

      • And what is interesting here is that is really what most people value too. I was very struck in reading the book that Natalie and Paul are just suggesting that we do things well in a way that all would respect!

      • I think that is such a generalisation. I get the impression it is often the working class white men who are killing themselves, though suicide affects all classes.


  11. I and my wife attended Anglican/Episcopalian churches after we were married (She was Catholic. I was Lutheran. We compromised). We attended a Christmas luncheon at a local Episcopal church. We shared a table with an upper class woman who informed my Latina wife from Central America of the benefits of “revolution theology”. We were horrified. I’m not sure how well mixing ultra-liberal upper class snobs with more conservative working class/middle class people works.

  12. A lot of work has been done by social historians and sociologists of religion on the working classes and church. Geoffrey Ahern and Grace Davie Inner City God for example and studies of the 19 and early 20c. It would seem e.g. that the C of E was making some headway in the late 19c / early 20c And I suspect my own faith owes much to the fact my parents had a connection with a working class anglo- catholic parish in the 1920’s..A complicating factor is surely that many ( esp older working class people ) will say they are Christian but not religious. More thought might be given to to that conundrum.

  13. And some older RC priest friends I know lament how middle class much Roman Catholicism has become in England: the massive decline of working class RC heartlands in the NW ( Lancs), NE and E London esp the Irish dimension. Until the late 1950s RCism in England was largely working class and aristocratic.

    • My mum, who was Irish, moved to England to work in the 50’s and I remember her saying the owners of boarding houses often put out signs saying ‘no Irish or blacks’. Thankfully she found a nice lady who owned a house who not only rented my mum a room, but a black man! She didnt care what the neighbours thought.

  14. A really interesting article, and interesting comment section too. I rather wished I’d known about the book before Christmas!

    But, I do think the article seems to have stumbled upon focusing on impoverished illiterates (I’m pretty sure that a family summer holiday has been pretty normative for the working-class for some time, it is the elderly (working and middle) that are more likely to find the question awkward) than most of the 60 percent.

    I think the main issue is not an invisible one, but a very visible one. Not an accidental awkwardness, but a deliberate maliciousness. This is the Archbishop’s uncompromising and apparently unexamined rooting for the Edges (joining most of the politicians and almost all of the media class). It is the Working-Class people and specifically their daughters who have to deal with the salivating military-aged men stalking who are used to seeing woman all covered-up, it is working-class communities that have to deal with the ramifications of their hotels not accepting British holidayers because their are all filled up with migrants, it is working-class people who have to deal with the person high in skunk. Now, I don’t think the issue is that they decide to take the side of the drug user or the side of the economic migrant. The problem is that they don’t seem to consider it a hard question full of difficult trade-offs, but super-easy: they seem to view the suffering of the working-class to be utterly unimportant, and the hearts of the working-class to be entirely made of stone – and thus the Archbishop (and other middle-class liberals) having a lick of compassion are able to declare the solution in no-time flat.

    Calling for compassion from people who are compassionate, have showed compassion, but are at the end of their resources is an act of utter contempt that provokes contempt in response. Sort of a “Why are you angry?” thing.

    The impression that the public leadership of the church gives is that Jesus died for “people like us” (the middle-class 30%) and for people “on the edges”*, but apparently not for the 60%. It is that active contempt, that gives weight to the cultural and accidental frictions. If you are at a place that you know loves you (as expressed through the preaching – since there is a certain fakeness of middle-class personal interaction), then you can just smile as they plan their ski retreat.

    But I think – at least from a Church of England point of view – it has to be acknowledged that the church has not simply been failing to intentionally engage with the working class at a local level. But, on the national level they have thrown the working-class under the bus to chase middle-class clout. (Again, not based on the conclusion they have reached, but on the way they have appeared to reach those decisions. Welby and Starmer agree – as far as I can tell – on policy. But Starmer doesn’t imply that the problem is working-class heartlessness.)

    * I actually think your Christmas articles are really good for this purpose

  15. Thank you for another helpful article.
    Natalie by her own admission does not really understand the CofE and I think one of the things missing in her analysis is any reference to the Parish system. She acknowledges that churches have tried to appeal to particular constituencies like children, young people, and men. But I have always been hesitant about those appeals in a parish setting. A parish church has to appeal to the whole of their constituency. One of the notable trends in the CofE in the last 25 years has been church plants and resource churches. By and large these have always come from evangelical and charismatic roots. But they have never engaged with the parish system because their style of networking doesn’t respect or even really acknowledge parish boundaries. They are by and large middle class as well, and so this development has further sidelined the working classes.

    I think it is worth exploring why the Roman Catholic Church has – at least in the past – appealed more to working class people. When I was on placement in Liverpool 35 years ago on an outer city estate the Roman Priest explained to me that once a church had been established, the next thing was a social club. Basically a working mens club established by the church. That was considered a key factor in their outreach work.

    • It was once believed that if you reached the men then the families would follow.

      I was responsible for mens ministry in a church for five years and saw a complete reversal of that historic view.

      Even small events for men were criticised as inappropriate despite the existence of a flourishing programme for women in the church.

      Messy church – essentially a children’s work – is the new organising paradigm.

      Who knows, perhaps it will work. Time will tell.

        • The objection was that it was wrong in principle to have an event which women could not attend.

          A feature of church life, like the rest of life, is people are never especially concerned with the issue of consistency.

          The presence of a flourishing womens work – an entirely good thing of itself – never bothered the critics of mens ministry !

      • Good points Ian. By Parish system I mean the fact that each Parish Church has a very distinct geographical boundary which it serves. When a new Priest arrives at a CofE Church they are given, by the bishop, a share in the cure of souls for that particular parish and that parish only. And the Priest will rightly share that responsibility with active members of the parish church through the Churchwardens and PCC.
        So if a particular Parish does not have working classes within it, then the issue your interview addresses doesn’t apply in that situation. A Parish church has to serve only that Parish. This means that any who are born in that parish have a right to be baptised at the Parish Church. And any couple wishing to be married in their parish church have a legal right to that office. Same applies to funerals.

