Heeding the voices of the popular revolution

by
01 December 2016

The C of E must dismount its middle-class bandwagon and reconnect with the dispossessed working class, says Philip North

”WE NEED to hear the voices of the poor.” It is an oft-used sound-bite. The problems begin when we don’t like what the poor are saying.

For the most part, the Church of England has reacted to the election of Donald Trump (News, 11 November) and the UK’s vote to leave the EU (News, 1 July) (the “Trump-Brexit phenomenon”) by jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror. As if set to auto-pilot, the C of E has joined in with those who are decrying the collapse of the liberal consensus and bemoaning a new mood of division in our public life.

But, before we shout, we need to pay proper attention to the voices of those whose votes have caused this revolution, whether or not we like what we hear.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been an almighty cry of anger from a dispossessed and mar­­­­­­­­ginalised working class — the s­o-called “victims of globalisation”. Such people feel frozen out of the post-crash economy, their wages shrinking in real terms while the rich get ever richer. They are routinely accused of xenophobia, or worse, when they express concerns about changes imposed on their com­munities by those who live far away. In the UK, they feel abandoned by the institutions that were formed to represent them: austerity-stricken local government, the Labour Party, and the demutualised building soc­i­eties.

If the C of E was still adequately present in areas of deprivation, it would not have been surprised at the revolution in popular politics that this anger caused (Comment, 1 July). But it has become so discon­nected from many of these communities that it no longer hears what they are saying, let alone amplifies their voices to the nation. And, until the Church re-invests in urban ministry, places the best leaders in the most deprived parishes, and returns to the estates it has abandoned, these voices will continue to go un­­heard.

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THE Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media. It is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering. We then listen to the poor on condition that what they say backs up our own pre-conceived argu­ments. They have become for us an illustration, or a theological idea — anything other than people.

An example is the debate on human sexuality. This is indeed an important debate, but it has come to dominate the Church’s agenda to an extraordinary extent, pushing almost everything else to the bottom of the list. By prioritising this one issue to such an extent, we risk failing to hear other cries of pain.

When Pope Francis said that he wanted a “poor Church for the poor”, he was not just encouraging rich Christians to give a little more to the local foodbank, or to fund a few more top-down charitable pro­jects, many of which bolster pre-existing relationships of power and collude with innately unjust power struc­tures. Instead, he was calling the Church to allow its agenda to be set by the voices of the dispossessed and forgotten, not by the powerful. We may not always like what we hear. But if we want to answer with the Good News the questions people are asking, rather than those that we find it convenient to answer, it is some­thing that we must do.

 

LORD GLASMAN, a pioneer of the community-organising movement and an architect of the Living Wage, argues, from a strong evidence base, that to understand the self-identity and concerns of most working people in this country, we need to focus on three things: family, place, and work. The Established Church has historically had a great deal to say about these areas of life, but has now fallen strangely silent.

Across many communities, ex­­tended family life remains very strong. For all its frustrations, it is where most people find support, self-identity, and purpose. But too many Anglicans seem embarrassed to stand up for the sanctity of the family. This is often motivated by a laudable desire not to exclude minorities. But the danger is that the Church is failing to address or uphold an area of life that is a core preoccupation for the majority of people.

Place includes not just local com­munity but the nation. It is dangerous to read too many detailed conclusions from the EU referen­dum, but a constant refrain of the Leave campaign which re­­sonated with voters was the need to “take back control of our country”. It was less an anti-immigration vote than a patriotic vote from people who were fed up with having pride in their nation, its flag, and its armed forces misrepresented as intolerance or racism.

All too often, middle-class clergy squirm nervously during Remem­brance Sunday, and excise any hymns that hint of nationalism. But surely an Established Church has a part to play in finding a new and unifying national narrative that is patriotic, besides tolerant and in­­clusive. We have a lot to learn from our extraordinary armed-forces chap­­­­­­lains, whose work is too often forgotten by the wider Church.

The centrality of work is evid­enced by the frustration that many working-class communities feel to­­wards those perceived to be taking unfair advantage of the benefits system, and by the intense anger of those who, despite working hard, are still unable to feed their chil­dren. But, again, the Church is failing to make a stand for the dignity of work and for justice in the workplace. One rarely hears a sermon on work.

There is no doubting the genuine grief and dismay of those who, in recent months, have found that democratic systems have delivered results with which they profoundly disagree, and the mere fact that they have lost the vote does not mean
that they should change their minds. For example, listening hard to why someone voted for Brexit, and seeking to understand the complex range of factors behind his or her decision, does not mean that one auto­matically has to agree with Brexit.

But, at the same time, it is vital that we stop condemning, and instead listen to the voices of those who have used their democratic right to express a deep-seated
frust­ra­tion at structures and institu­tions that have abandoned them, and at a middle-class culture that misun­derstands or misrepresents their heart­felt concerns.

If, as Christians, we can re-engage, listen to the questions, and offer some answers, we will not just be playing our part in re-unifying a nation. We may find that people also start listening afresh to the gospel that we pro­claim.

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn.

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