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.