The following has been adapted from a series of speaker’s notes I’ve put together and delivered in various forms. It is not meant to be any form of expert view or academic piece, merely a collection of thoughts from my own experience which some have apparently found helpful.
Ordsall, in the late 1960’s during slum clearance (Manchester Evening News)
I’m a parish priest in the Anglican Church and I’m going to dive straight in with a story showing why, I believe, class is such an issue for us in terms of Church of England culture.
A couple of years ago I was in a women’s regional church leadership meeting. One of the female clergy there relayed the true account of a phone call she had recently received from a young woman who’d called her to ask if she could discuss a strong call to ordination she was feeling. When she arrived, alongside the very working-class accent she’d displayed on the phone, the young woman had leopard-print leggings, Ugg boots, bleached blonde hair and eyelashes thick with mascara, but when she began to speak the member of clergy said she was amazed at how she articulated a passionate personal faith and a sincere and informed vocation to ministry.
‘So did you put her through to the diocese then?’ she was asked. ‘Oh no!’ she laughed, ‘Of course not. What would they have made of me sending someone like her through to them?’
God is obviously not just calling the middle-class to serve but our leadership, our Church, is unhealthily and I would say, sinfully, dominated by middle-class culture.
Class, I’ve found, is the elephant in the room – pretty much every single room – in the Church of England. Middle-class culture is the Anglican default position, so much so that it has been taken as ‘that’s just the way the church is’. When I began to question that class dominance several years ago I was assured that there were certain small groups that met where working-class clergy could express their discomfort with wider Church culture freely and that that was necessary apparently because ‘if they go along to ordinary meetings they just tie up business making gripes about not feeling there’s a place for them in the Church and so on’.
So that’s the way the Church has been and perhaps in many ways still is, but it isn’t the way the church should be. Dominance by one class stands in the way of the abundant flourishing of the whole body of Christ. Jurgen Moltmann writes
‘every kind of class domination, racial discrimination, repression of women, imperialism and dictatorship is a perversion of humankind’s designation as the image of God’.
We are each called by God and we should each have opportunity to flourish, to respond, to serve and to experience the abundant fullness of life that Christ promises in John 10. As Church we should be ‘answering that of God in everyone’ as I understand Quakers term it. And, returning to speak for the Church of England, currently we certainly don’t.
So why does it concern me so much?
It might help to understand a bit about what makes me tick. I come from a decidedly working-class background. I’ve been vegetarian for some years now after many childhood Saturday tea-times spent refusing to eat tripe, tongue, pigs’ trotters and the like. I was born in Ordsall in Salford, apparently statistically one of the poorest places in Europe to come from in the 1960’s. In fact, I had to smile just recently when, in the same week that Lewis Hamilton was castigated for implying Stevenage was a slum, an Ordsall-born man (Peter Done) who has gone on to become a billionaire, also called Ordsall a slum in the press. In contrast to the outrage expressed after the Stevenage story, there wasn’t a single murmur defending Ordsall against the same charge. Tough, tough area…
So I’ve come from that background and I know the resilience, intelligence and skills that are needed to navigate any form of successful life from beginnings such as those. And yet I found that, instead of the Church thinking ‘Gosh, look at these people from poorer communities with their skills of negotiating challenges, developing a spirit of entrepreneurialism, acquiring the ability to connect and communicate effectively across social barriers and the development of real tenacity and emotional resilience – those skills would be really useful in church leadership positions, particularly in those entering ministry in tougher areas’; instead of thinking any of that, the Church was failing to pick those folk up almost entirely, ignoring them as you heard earlier in fact, and favouring instead the externally placed middle-class leader with a heart for the poor.
So why is that so much of an issue?
I’m currently full-time Priest in Charge of an urban Anglican parish and I am also vice-chair of the National Estate Churches Network (NECN) which is an ecumenical organisation whose aim is to support Christian worshipping communities to thrive on social housing estates nationally. In national Church terms I am a member too of some strategic groups such as one which has recently looked at revising the selection criteria for licensed ministry in the Church of England to enable a wider range of candidates to evidence positively against that process, and I’m shortly to have involvement in the development of policy activity around housing, local communities and the Church.
Prior to ordination I spent many years in a variety of community-based and community facing roles…mostly in management, community development and engagement and for housing companies, local authorities and charities. During those years I developed a deep love for the communities I served partly because I recognised much of me and of my background in many of them.
I also began to see the significance not just of what we do in working-class communities but of who we are…I recognised for instance that I was able to connect with single mums on estates in a way that other staff perhaps couldn’t because I was honestly able to say that, as a working-class single mum myself, I could empathise with their background and their issues.