        Resource Churches, Network Churches and extra parochial Church plants do not have that link to a geographical area. And they tend to be entirely middle class. And it is also often the case that evangelical churches will avoid baptising children who are not children of church members.

        It is true that RC churches don’t have the same parish system. But many many RC churches were built to serve the needs of RC members in a particular geographical area – especially the outer city estates that emerged post war. It was there that they established not just a Church and social club but also a school – where RC children were catechised in the Catholic faith, took their first communions etc. CofE schools have not served quite the same purpose, and I know I am not alone in questioning whether the CofE should continue to invest so very heavily in Church schools.

        • So if a particular Parish does not have working classes within it, then the issue your interview addresses doesn’t apply in that situation. A Parish church has to serve only that Parish

          Surely this has totally fallen apart due to the invention of the motor car, which means that people are no longer only able to go to their local parish church on a Sunday morning?

          Unless you’re proposing that people who go to a Church of England church which isn’t their local one are to be gently but firmly told that they aren’t welcome and that they should be attending their local parish church instead. Which I understand would be defensible from a position of Church of England ecclesiology, but would certainly be courageous.

          • Indeed. I get the impression that many church-goers drive past multiple other churches before arriving at the one they attend, sometimes many miles away from their home.

    • I’m not sure the ‘Parish System’ has ever really served the ‘working class’, at least since the increasing industrialisation and corresponding urbanisation of the population.

      My aunt was put off Christianity when she moved to Birmingham in the late 1940’s by the vicar of the local church (which, incidentally, used to be distinguished by having the worse sounding peal of bells in the country because they were made of steel) disparagingly referring to people who were not ‘PLU’ (people like us, i.e. upper middle class).

      I once remarked to a friend that people who didn’t go to church didn’t go to the CofE, in the sense that the CofE was what they thought of as ‘church’. He, quite rightly, pointed out that in many parts of the country, the “church that people didn’t go to” was not the CofE, but the ‘chapel’ – especially the Methodist chapel. (This fits with the old adage that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism that Marxism.)

      One might add to this the lamentable failure of the CofE to welcome Anglicans of the Windrush generation.

      • “I’m not sure the ‘Parish System’ has ever really served the ‘working class’, at least since the increasing industrialisation and corresponding urbanisation of the population.”

        I am sure that is right David, but I think that’s more to do with the CofE ‘culture’ which certainly was at some of the era you identify the Tory party at prayer. But the parish system provides a very effective structure for putting resources into evangelism in those areas that are predominantly working class. Instead it has chosen to invest in Resource Churches and Bishops Mission Orders etc which are predominantly middle class.

        It’s interesting to note that in the recently published Statistics for Mission there are very few dioceses that are growing. But one that is growing is the diocese of Southwark. That diocese has a liberal Catholic bishop and many churches in the liberal tradition. It also has considerable areas of working class and urban deprivation.

    • I did my Theo coll placement at St Cecelia’s Parsons Cross, a big working class parish ( and daughter church ) in Sheffield. It had been established by Kelham Father’s. When I was there in 1978 it was a pretty well attended church with three clergy living together in a clergy house. The vicar also established a parish club rather on the lines of a working man’s club. But that was then, I doubt if there is much like it now. My second curacy vicar had served his title in the east End, Hackney just after the war. That was a busy working class parish I think the C of E did have a much stronger working class presence than it has now. Perhaps thought might be given to what has brought the present situation about in the last 60 or so years. .

    • Andrew, you advocate a stronger parish system. But would you say to someone who came to a good CoE congregation, “Sorry, you can’t keep attending here, you live 100 yards outside the parish. Go to your own parish church, and bad luck if it’s spiritually dead and the vicar doesn’t care”?

      • Of course not Anton, and that misses the point I am making entirely. Of course people cross Parish boundaries – depending upon the area of country. But it’s quite usual in London suburbs for about 40% of a church to be worshipping outside of their own parish.
        What I am saying is that particular ministry to working classes – which is the predominant theme of this topic – needs to bear in mind the parish system. Whilst the cure of souls will always extend to those who are regular attenders and on the electoral role of a parish, the cure of souls does not extend to those who are not attenders and live 2 or 3 parishes away. The parish church needs to reflect the culture of the geographical parish in which it is set. That is the mission field.

  16. FWIW the majority of the congregation in our small Baptist Church are not middle class and come from working class backgrounds. I have found that they are most engaged when you can demonstrate how God is relevant on a very practical level in their lives. While l sometimes touch on deep theological themes in my preaching it is the personal testimony and hands on aspect they most relate to. During our service we invite people to bring forward their prayers and invite them to share any answers they have received. Most come forward to light candles and others share their experiences when they prayed. The answers to prayer is the most exciting part – at least for me. It shows God is ‘out there’
    real, and a little bit scary!

  17. I’ve withdrawn from participation here, but just wanted to call in to say: what important and helpful input, both in the original post and below the line in the discussions. Thanks.

  18. The point of observing that C of E church attendance was 27% lower than in 2019 is that the C of E, and probably also other churches, is not growing in any sector of the population, whether defined by age or by class. The Church is effectively dead, and if that is considered too strong, consider Rev 3:1 or 3:17. It is not growing among the ‘middle class’ any more than it is growing among the ‘lower class’. It is simply getting older. In the population as a whole, the 70+ age-group is 13.6% of the population, in the C of E it is 36.4% and rising – rising as people in the 18-69 age-group move into the 70+ age-group, at the same time as all age-groups get smaller.

    If the C of E is largely middle-class and if social class is an issue, then the spiritual culture of middle-class Christianity is not conducive to fulfilling the Church’s chief mission of making disciples (i.e. the Spirit has departed). Alternatively, or additionally, the spiritual culture of the whole institution is not conducive, regardless of class.

