The Church of England, the deprived estates, and the ‘popular revolution’
From the Revd Richard Wharton
Sir, — I read the article (Comment, 2 December) by the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North with great interest. I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion that the Church must listen to the voices of those who feel that they have been abandoned by the current socio-economic order. I would humbly draw attention, however, to two particular dangers in his argument: of over-romanticising working-class culture, and of acquiescing with the pernicious narrative of the populist Right.
I grew up in an East Durham mining village. The culture that I was brought up in had much to commend it, but it was also casually racist, vicious in its treatment of the misfit, and instinctively tribal. Much has improved in terms of social attitudes, as a result of the supposed “liberal consensus”, though the community has been decimated as a result of decades of extreme free-market economics.
The civic pride that my community stood on was certainly not that of the kind of “Land of hope and glory” patriotism that Bishop North alludes to, but of the achievements of the heroes of the Labour movement: Attlee, Bevan, Shinwell, et al. Throughout the ascendancy of extreme free-market economics over recent decades, these achievements have been swept away, and socialism has almost become a term of derision.
This is the dangerous situation into which the populist Right has stepped, offering easy answers and easy scapegoats. That those who have lost out are drawn to this ideology doesn’t make it right. The Church must, indeed, find Jesus in the eyes of the poor and dispossessed, but these are the people several rungs still further down the social ladder than the people with whom Bishop North is seeking to identify. These are the refugee and the person held in modern-day slavery; the Muslim woman who is afraid to step out into the street; and the disabled person thrown off benefits because he or she has no means of getting to a job interview — in other words, precisely the people whom the leaders of the “popular revolution” are successfully scapegoating for the mess that greed has created.
Ironically, in attempting to suggest an alternative vision, Bishop North resorts to the work of the north-London intellectual Maurice Glasman, who, having reflected at length on the motivations of “working people”, now feels qualified to articulate them. Actually, that’s probably an unfair jibe; but then I’m not the one attempting to spin a narrative about the “anti-intellectual elite” and claiming to speak for the masses.
Some of Lord Glasman’s “Blue Labour” notions, based on a reinterpretation of the pre-1945 Labour movement, are interesting. I fear, however, that in reality they are as fanciful as David Cameron’s Big Society; and Glasman’s belief that those on the Left need to incorporate the rhetoric of the extreme Right, just because it has popular appeal, is a dangerous one. If I remember rightly, it was the popular voice that sent Christ to the cross.
In my experience, most working people are happy to be governed by others as long as they make a decent job of it. They don’t want to run community enterprises any more than they want to be told to be more “aspirational” or “entrepreneurial” as a solution to their problems. They just want to do a decent day’s work and to be treated decently in return. This is where the prevailing political order has failed; and the anger felt by working people at the injustice of the system is starting to bite.
Nevertheless, while siding with working people in their protest vote at the injustices of the present economic reality, the Church must be extremely careful not to become complicit in the wickedness of those who are seeking to exploit this anger for their own political ends.
26 Bleriot Crescent
From the Revd John Watson
Sir, — Much as I wish to echo Bishop North’s passionate desire to reconnect with the poor and excluded of our society, I find that some of his suggestions creep alarmingly close to an uncritical and simplistic appraisal of the political and social challenges we face.
I am uncomfortable about the assumption that the recent votes in the UK (and in some way the United States) represent a tidal shift and a cry from the dispossessed and working class. The recent votes show how effective a powerful media narrative can be (particularly in the UK), which undoubtedly helped shape the public discourse and thereby fuelled suspicion and scapegoating of easily targeted migrants and fears.
There were also plenty of people who would not be labelled “poor” or “working-class” and who voted for Leave. This vote did not reveal a divided nation based on economics or class. To claim so would be to repeat the errors and tragedies that 1930s Europe made in the last mass swing to the Right, particularly in Germany, Italy, and Spain. We also learn well from the Church’s mistakes as it sought then to align itself with “the people”, “the powers”, or whatever we wish to label them.
The Church is called to be a prophetic voice in a nation, not to adopt nationalistic jingoism and call in patriotism. True witness to a nation will honour that nation’s beauties, riches, and gifts and celebrate them rightly; but it must also challenge false judgements and dangerous narratives that seek to place one nation, people, group, or culture over another.
The Church worldwide, through history and current experiences, offers a very clear witness to when faith and patriotism get confused or merge. I wouldn’t call that jumping on the “middle-class Establishment” bandwagon.
38 Calton Avenue
London SE21 7DG
From the Revd Adrian Alker
Sir, — I cannot be the only reader to find the article by the Bishop of Burnley on the need of the C of E to reconnect with the dispossessed working class at best a confusing ramble over a complexity of issues, and, at worst, one that ignores the very dark side of what “taking back control of our country” might mean.
