As a P.S. to the last blog, the above is the title of an article in the EA’s Idea magazine about their survey on poverty (more here). Interesting stuff and stats with encouraging percentages of evangelicals and their churches active with poverty-related projects. However, near the end is this telling quote from one of the survey’s respondents: “Most Christians seem to move into the nicest area they can afford to get away from anti-social behaviour and working class people. Then they come to church and talk about wanting to reach everyone.” What about our urban presence? How much of our ministry is “doing for” (episodic, from a distance, reaching down), and how much is “being with” (incarnational, from beside, reaching across)?
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.