    In my view, the reality of living in a corrupt anti-Christian culture means that it is exceedingly difficult for the Church to get its message of salvation across. But we should recognise some responsibility ourselves. Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation. Through the gospel God will save souls even when the ground seems stony. Churches that understand and communicate the gospel and tap into its power will grow because that is why Christ came into the world, that is why he went to the cross, and he has not yet brought the present age to an end.

    In my Prophecy I list (and discuss) nine points that might be regarded as heretical:
    1. The Church no longer understands or confesses that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and thus does not know who God is.
    2. It does not understand or confess that Jesus is the son of God, and thus does not know who Jesus is.
    3. It does not understand that Satan is a real spiritual being.
    4. It does not understand that the NT and OT are complementary; in practice it therefore ignores the testimony of the OT and its revelation of God.
    5. Its understanding of Israel is essentially supersessionist.
    6. It no longer makes a stand for holiness in sexual relations.
    7. It no longer believes that Christians lie in the grave until they rise as one; instead, most believe they individually go to heaven the moment they die.
    8. If there is any understanding of salvation at all, the consensus is ‘once saved, always saved’.
    9. There is no culture of lifelong theological learning, equivalent to the expectation of lifelong learning in secular professions.

    These are generalisations, and the list could have been longer. Individualism is mentioned in the interview (cf. point 7), also biblical and theological literacy (point 9). Not having read the book, I do not wish to imply any judgement about its content and substance; its thrust may be simply “this is just one other aspect to think about”. However, I question whether socio-cultural class differences get to the heart of why the Church is on a sick-bed.

    • Formally speaking, the C of E doesn’t fail on any of these points, if you look at its liturgy and doctrine.

      Whether individuals and churches meet them is another matter.

  19. Is it really about class?
    Or being captured by the Gospel, by Jesus? The Gospel imperative? Is he central?
    There are some quotes by Rabbi Johnathan Sacks, from a senior Catholic and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney.
    While I’m no social/religious historian, it strikes me that this is an excellent article by Greg Sheridan, Catholic journalist for The Australian Newspaper. Ian’s down- under readers may already be aware of it.

    Thanks to David Robertson for embedding it in his blog.

  20. This boat sailed a very long time ago. The CoE has always been playing catch-up in England’s towns because the nonconformists put up the first chapels in the new industrial conurbations.

  21. I have been undertaking a pilgrimage/tour around the country for a number of years. It is not merely that there is a devastating lack of young or middle aged people in almost all churches, but that practically the whole organisation is ‘middle class’. Whilst I appreciate that the Church did invest heavily in ‘working class’ mission in the 19th century (especially after the devastating results of the 1851 census) and into the 1950s, I too often sense that, what with resources becoming increasingly attenuated, it has largely given up on youth mission and mission to ‘working people’ in a large majority of places. The very few successful churches with a good critical mass and age distribution are generally (not always, but generally) within affluent dormitory suburbs or in university towns, with student attendees being generally ‘middle class’.

    Church attendance became voluntary after the Toleration Act 1689 and, as Clive Field has noted in several important statistical studies of attendance from the third quarter of the 19th century, the Church has been getting less and less from less and less. Whilst I appreciate that the prestige of the Church has fallen considerably in recent years thanks to the New Atheism, the manner in which religion is taught in secondary schools (where Christianity is just one of a number of belief systems) or the revelations of abuse, I would suggest that a large part of the decline is that a gulf of comprehension has arisen between the churched and the unchurched, and that Church has simply been crowded out.

    I do not propose any solution to this problem, except that I have formed the view that the Church has accelerated the trajectory of decline since the 1980s by making some basic logistical errors. The decline accelerated from the mid-1960s, which has been much discussed by such students of secularisation as Hugh Macleod or Callum Brown, but some basic economic facts are often overlooked in the literature. It was in 1964 that resale price maintenance was abolished (it had been introduced in 1940 as part of wartime controls). This had the effect of devastating returns to small shopkeepers, to the great advantage of the large retail chains. One of the reasons why the Douglas-Home government was willing to offend part of its core vote (with problematic consequences in the October 1964 poll) was that it wanted a greater degree of price competition as part of the Heath/Maudling project of kickstarting the economy, which was evidently suffering a far lower growth trajectory than many European countries. Small retail units in town centres did not provide adequate economies of scale for the large retail chains. Therefore, during the 1970s there was increasing pressure exerted by the volume retailers upon local planning authorities to establish out of town shopping centres (this was led from 1976-77 by Rayner of Marks & Spencer), and these gradually became ubiquitous from the late 1970s, and still more so courtesy of Section 106 agreements under the Town & Country Planning Act 1990. The effect of this change was often to displace the weekly shop from town centres and make it a weekend rather than a weekday activity. From the mid-1980s firms like B&Q or Queensway protested Sunday trading laws and soon flagrantly violated them, happy to pay the small fines imposed by the courts in order to expand market share by opening on Sundays. By the early 1990s Sunday morning shopping had become normalised. The liberalisation of Sunday trading in 1994 was not merely a tribute to the way in which the Church had become marginalised within the Tory party by the volume retailers and property developers (this had, in fact, occurred decades earlier), but the fact that religious scruples played little part in the debate; indeed, the chief opposition came from unions, but they have always had a limited presence in the retail sector.

    The other important change occurred in 1963 when Schedule A of the income tax (the tax on the imputed rent derived from owner occupation since 1776/1802 and 1841) was abolished. In 1965 the new capital gains tax exempted the primary place of residence. This created a fiscal incentive for owner occupiers to speculate on the value of their homes at a time when inflation was rising and productivity was falling relative to the expected wage gains. Then, in 1971, the Bank of England issued its Competition & Credit Control policy which eliminated the prior quantitative controls on credit issuance. This led directly to the first ever house price bubble (1971-73), and although it was followed by the ‘corset’ on mortgage lending, restrictions were abandoned in 1980 following the termination of exchange controls (1979). Also, in 1980, retail banks – which had not hitherto engaged in housing finance (the effective monopoly of the building societies) intruded into the mortgage market. Unlike the building societies – which could only ever lend what they had in deposits – the retail banks could lend ex nihilo. The result was a massive credit and housing bubble (the building societies were permitted to demutualise from 1986) which crashed only in 1989-93 as a function of the government’s determination to shadow the DM at too high a rate. Since 1993 house prices have increased, usually in parabolic fashion.