Bishop North accuses the Church of abandoning many working-class estates, a claim I find totally untrue to my experience of working in three different urban dioceses. Even stranger is that the Bishop is well aware of the outstanding work done by many clergy and congregations on some of the toughest white working-class estates in the suburbs of cities such as Leeds and Sheffield, and, indeed, on his own Lancashire patch.
And yes, we may often not like what we hear from some of the people on these estates, and we should not be afraid to voice our own convictions. Leaders of church communities can and do stand in solidarity with the poor and powerless, trying with them to work for political and economic solutions, but also unafraid to denounce the type of racism and immigrant-bashing rhetoric offered up by parties such as the BNP and now UKIP. The Bible has a bias for the poor and for the alien in our midst.
Bishop North, keen to alter the balance of funding and resources in favour of more deprived parishes, does himself no favours in denouncing unfairly “middle-class clergy who squirm during Remembrance Sunday”. How does he know? He says the Church is failing to make a stand for the dignity of work, and “one rarely hears a sermon on work.” How many sermons does a bishop get to hear?
Finally and sadly, there is no reference to what other Christian denominations are doing in support of the poor and dispossessed of these islands. If the C of E was humble enough to work as part of the alliance of Churches in the Public Issues Team, the Bishop might discover more to encourage him.
Chair, Progressive Christianity Network
Sheffield S8 7UA
From Savitri Hensman
Sir, — The Rt Revd Philip North’s article rightly points out that the Church of England has often failed to engage respectfully with working-class people. Yet his analysis of the election of Donald Trump and the UK vote to leave the European Union is deeply flawed.
In reality in the US, low-income voters overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton, while the best-off were more likely to vote for Trump instead. In the UK, some of the poorest areas but with high levels of diversity, such as Liverpool, heavily backed Remain. As with the 2011 riots, it is acceptable to speak out when expressions of the understandable anger of disadvantaged people take harmful forms.
It is indeed time for the Church of England to listen more deeply to those of its members who experience poverty or are rooted in disadvantaged communities, and to ask tough questions of a global economic and political system that leaves so many insecure or dispossessed. But playing along with policies that will cause great harm, to many of their supporters, among others, would be a backward move.
31 Millington House
Stoke Newington Church Street
London N16 9JA
From the Revd Andy Myers
Sir, — I am one of the many clergy in the diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales who, while we struggle, have good cause to feel offended by the Bishop of Burnley’s caricature of our commitment to mission in areas of high deprivation. I fear that his characterisation of our churches as somehow totally out of touch with working-class people and their concerns is a prejudice not founded on fact. If he were to visit my parish, he would often hear me preaching about work — and the lack of it being traceable to an Establishment that favours the profit of the rich few over public service.
He will see churches in inner-city areas working to support asylum-seekers and refugees, hosting and running foodbanks, struggling to help our young people at times of callous austerity, when youth services are cut and higher education and health become more and more only within the reach of the middle classes, working in our primary schools, where a politicised OFSTED allows no factoring in of economic and social disadvantage as an explanation of underachievement (I speak as a governor of two local schools).
I am proud to be working-class, and earn my living by exchanging my labour for my stipend and tied house, and by advocating Jesus Christ and his understanding of God as non-retributive as the hope for all beings. God forbid that I should be seduced by the right-wing demagogues into not taking a firm stand against the nationalism, racism, and violence.
Finally, it’s my view that working-class people get all of this. They understand the message of Jesus, and, through generations of exploitation by the Establishment, abandon our churches because they (working-class people) have a firm grasp of the dissonance between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of the Establishment. I would see the numerical decline of Sunday congregations as a sign that many traditionally conservative churchgoers, who filled the pews at one time, and whose values, even in working-class areas, were middle-class, are leaving our churches for the right reasons when they hear the radical, non-violent gospel of Jesus preached and lived.
St Cross Vicarage
Middleton Park Avenue
Leeds LS10 4HT
Sir, — In supporting Bishop North’s suggestion that the Church of England is middle-class, I would like to go a stage further and say that most of its clergy are as well. An obvious point, but painful, none the less: when I sit in chapter meetings, with some 30 clergy, only three of us have regional accents. Coming from a north-eastern working-class background, I feel out of kilter with many of my colleagues, and misunderstood by most bishops.
If the Church of England is to have any meaningful presence and credence with the working-class, and particularly its poor, it can only reinvest in urban ministry if it also addresses the issue of selection, and how vocations are encouraged. Otherwise, another bishop will make the same analysis as Bishop North has in ten years’ time.
Name & Address Supplied
From the Revd Graeme Buttery SSC
Sir, — I read with interest the Bishop of Burnley’s article. I currently serve in exactly the sort of parish that Bishop North meant.
As in other similar parishes, the figures for deprivation would make you weep. Whether in health, education, income, crime, or opportunities in a hundred fields, my people are up against it. They feel all too often unloved, ignored, or taken for granted. It is not that they want special treatment, but merely the same support, chances, and opportunities that seem to fall naturally into the laps of others.
This may not always be correct, but self-perception is very powerful: this is how they feel, and why they voted to leave the EU.
