A couple of weeks ago we had a baptism at church. it was of a 5 year old from a local family from the estate, quite a number of whom came along in a mixture of suits and night-out outfits. The adults looked uncomfortable and seemed a bit unsure of what to do (as I would in, say, a betting shop), but relaxed as the service got under way (we do a good welcome and have an informal and light way that helps make people feel at ease). The men appreciated several comments about England’s World Cup performance, and everyone had fun when the big water pistol came out so the blessings of baptism could be shared! After the baptism itself and a few songs, the children were encouraged to go out and join in the Sunday school. Then, as the minister began a short talk, those still in the room, almost as one, got up and walked out. I don’t think any offence was meant (or taken) – it was just a case of “our bit is over, let’s go to the pub for the party.” The children that had gone out to Sunday school were collected and off they all went.
We have been here before, but not this blatantly as we note the degree to which local culture is now alienated from what goes on inside that building where the church meets on a Sunday morning. It may be the last gasps of folk-religion (get the child ‘done’), but I wonder if the requests we still get have more to it than that, as the sense of wonder at the miracle of new life turns into gratitude and a desire to somehow involve God. We want to help people to express that, but we also need to re-think how we handle services that include a local thanksgiving or baptism. Locking the doors is probably not the answer!
Recently I heard a presentation about a local Enterprise Network. It was a forum for businesses in a deprived area of the city to come together to help and support each other, and at the same time jointly deliver community projects, creating jobs, skill-training and mentoring opportunities. Knowing the area in question I named several big companies who are based there and asked if they were part of this network. After a smile and a pause, the answer was along the lines of, er, not really. With a couple of exceptions the big outfits tend to not get involved and in some cases seem to have their own programme of community support. It was mostly small businesses who were involved in and benefitted from the network, and in turn brought benefit to the local community.
Some years ago I was involved in a network of local churches. The idea was to bring churches together to give mutual support and encouragement, enable good communication and sharing and create a basis to work together on particular projects or initiatives, so enabling growth of the Kingdom of God in the city. After all, as John says, it is when we love one another that people will KNOW who it is we follow. After a time I found that there was a tendency for the bigger churches to not get involved in joint programmes, or not to promote or attend meetings or events designed to encourage and support each other or mission and ministry across a wider area (or that, dare I say it, would take their members away from the home programme). On the whole it was the smaller churches that came and found them useful. I use “tendency” and “on the whole” as there were exceptions, but it seemed that those who were big enough to be self-sufficient, were just that and did their own thing.
Quite often when I attend Christian conferences and leaders’ meetings I will automatically do a quick scan for urban practitioners or ministers of urban churches who I know to see how urban issues are being represented. What I also note is the representation of ethnic minorities, women and younger delegates. What cannot easily be noticed is representation of those from the working classes and those who recognise that heritage as their cultural identity. Some do come from that background but had to go through such cultural transformation to engage in Christian ministry that their roots are not easily detectable.
Years ago I took a fellow Church Elder along to a Leaders Day organised by a group of ‘New Church’ leaders. There was not a dog collar in sight but as he scanned the room he asked me, ‘Is this their uniform?’ What he had noticed was the ‘smart casual’ lighter coloured clothes of a large group of middle-class ‘House Church’ leaders. This Elder was a working class man who held a significant role in his industry’s trade union. He had come to faith within the past decade and had grown in that faith and demonstrated spiritual maturity and wisdom. What troubled me as much as his evident discomfort was his apparent disappointment, possibly that there were no others like him. If the difference stopped at the clothes people wore this would not be such an issue, but there were more aspects to this than that.
Observations like these suggest that unless the Church in England recognises that the working classes are predominantly absent from the Church, that it is a significant problem and they need to address the issue of working class cultural exclusion, people of working class culture will never become more than an unidentifiably negligible element of the Church.
Derek Purnell (from the introduction to the book “Speaking the Unspeakable”. Email to find out more.)
A recent report in the Church Times showed that C of E clergy are at least twice as likely to apply for vacant posts in the South East as in the North. The report was picked up by the Independent under the title “Go spread the word of the Lord? Only down South, say choosy Church of England clergy” (with some interesting comments at the end!). I wonder how much more this is the case when inner-city or overspill estates tare taken into account? One startling comparison mentioned was between an estate parish in Hartlepool that took two and a half years to fill, and a rich area in Paddington which had over 120 applications.
Before any other denominations get ideas, a 2011 study of Methodist ministers showed 6% living in the bottom fifth of most deprived postcodes. (Michael Hirst, “Location, Location, Location,” Methodist Recorder, 10/5/2012, 8). Many denominations are simply largely absent in the inner-city.
Yes, in deciding where to live there are important considerations to be made and costs to be counted – family welfare probably coming top – but isn’t the theory here that as Christians the call of God on our lives is number one? And that is where as well as, in fact often before, what. If God has actually ‘placed’ his people in their locations, as some claim, then that doesn’t say much for his “bias for the poor”. Maybe it is time to come clean and admit that for most of us most of the time, in practice, we choose comfort and convenience over call, and our leaders are only partly to blame, as we are very willing to follow their example. We fail God in all sorts of ways, and he still loves us and is prepared to work with what we manage to offer him. That said, Suburban Drift, Redemption and Lift/Leave, the assumption of aspirational middle-class values, call it what you will, continues unchallenged in our churches.