    Therefore, it has often become imperative for both partners in a couple to work. The effect has been to render Saturday the day of rest, and Sunday the day for engaging in other activities: shopping, seeing friends and relations, ‘going out’ and engaging in sundry activities. Rather inevitably, church attendance gets crowded out. Insofar as Sunday trading rules persist, it is that the supermarkets remain closed before 10 AM and after 4 PM. Therefore, the only point on weekends when the Church has relatively little competition is during the ‘dead time’ between 4 PM (when the supermarkets close, or people are returning from seeing friends/relations, pub lunches, etc.) and 6 PM (when most families are getting ready for the week ahead).

    How many churches have genuine all-age worship between 4 PM and 6 PM? Yes, a few have ‘messy church’ (which usually has almost no worship content) and some have evening prayer, but these cater to limited demographics. If I have attended services at practically everywhere between Barnstaple and Broadstairs, or Barton-on-Humber and Brighton, I can count the number of all age services held in that on barely more than the fingers of one hand.

    It is therefore little surprise that the Church is in what I sometimes fear is terminal demographic run-off when its worship patterns are configured to suit ‘middle class’ people whose weekend timetables were formed well before the transformative developments of the 1980s and early 1990s (church, roast, nap). The failure to address, or even to realise, that this might be an issue, is remarkable, if unsurprising, because the Church can often be an outstandingly mulish organisation.

    Apologies for the length of this message.

    • That is all really interesting.

      Friends of ours has teenagers who started a teenage service at 5 pm, and it worked well.

      There is something deeply resistant to having services in the afternoon rather than the morning—I can feel it in myself as I write! But the point is well made!

      The RC church addressed this somewhat by introducing Mass on Saturday at 6 pm, following the Jewish pattern of counting the day as starting in the previous evening—hence Sabbath meals being on Friday evening.

      Worth thinking about!

      • A priest friend of mine in Lancashire copied the RX’s and started a 6 pm Saturday evening. He now has a regular congregation with a good demographic ( younger, families) of 30 to 40. When I became rector of a central London church in 1995 the small change of moving from 10am to 10 30 made a difference. Small incremental changes can make a suprising difference. In multi church country benefices having services in different churches at different times also leads to decline…rather than say having a late led simple service in each church sometime . There seems to considerable reluctance to think outside the box. I also fear many clergy think one or at most two services are enough.
        I grew up in a church where a single handed vicar did an 8 am communion ( 50 or so) a 10am children’s service ( 25 ish) an 11 am Sung Eucharist ( actually the least well attended) about 25-30 plus choir , baptisms most afternoons at 3 . Evensong at 6 30 ( 100+) and then ran a youth club! But that was the early 60s

        • I don’t think you would get much turnout for 8 am communion these days!

          That all sounds a lot—BUT if you lead services from a book, then it is much less demanding than having to plan something new from scratch every time. That is one reason I enjoy leading BCP; there is no preparation involved. If you use the same sermon in all services, and adapt it into your all-age talk, then there is also less prep.

          • True, but I think that has been self inflicted. There has always been a constituency ( small perhaps) for a quiet, short reflective service ( perhaps for shy, sometimes single people) or people going out for the day. I got 12-20 most 8 o’clock s. When my successor stopped it very few gravitated to a later service. I often wonder where they went ( not least as some were good givers!!) For me as a priest it was in many ways the best prayerful service, I could open up and spend 15 mins in quiet prayer , not possible before the 10am

    • I attended a church that met at 4pm.
      The people who were Christians prior to the church starting quite liked it, for reasons like you’ve put above.
      People who became Christians and joined the church from the estate on which it was based found it really wierd and confusing. For their sake, we switched back to a morning service. But there were people who may have attended church sometimes as children, so the morning service was culturally familiar. I don’t know how younger people, who have no family history of church, would feel or whether they’d have any cultural expectations of church.

  22. I read the title of the article, about ‘the church’ and then it very quickly went into ‘The Church of England’.

    Why not consider the church as a whole? There may be problems for the C. of E. with outreach to the so-called ‘working classes’ which are to do with perception, which are largely beyond the control of the C. of E. and where other organisations are in a better position to do the job.

    I’ve mentioned on this blog that my grandfather (mother’s side) came to faith in 1923 and Simon Ponsonby pointed out that this was as a result of the Lowestoft Revival (which I was able to verify). He was a (working class) fisherman. The Fishermen’s meeting halls and Salvation Army (which my grandfather attended) were in a better place to reach out to the working classes than the Church of Scotland; the C. of S. was for the middle class fish merchants, who were perceived as exploiting the fishermen in a nasty and un-Christian way.

    I don’t know how Scotland of the 1920’s reflects England of the 2020’s, but if there are any similarities then perhaps the C. of E. should be supporting other organisations that may have less baggage and may be better placed to reach out to the working classes.

    Also, while the church should be welcome to anybody who is serious about salvation and living for Christ (whether working class or not), perhaps it should also be recognised (as Howard Marshall saw) that ‘working class’ has serious disadvantages and we should try to help people pull themselves out of ‘working class’ into something better. I heard about Howard Marshall when he was an undergraduate student at Aberdeen University and active in the Evangelical Union. One of the other members of the EU had a guilty conscience about doing an English Literature degree, where he studied poetry by people like George Herbert in a nice library, while his father was out in force 10 gales catching herring to pay for this. The student was thinking of quitting and earning some money instead – and H.M. talked him out of it, pointing out that this was a very shrewd move and use of money on the part of his father and giving all the good reasons for continuing with his studies (apparently the student took the advice of H.M. and it led to a successful outcome).