But I felt I could also understand and issue challenge in a way that other staff found difficult to do and that often people responded. And sometimes with amusing results. One evening for instance, whilst working as a housing officer in Stoke-on-Trent, we were preparing to hold a residents’ meeting and I’d gone outside the office building to pull down the metal grilles on the windows. As I was bending near the ground to reach the lock I became aware of a very large dog being brought so close to me that I could feel its breath on my face, held on a short, heavy chain by a sombre, black-clothed teenage lad. I slowly stood up and said ‘He’s a nice dog, what’s he called?’ ‘What the f**k has it got to do with you?’ came the response.
Now I could just have walked away but instead found myself saying ‘You know, I’ve come out here just doing my job and you’ve approached me; with courtesy and respect I’ve asked you about your dog and you’ve been rude and abusive to me in response’. I don’t think I deserve to be spoken to like that, so let’s try that again, should we?’ ‘I’m going to say He’s a nice dog, what’s he called and you’re going to answer me with the same level of courtesy and respect that I’ve shown you. Ok…?’
Well the poor lad looked like he wanted the ground to open up and like he wished more than anything that he’d picked on someone else, but undeterred I continued ’He’s a nice dog, what’s he called?’ After what seemed a very long time, while he shuffled about staring at the floor, the young lad muttered ’Err…I don’t know……he’s not my dog.’
That incident stayed with me. As we laughed together afterwards, he told me that he was walking the dog for a friend. It was clear that he had reacted poorly because my question had put him outside his comfort zone and instead of losing face, he’d regained a position of strength by swearing at me…and his reaction would have deterred many. It made me wonder how who I am contributed to that, and to so many other, exchanges; it made me wonder how many people in that situation would not have felt able to challenge him in a constructive way that resulted in greater understanding for us both.
In our work in working-class communities, in our mission to working-class communities, it’s not just what we do that’s important, it’s who we are as Church and Church leaders that matters too. How things look on estates, who the working-class can look to as their role models, how people respond and react in those communities can best be understood, challenged and connected to, I would strongly contend, by those from similar backgrounds and with similar life experience.
And it’s built on that foundation – on the foundation of a firmly working-class background and a professional life working in and alongside working-class communities – that I have come into the Church.
But initially I underestimated the scale of the challenge on this issue, I underestimated how very difficult many in the Church would find accepting, confronting and agreeing to any form of pragmatic action to broaden our culture. Why has it been so difficult? Because middle-class dominance is all pervading and has been, as I said earlier, just the way the church has done business for so long.
This challenge manifests in a number of ways. There’s the challenge of the obsession with the academic in the Church for instance. About two years ago I went to a Christian conference in the south of England. Several of the academic speakers there spoke about the working-class and as middle-class themselves, always using a ‘they’ pronoun ….they do this, ‘they like to drink tea’ for instance, or they don’t do that, ‘they don’t eat round a table’ and so on. The session I attended really felt like a study in cultural anthropology in fact.
I questioned then, as I have questioned elsewhere, when the working-class get to speak for themselves in the Church, because you wouldn’t expect to have a straight person speaking on LGBT issues, or a white person addressing BAME concerns, so why do we continue to have a silent working-class merely portrayed as case studies by middle-class church leaders and theologians? And in terms of the outworking of our faith, does that really matter?
Some while ago I went along to an event looking at the Church’s role in tackling poverty, most specifically how we might seek to move towards Pope Francis’ vision of a Church of the Poor (https://lynnecullens.com/2017/11/04/a-response-to-the-church-of-the-poor-conference/). And at that conference there was a presentation from an academic theologian who was based in the working-class parish where I grew up in Old Trafford as a child. Back then – over forty years ago – the clergy and church leadership there were white, male and middle-class, nice enough people but I recall the strong impression that my family and others had locally that they weren’t like us. And my family and those locally didn’t go to the Church, though I did, walking there a couple of times a week. And so I listened with interest to this man’s experience and was deeply saddened to hear that the leadership there were still largely white, male and middle-class and to hear too the same language of ‘they’ pronouns being used. In forty plus years nothing had changed in that parish. The Church’s role should surely be in working to transform, uplift and liberate the poor in our communities and yet there in that community, a community I knew well, the Church had sat for forty plus years and staunchly upheld the status quo; the Church had served to maintain rather than challenge the social and economic injustice around it. That’s just not what we are called to do.
So why do the middle-class – often with good hearts and the best of intentions – get it so wrong? And aren’t many of us class hybrids to some degree? Yes of course we are. In fact definitions of class are difficult and, in my case, even perhaps ‘flaky’ I’m told! I put the following together to try to capture how some working-class stereotypes, descriptors and assumptions that I have had said to me or heard said about others, play out and have played out in my life as someone who identifies as working-class…
and I’m a member of clergy in the Church of England.
I was born in Ordsall in Salford, my mum was unmarried, we had a tin bath and an outside toilet;
I’m not rough and ready
I’m not illiterate
I do not have difficulties articulating myself
I’m not unsophisticated in my thinking
I don’t manage money badly
I don’t make poor decisions.