Until now, the Church has stood as the one thing that has not deserted them, patronised them, or taken them for granted. I always tell them the Church will be the last to leave Dyke House; now I am not so sure. To maintain this sacrificial ministry of the whole people of God becomes harder by the week. Issues of sexuality, to be honest, are not what first springs to mind if your benefits have been capped, or your wife has been stoned by young thugs, or you are crippled by loneliness.
If the Church cannot rise once again to this challenge and bring God’s love to these people, then what is the Church for?
St Oswald’s Clergy House
Hartlepool TS24 8EY
From Canon Brian Stevenson
Sir, — By and large, I recognise the Bishop of Burnley’s description of the estrangement of the urban working-class from the Church of England. I live in mid-Kent, and there is also a gap between the Church and the rural working-class. They rarely attend church, apart from the Christingle and the occasional offices, though nowadays there is a much smaller agricultural workforce, and many former agricultural cottages have been bought by commuters.
There is one issue where I would disagree with the Bishop: his comment on Remembrance Sunday. I have not noticed any nervous squirming from the clergy during the services on that day. What I have noticed is the vast increase in the attendance. In our church in a small town, we had this year on 23 October 39 in total at the main morning service, but on Remembrance Sunday, 13 November, more than 300.
As the nave was packed, the 100 or so Scouts, Brownies, and Cubs sat on the floor in the chancel. Neither they nor the clergy squirmed.
Michaelmas Cottage, Stan Lane
West Peckham ME18 5JT
Incarnation central in approach to suffering
From the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth
Sir, — I was grateful for the Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s mainly positive review of my book The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (Books, 2 December). I was, however, surprised that he overlooked the centrality of Jesus in my approach, without whom I would not be able to believe there is a loving and wise power behind the universe. It is because I believe that in Christ God has taken humanity into himself, shared our sense of abandonment to the full, and united us to his life in a bond that cannot be broken even by death that I seek to go on in trust and hope and love. This is very different from “the philosophy of stoic humanism” which Dr Rayment-Pickard attributes to me.
House of Lords
London SW1A 0PW
More leaders with disabilities than is obvious
From Mrs Katherine Currie
Sir, — “The low number of leaders with disabilities in the Church was the outworking of past failings, the National Disability Adviser for the Archbishops’ Council, Roy McCloughry, said last month“ (News, 25 November).
I felt I must write to say that one of the failures must be that of people reluctant to disclose their disability or see it as such. For example, Lord Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has single-sided deafness. He may feel that he has no disability. As someone deaf from birth, I am saddened that he does not feel he can declare his disability.
His achievements, despite such a disability, only increase one’s admiration, and would be an encouragement to those who share his disability, whether from birth or acquired later, as well as an example of a leader in the Church with a disability.
14 Keston Road
London N17 6PN
Minorities at risk from religious-freedom lobby
From Mr Keith Porteous Wood
Sir, — The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported last week that their three-year study concluded that in order to “ensur[e] that the principle of non-discrimination is upheld, . . . a duty of reasonable accommodation [of religious belief] should not be introduced into law”, despite being lobbied forcefully to do so.
ResPublica and Care called for such accommodation last week. In the process, they disparaged UK equality law, the most comprehensive in the world, in the words of your headline “Human rights are a vehicle for inequality, say lobbyists” (News, 2 December).
This is not dissimilar to the growing attempts in the United States to repeal hard-won protections for vulnerable groups such as homosexuals, using the seductive mantra of protecting religious freedom.
People are free to be dismissive and discriminatory of homosexuals in their private life, but in commerce (as the EHRC also concluded) discrimination on any protected ground should remain outlawed.
KEITH PORTEOUS WOOD
National Secular Society
25 Red Lion Square
London WC1R 4RL
BAME in West Sussex
From Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin
Sir, — As a member of the laity, Alexander McCulloch (Letters, 2 December) says that all that he looks for in his parish priest and diocesan clergy is the ability to connect with everyday problems in the context of the gospel.
West Sussex has a significant black and minority-ethnic community. Where is it represented in leadership within the Church and the community? What is the message to the next generation of children about who is valued in their community? Is it only white priests who have the ability to connect with everyday problems in the context of the gospel?
14 Hide Place
London SW1P 4NJ
Cathedral ‘national trust’
From Mr Christopher Briscoe
Sir, — The notion of a National Trust for Cathedrals (Letters, 2 December) is a splendid idea, which I support to the hilt.
I am currently writing a “sacred and profane history” of Barchester Cathedral. As part of my research, I have visited and/or studied almost every ancient cathedral in England and some in Wales.
If such a trust is established, I will happily donate my royalties to it. I would just plead that the aim should be (over time) to permit free access to every cathedral, and that it should include the RC cathedrals, which, all too often, are also struggling, and equally worthy of prayer, conservation and support.
Corner Cottage, 2 Clyst Hayes Court
Budleigh Salterton EX9 6AR