    • ‘perhaps the C. of E. should be supporting other organisations that may have less baggage and may be better placed to reach out to the working classes’.

      Yes, I think that would be a very good idea indeed.

      And what a fabulous story about Howard Marshall!

    • I wonder if, rather than asking working class people to ‘better themselves’ by doing ‘better’ jobs, we should pay these people better for the jobs that they are doing. Without HM’s father, and people like him, we’d all be very hungry.
      Many of these people are doing jobs that are essential and foundational to society, and if no-one did them (because everyone had ‘bettered’ themselves), we’d be stuck as a society. We should value these jobs much more highly, and pay decent wages for them, allowing people who wish to work with their ‘hands’ or ‘hearts’ to have a decent living standard just as much as those who work with their ‘heads’.

        • Other countries value artisan and manual jobs much more highly than we appear to in the UK

          Do you mean monetarily or culturally, or both?

          Theory: it’s to do with the UK’s rampant credentialism; if something involves having to go to university, it’s valued, it it doesn’t, it isn’t. But whether that’s cause or effect I couldn’t begin to say.

      • If you increase the wages of the job, then you will have more people wanting to do them. This will result in a lot of disappointed people. Why have that? Is it not better to for jobs to pay the wage that will attract the number of people for the number of positions?

        But, let us say that government does intervene to get the fishermen paid more. What do we do when the maintainers of the refrigerated lorries retrain as fishermen?

        Nobody has enough knowledge to determine the worth of all men’ jobs. Let the market allocate resources.

  23. Might it also be worth thinking about the attitudes of most of the Church of England clergy towards those who voted to leave the European Union?

    If you had voted to leave the European Union, and then you went to a Church of England church, only to hear a sermon preached with the hammered-home theme that we should be glad we aren’t like those evil, horrid people like… well, like you… would you go back?

    Or would you think, ‘well, if they don’t want my kind there, then I won’t go where I’m not welcome’?

    • I’m not sure if any poll was taken of CoE parish priests re their views of Brexit, but the bishops were all but one Remainers.

      I would be perfectly happy if bishops were merely useless, but they are far, far worse than that. Liberal theology and all that. They are paid by believers and they minister doubt. They need to read James 3:1 and tremble. They deserve all the courtesy that Christ showed to the pharisees.

  24. Based on the US experience the highest percentage of non graduates as members amongst Christian churches is in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, so they are probably the most likely to attract white working class church goers. Anglicans, Episcopalian and Presbyterians have the highest numbers of graduates amongst their membership (higher than amongst atheists and agnostics
    too) with Roman Catholics in between

    • Church in the US has always been strongly linked to social class. Witness the number of Episcopalians in Congress. What is intriguing is that denominational mobility seems to accompany social mobility in a much stronger way than in the UK or continental Europe.

    • ‘Why not rent space in an out of town shopping complex and open a church in it?’

      Since the dystopian nightmare of ’15 minute cities’ is already being imported into the UK (notably Oxford and Canterbury), that idea may soon be a non starter! In fact there’s a great deal going on which should already have raised great concern in the Christian churches regarding future communication of the gospel, the exercise of free speech (including prayer), and public worship in general, not least involving an uncensored Bible.

      And that’s another good reason why we Christians need to dispense with the destructive nonsense of class divisions; we need to be fighting as one united group of people at a time when there are clear intentions to keep people separated, silent and afraid. What would Jesus say about such things?

    • Isn’t that similar what organisations like Myriad want? Or similar, a think the term is ‘flat above the Chinese takeaway’. I suppose there’s some practical reason to avoid the town shopping complex. I think the biggest church near us is in amongst the warehouses. I think that probably works better that renting a space in the shopping.

      Since do churches in the heart of busy town cities get much passing foot trade? I wouldn’t have thought so. I don’t see how a Church in a shopfront would find greater fruit. If people are going to go to a service, then that’s probably something that people are traveling to specific. Especially since services are only on at particular times. I can imagine a mass-on-demand getting trade from people getting angry during shopping, but that’s not the actual model.

      (Though, I heard certain churches in the USA follow a similar model. It is just there that shops rent out parts of the church.)

      I think there’s a certain ‘reverence’ that gets in the way of ‘come and see’. A reverence that is not entirely a bad thing, but a reverence that probably won’t last as church attendance falls which would be a good thing.

  25. The Church of England has been beset with issues of class for generations. In an article in The Times on 10 December 1970 entitled: Church and state: empty pews, empty debate, Mervyn Stockwood, then Bishop of Southwark, wrote disparagingly about the Report of the Chadwick Commission, the last time establishment has been considered. He said: “Perhaps the next commission on Church and state will produce more helpful recommendations if it bears in mind some of the deeply disturbing comments of its predecessor. There is talk of “the Church” and of “the rights of the laity” but what is “the Church” and who are “the laity”? According to the report: “The figure for Easter Communicants are a little over four per cent of the population.” As for the laity: “We do not know the precise social composition of the House of Laity, but it is a fair guess that it does not, even today, contain the five per cent working class members recommended by the Selbourne Commission of 1918.” If this is true, then the Church of England might be better employed finding better ways of making the Church a reality in the life of the state rather than in concerning itself with constitutional proprieties. Should this happen, the next commission might attract members and testifiers better qualified to represent the interests and outlooks in our national life. [ ] at the beginning of the report there is a list of the members of the commission. It makes interesting reading. [ ] gives the list of those who gave evidence. Neither list includes a carpenter, a fisherman or even the secretary of a trades union!

    • Thank you Anthony for these very helpful reminders. Faith in the City also gave us some stark pictures of class division. That report is nearly 40 years old now. I’m not convinced we took enough notice of its recommendations.

    • Thanks Anthony for that historical perspective.

      But I am not sure what you mean by this: ‘If this is true, then the Church of England might be better employed finding better ways of making the Church a reality in the life of the state rather than in concerning itself with constitutional proprieties. ‘

      We are called to make disciples in every context; are you suggesting we should give up on that?