I don’t listen to Radio Four
I have no interest whatsoever in The Archers
I have 10 O levels, 4 A levels, two first degrees and am professionally qualified – I have no interest in taking a PhD or in becoming more academic;
I don’t play a musical instrument but I love music
I don’t invite people to dinner
But often go to the pub with people;
I love humour and comedy,
I’m serious about addressing issues of poverty, inequality and disadvantage;
I don’t read for pleasure
I love to learn;
I’ve never had a dad
I was left to be a lone parent.
My children are academically bright
My children were eligible for free school meals
My children were excluded from parties and faced isolationism and bullying.
My children are now an Oxbridge lawyer, a London accountant-in-training and a law student.
I have been identified as having exceptional strategic vision
I am a former national award-winning charity CEO plus deputy CEO and Director
I have been ignored many times for positions of responsibility within local churches and have been told by middle-class church leaders that they felt there was little leadership ability in me.
I am now a member of several strategy groups within the national church.
I’m a member of clergy in the Church of England
and I’m working class.
Who we are, in all of our complexity, matters. Who we are, as Church leaders in working-class communities, matters. Who we discern as having leadership potential to lead into the future in working-class communities, matters. And continuing to prefer the deployment of middle-class clergy into our working-class communities rather than changing structures and pathways which nurture indigenous leadership – or attempting to square the circle by sending middle-class clergy on placement into working-class areas and thinking that smacks of anything approaching transformation – isn’t remotely enough because background and who we are here continues to matter.
A further explanation from the field of psychology feels interesting for me on this. There’s a book by a man called Leo Lionni entitled Fish is Fish, it’s actually a children’s picture book but it’s cited by psychologists as an illustration of the constructivist nature of our learning. So, the premise of the book is that there is a fish who lives in a pond alongside a tadpole; the tadpole eventually grows into a frog and begins to go up onto dry land. Some while later, the frog returns to the pond and tells the fish what he’s seen. The frog describes all kinds of things like birds, cows and people and as the frog explains these things to his friend we see, in a thought bubble over the fish’s head, what he imagines all of that to look like….and so for the bird we see him imagining a fish with wings and a tail, for the cow a fish with udders, and for people a fish standing up on its tail and walking upright.
And psychologists say that the book illustrates how our learning is laid down in layers – we are constructivists, meaning we cannot alter the bedrock of who we are, we can only layer new experiences and information over that. So, no matter the length of time they work somewhere or the depth of their compassion, the middle-class will always approach ministry in working-class areas from the perspective of their prior middle-class background. And they will rarely if ever, I would contend, engage as well as someone who is indigenous to that culture.
And I think many of us have seen something of this professionally – staff coming from more comfortable backgrounds visiting homes in arrears of rent or already in substantial debt, where something like a large state-of-the-art television has just been acquired, often on credit. Why would they do that rather than paying off their arrears of rent? It makes no rational sense to plunge themselves deeper into debt. And of course, that’s right. It makes no logical sense to do that when you process that decision by layering it, as they do, over their prior experience of coming from stable, respectable home backgrounds.
But if you came from a home that was the subject of neighbourhood mockery, if you were always the kid with the holes in their clothes, if you never had any cause to hold your head up and be proud of who you are, and you now see your children beginning to go through the same , then it starts to make the acquisition of a flashy telly which makes you, for once in your life, the envy of your peers for a short time, make far more sense.
It’s no coincidence that we engage best as a Church with the socio-economic groups from which our leadership and senior leadership come but, in doing that, we create an on-going spiral of middle-class leadership who fail to recognise working-class leadership potential or who have insufficient confidence in anything other than middle-class manifestations of leadership traits, and thus continue to spot only their peers for leadership positions.
It’s vital to our mission, future engagement and relevance to a much broader swathe of the population that we widen our perspective, that we actively seek to populate our leadership more broadly and with those from backgrounds and with frames of reference and skill sets that are currently lacking in the church.
There are millions of working-class people living on estates and from solid working-class areas who are intelligent, articulate, resilient and with strong skill sets and passionate faith. And millions who are being excluded currently from the church by a leadership who display – no matter how good natured – a crippling lack of relevance to their lives.
So what needs to happen?
The Church of England is thankfully opening to the reality of this issue of culture and indeed to the significant missional potential in seeking to address it, but there’s no room for complacency or for doing half a job.
We need nothing less than for this to be a gateway generation in the Church. For the gifted, committed, compassionate visionaries in our middle-class leadership to pledge to be the generation that enables working-class leaders to come forward and lead in our own communities, to speak for our own communities, to grow faith and Church in our own communities.
Gateways, not – with good hearts but misguided intentions – gatekeepers.
and I’m a member of clergy … in a growing urban working-class church, in the Church of England