      • That was meant to be part of the quote from Mervyn Stockwood. Sorry, lots of confusing apostrophes. What he was saying was that the Chadwick Commission was essentially a waste of time (it did some years later however lead to the creation of the CAC/CNC) and focus on the reasons why the CofE was, in his view, not a reality in the life of the state. Hence, the need for mission etc. In my view, 50 years on, the current CofE does need to get a grip on those internal issues which are now a serious impediment to mission, and which mean that we have at least three missing generations in (or rather not in) church, culminating in Gen Z. But you know my views on that!

        • I am not quite clear on what ‘internal issues’ you are referring to.

          In Nottingham, there are lots of young people in church—most in evangelical non-Anglian churches, and within the C of E also mostly in evangelical churches. Perhaps those are the ones who have already resolved the ‘internal issues’…?!

  26. Brilliant article in The Guardian by Rowan Williams addresses some of the issues of societal justice that we have touched on here and illustrates why Christians should not rest content with class divisions.

    “Much has been said about the decline of Christian practice and belief in the UK. But if nearly half the population of England and Wales still identify as Christian, they still, presumably, believe at some level that the Christian and Jewish model of a community in which each person is responsible for all, where cost is not automatically transferred from rich to poor, makes moral and practical sense”

    Happy New Year to all here!

    • How much contempt do you have to have for the ‘not-us’ to think that ‘ where cost is not automatically transferred from rich to poor,’ is a fair and reasonable description of what you believe compared to the other side?

      The problem is not that liberals in palaces (in many cases literal) have lapses in empathy, and not even that they have none. It is that they don’t seem to think that they need to have any. It is the confident view that ‘neighbour’ or ‘imago Dei’ are not concepts that apply to the British working class.

      (I think what S said above is also sensible.)

      • Kyle could you please explain what you mean in relation to the article I posted? I can’t, if I’m honest, understand what you are getting at at all.

      • Hi Kyle, I am genuinely baffled as to what you are trying to say.

        Andrew G points us to an article written by Rowan Williams. In this article the former archbishop states, if I have understood it correctly, that the costs of the current economic crisis disproportionately affect the poor and that things should change such that this is not the case. It is not clear to me how this shows that “[liberals] don’t seem to think that they need to have any [empathy].”

        • In this article the former archbishop states, if I have understood it correctly, that the costs of the current economic crisis disproportionately affect the poor

          You need to read more closely. The quotation from Williams is:

          ‘of a community in which each person is responsible for all, where cost is not automatically transferred from rich to poor’

          This is in explicit contrast to our current society, so Williams is saying that in our current society ‘cost is automatically transferred from rich to poor‘.

          Note: this is not the same as ‘the costs of the current economic crisis disproportionately affect the poor’, which is a truism no one could disagree with (the costs of everything always disproportionately affect the poor).

          Williams is not saying that the costs disproportionately affect the poor; he is claiming that costs are actively being transferred from rich to poor (note the use of the active voice). That is, he conjures the image of some people — presumably, his political opponents — who are sitting, deviously and deliberately devising ways that they can transfer costs from the rich to the poor.

          It is not clear to me how this shows that “[liberals] don’t seem to think that they need to have any [empathy].”

          It shows that ‘[liberals] don’t seem to think that they need to have any [empathy]’ because here we have Williams — assuming he would consider himself a ‘liberal’ — clearly not seeming to think that he needs to have any empathy with his political opponents, because he presents them not as people who wish to solve the problems of society but have different ideas to him as to how best to do that, but as unfeeling creatures of pure evil who sit around plotting ways to transfer cost from rich to poor.

          As Anton points out below, Williams supports policies which have contributed to our current difficulties and which if pursued further will make those difficulties worse — in ways which will disproportionately hurt the poor (because everything disproportionately affects the poor). Whereas those Williams opposes, the ones who are trying to reverse the policies which hurt everyone (but disproportionately the poor), the ones who are trying to make things better, he caricatures as evil plotters trying to hurt the poor.

          So that’s why Williams doesn’t seem to think he needs empathy: because if he did have one iota of empathy he would be able to empathise with his political opponents and see that they are in fact trying to make things better for everyone, including the poor.

          But because he not only lacks even that single shred of a quantum of empathy, but he doesn’t think he even needs any empathy, he doesn’t see that and instead he writes invective portraying his political opponents as simply unfeelingly evil.

          (By contrast, his political opponents don’t portray Williams as evil, because they, having a shred of empathy, don’t think that Williams is deliberately trying to hurt the poor — even though that is the inevitable result of his politics — but understand that he is genuinely well-meaning, just utterly misguided.)

          • You are misquoting him in changing “cost is automatically transferred” to “cost is actively transferred” and then stating that he is portraying his political opponents as sitting there doing this.

            So, you are saying that Williams – and by extention all those politically liberal – lack empathy for their political opponents on the right wing, rather than lacking empathy for the poor.

            I’m not exactly sure where he describing these opponents as ‘evil’. Is it in text like this?

            “The 2008 crisis underlined the fact that profit-driven risk-taking in financial sectors was more costly for society than for the well-cushioned risk-takers. The pandemic showed that those who really provided the safety nets of skill and care in the face of international disaster were among the least fairly rewarded workers in the community (I pass over the disgracefulness of those whose priority was to make profits from the marketing of defective or unsuitable medical equipment).”

            So, are you saying we should have empathy for the still-rich bankers who wrecked things in 2008, or the chums of ministers who made millions from the taxpayer with defective PPE?

            Perhaps the most telling sentence is this:

            “We are being lured into that most destructive of myths: that the essential human position is as an individual purchaser acquiring desirable goods – not a contributor to the building of a trustworthy network of relations, dependable enough to allow more people to become active and generous contributors.”

            This seems to me to have something of a modern version of what many of the Hebrew prophets said to their generations. They did not seem to have much empathy for the leaders of the nation at the time.

          • You are misquoting him in changing “cost is automatically transferred” to “cost is actively transferred” and then stating that he is portraying his political opponents as sitting there doing this.

            I’m not misquoting him. He describes a system where cost is automatically transferred from rich to poor, and makes the clear implication that this system has been deliberately set up and is being deliberately maintained.

            I’m not exactly sure where he describing these opponents as ‘evil’. Is it in text like this?

            “The 2008 crisis underlined the fact that profit-driven risk-taking in financial sectors […]”

            Partly, in that he’s implying that his political opponents were responsible for this. In fact as one of his political opponents, I think that more banks should have been allowed to go bust and that the moral hazard introduced into the system by the government bail-outs is storing up trouble for the future; and I’m far from the only one of Williams’s opponents to think that. But such nuances are obviously beyond him.

            Perhaps the most telling sentence is this:

            “We are being lured into that most destructive of myths: that the essential human position is as an individual purchaser acquiring desirable goods – not a contributor to the building of a trustworthy network of relations, dependable enough to allow more people to become active and generous contributors.”

            Which sentence proves both points:

            (a) it proves the point about lack if empathy as it portrays Williams’s political opponents as evilly ‘luring’ ‘us’ into a trap or snare; and

            (b) it proves the point about Williams’s naïve muddleheadedness because it sets up a false dichotomy between ‘an individual purchaser acquiring desirable goods’ and ‘a contributor to the building of a trustworthy network of relations’.

    • The cost of living crisis which Williams rightly bemoans is due to the soaring cost of energy, itself due to energy policies which Williams supports. He needs to be asked some hard questions in a public forum and do some joined-up thinking. Regardless of whether redistributing wealth is or is not morally right, you simply cannot solve this problem in that way.

      • Goodness. At least three of you arguing that the CofE really ought to be the Tory party at prayer. No wonder we are in the mess about class distinctions that we are in.

        • Whereas in reality it is the fake working class, but woke Labour party
          elitist ideology in identitarian robes of ” top down” edicts of office to the exclusion of social housing dwellers, weightless, voiceless laity. More like the one party, Green-envy backed , SNP perhaps? Social and/or economic Statism supported by State church with a moral/ ethical Biblical deficit, perhaps?
          Dear CoE, a problem can not be solved by the ideology, philosophy, thinking that created it. So how about it CoE, return to Biblical roots as set out in Galatians and Paul’s disputation with Peter who was not living in line with the Gospel.

        • Andrew: My post was not only apolitical, but explicitly so (“Regardless of whether redistributing wealth is or is not morally right…”). How on earth did you manage to misread it? I was making two points: the country’s barmy energy policies, and Rowan Williams’ muddleheadedness.

          • Anton how on earth did you and S and Kyle manage to misread the article I linked to? That is about how we are sleep walking in to the creation of an underclass and a Christian response yet somehow it is seen as evidence of the evil of something undefined called liberalism.
            Can you link to Rowan’s belief in a particular energy policy? I’m interested to read it.
            Happy New Year!

          • That is about how we are sleep walking in to the creation of an underclass and a Christian response yet somehow it is seen as evidence of the evil of something undefined called liberalism.

            As I wrote above, it’s Williams who thinks his political opponents are ‘evil’. Williams’s political opponents, of whom I am one, certainly don’t see him or his article as any kind of ‘essence of evil’ — more like the essence of misguided, naïve wishful thinking.

            Can you link to Rowan’s belief in a particular energy policy?


          • Again, it isn’t about the in & outs of policy – as I say above in terms of policy the Bishops are no different from Starmer, and he is a safe-bet for next Prime Minister – but about Christian character and the Christian command to love those we’d rather not love. Who are yours and William’s ‘Samaritan’?

            CS Lewis wrote something good about this in The World’s Last Night:
            “Frantic administration of panaceas to the world is certainly discouraged by the reflection that “this present” might be “the world’s last night”; sober work for the future, within the limits of ordinary morality and prudence, is not. For what comes is Judgment: happy are those whom it finds labouring in their vocations, whether they were merely going out to feed the pigs or laying good plans to deliver humanity a hundred years hence from some great evil. The curtain has indeed now fallen. Those pigs will never in fact be fed, the great campaign against White Slavery or Governmental Tyranny will never in fact proceed to victory. No matter; you were at your post when the Inspection came.”

            However good that he considers his economic system would be, it does not permit him to use his position as a former Archbishop to get a platform at the Guardian in order to spray invective at those without the power to respond and rejecting a “loving, attentive, generous valuing of each person”.

            Try putting yourself into the shoes of a poor Tory voter, and re-read the article. Read how he makes you seem more like an animal than a man: “Living with any fullness or imagination recedes over the horizon when choices are all about survival.”. (Consider that word “any” as much as Williams did). As he paints an impossible utopia (“If living were a thing that money could not buy, all might be free to live.”), he paints you as the problem person standing in his way. He says “We are being lured into that most destructive of myths”, but does he really mean “we”? I don’t think so. It is the second or third-person “we”, which is so common in a certain sort of writing. It is the inhuman Tory who is being lured [by whom?] not the wise Rowan. There are the “powerless” – which is a really gross and shaming insult that the Williamites use like second nature without even thinking about – in contrast the Bible says this to slaves(!): Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

            The Bible paints a picture of the poor as people with agency. It paints people who disagree with you as people you should love. Rowan William’s article rejects both of those essential points. But, I suppose the greater issue is that he probably isn’t consciously rejecting them. It just doesn’t seem to occur to him that the Biblical exhortations would apply to them, with them being made equally in the likeness of God as Rowan Williams is.

            (I do think his Economics are rubbish. The people who are having to ration their central heating would pre-Capitalism have no central heating. I’m not sure that I would swap living standards with Herod, let alone a pre-Capitalism member of the working class. We buy signaling, pleasure and security. And security is the most expensive of all. Five hundred years ago, the sons of kings could die without surprise. But the argument isn’t about economics. It is about love.)

          • As a continuation to my last post. One might defend Williams by says that he doesn’t think the poor are powerless, lacking any imagination and easily lured but have been made so by (let’s say) the economic system. But that would still make them powerless and lacking any imagination and I don’t think that very many (let’s say) food bank users would use those terms as self-descriptors.

          • There are the “powerless” – which is a really gross and shaming insult that the Williamites use like second nature without even thinking about –

            And to return to the subject of the article, it is hardly going to help the Church of England appeal to those who are at the bottom of society’s class system if when they do tune into what the famous voices of the Church of England is saying they hear themselves described as passive victims with no ability to better their own condition, but rather entirely dependant on others higher up in the social structure ‘remaking society’.

            ‘Don’t worry,’ is the message, ‘You poor unfortunate victims, you just wait there for us to save you, and in the meantime we’ll try to make your lives comfortable with food banks.’

            Could you come up with a more offensively patronising message? Maybe, but it would take a lot of work.

          • Andrew: Someone else has linked to Rowan Williams’ views on climate change despite the fact that last month saw the greatest November Northern Hemisphere snowcover of any year since measurements began 55 years ago, Arctic ice at the annual September minimum was least in 2012 and then rose again, and 2021 was the coldest Antarctic winter ever – despite the extra CO2 that industrialising China and India add to the West’s contribution.

          • I’d add that on 4th April 2022 Rowan Williams was a signatory to a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that a ban on LGB ‘conversion therapy’ be extended to Trans persons, stating that “To be trans is to enter a sacred journey of becoming whole: precious, honoured and loved, by yourself, by others and by God.” The letter was also signed by a serving bishop, Alan Wilson of Buckingham. With bishops like these…

      • Er, the current energy crisis is global, not just in the UK. It is caused by the war in Ukraine disrupting the markets in oil and gas. If our government had pursued more rigourously policies which reduced our use of such fossil fuels e.g. by making our housing stock better insulated as well as increased use of non-fossil energy sources, we would have been in a much better position to weather the current storm.

        • Er, the current energy crisis is global, not just in the UK. It is caused by the war in Ukraine disrupting the markets in oil and gas.


          If our government had pursued more rigourously policies which reduced our use of such fossil fuels e.g. by making our housing stock better insulated as well as increased use of non-fossil energy sources, we would have been in a much better position to weather the current storm.

          Yes and no. The main thing which the government should have done which would have eased the current situation is reduced the barriers to new nuclear power generation (still, at least we weren’t as boneheaded as Mrs Merkel who actually closed nuclear power plants!).

          The problem is that the policy which has been pursued (backed, I believe, by Williams) has been simply to ramp up generation by occasional technologies such as solar and wind generation, which only work some of the time. This is a fundamental problem with these technologies which cannot simply be fixed by Williams’s ‘solution’ of building more of them; if the wind isn’t blowing then having twice as many wind turbines just means you have 200 of the dratted things sitting idle rather than 100. It is this which has led to our increasing dependence on (various forms of) gas (pipeline, LNG) as gas-fired power stations, which can be quickly turned on and off, are needed to cover the base load when the occasional technologies (sun, wind) fail.

          So: yes, we would be in a better place if ‘our government had pursued more rigourously policies which reduced our use of such fossil fuels’. But the policies Williams supports of increasing dependence on occasional renewable do not have the effect of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels; in fact the more we invest in, say, wind power, without also investing in nuclear, the more we increase our dependence on fossil fuels to fill in when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

          This is what is meant by ‘muddleheadedness’: proposing policies which sound good (‘reduce dependence on fossil fuels by building wind farms!’) but which actually make the problem worse.

          • I do wonder which way BP David Jenkins politics would blow today, even as he verbally supported working class Durham coal miners.
            Not sure how much that support resulted in more CoE working class attendance 8n Co. Durham, where one Category D mining village was known as ” little Russia”. Miners may or may not have had strong communities, but if so they may have been strong in themselves, and against their own insular pride against those not like them.
            As has been emphasised above, working class is not one homogenous category and it is a two way street, or rather there is a gap, a one that can only be bridged by the Gospel. The movement is to be in the direction from church to society, for it will be rarely be in the opposite dirction. If the church does not know the Gospel it has nothing to build bridges with, with only framework building that speaks, * unsocial club*.
            The church can employ secular, flavour of the month social science terminology of building “social capital”, that David Cameron briefly promoted, emphasising * volunteering*. An interesting concept as far as it applies to and in churches, especially, bearing in mind this present topic, to lower classes who may less educated and clumsily inarticulate or too unguardedly plain speaking, and out of turn, not having been similarly socialised as those from middle classes, whether they are Christian or not.

        • Exactly so David. The comment piece by Rowan is actually apolitical and doesn’t talk about opponents or evil people or such like.
          Added to which it is absolutely clear that investing in renewable energy is a cross party policy.

  27. I’m a bit late to the party, but I valued these reflections, as a middle class person who’s been living and working and attending C of E church in a very working class area for almost the last decade. Particularly struck by Natalie’s words about finding biblical values that middle classes might struggle with existing at the core of working class communities – radical generosity being one that I encounter all the time, as well as a natural tendency towards solidarity, and a keen sense of justice. It’s also been a space of me of learning to reflect on power and the ways in which sins of injustice, inequality and deprivation persist in our society.

    For me, moving to a working class area has been an experience that resonates with Sam Wells’ words – ‘if you never open yourself to surprises and move into new cultures and new conversations, you never find out what you have long taken for granted.’ To me, some of the challenge in ‘reaching’ working classes areas comes because there is sometimes a middle class tendency to think we have the monopoly on the ‘good news’, and therefore to shrink from/discard the places where biblical values are found in working class areas in ways that challenge us. It’s really cheesy, but very early on in our time on our estate, we found ourselves saying ‘we thought we came to share the gospel, but perhaps we actually came to learn it’. And why would we be surprised, when God’s heart for and closeness to the marginalised is so clearly evident throughout scripture?

    Thanks for this piece.


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