AT A regional church-leadership meeting a few years ago, one of the clergy recounted a phone call that she had received. A young woman with a strong working-class accent had phoned her to ask whether she could discuss a strong call she was feeling to ordination.
When the woman arrived, she was wearing leopard-print leggings and UGG boots, and had bleached blonde hair and eyelashes thick with mascara. The priest expressed amazement at the way in which the woman 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 clearly not just calling the middle classes to serve. But the Church’s leadership, and the Church in general, is unhealthily — and, I would say, sinfully — dominated by middle-class culture.
Why does that concern me so much? I come from a decidedly working-class background. I was born in Ordsall, in Salford, statistically one of the poorest places in Europe in the 1960s. The founder of the bookmaking company Betfred, Peter Done, was born there, too. He left school at 15 and went on to become a billionaire; but such success stories are rare, and I’ve come into the Church knowing something of the resilience, intelligence, and skills that are needed to navigate any form of successful life from beginnings such as his.
And yet, once here, I found that, instead of recognising the value of people with these working-class qualities, and their potential usefulness in leadership, particularly in tougher areas, the Church was failing almost entirely to pick them up — favouring, at best, the middle-class leader with a “heart for the poor”.
IT MATTERS whom we place as leaders in working-class communities. Continuing to prefer the deployment of middle-class clergy rather than change the structures to nurture indigenous leadership — or even attempting to repair things by sending middle-class clergy on placement into working-class areas — is woefully short of the mark.
The people seen by the working class as role-models, to whom people in those communities can best respond, and who can understand, challenge, and connect with them, will come from a similar background and have similar life experience.
It was on the foundation of such a working-class background that I came into the Church of England with a desire to see its culture change. But I underestimated how difficult many in the Church would find it to accept, confront, and agree to any form of pragmatic action to broaden our culture.
Why has it been so challenging? Because middle-class culture is the Anglican default position, and has been “just the way the Church does business” for so long.
At what point do the working classes get to speak for themselves? Why do we continue to treat the working class merely as the subject of case studies by middle-class theologians?
The Church hierarchy finds it easiest to engage with people from the same socio-economic groups as themselves. In doing so, they create an ongoing spiral of middle-class leaders, leaving the working class out in the cold.
It is vital to the Church’s mission, future engagement, and relevance that it widen its perspective, actively seeking to populate leadership positions with people whose backgrounds, frames of reference, and skills are currently missing.
THE Church of England is, thankfully, becoming open to this issue of culture, which makes now the time to act.
First, we need to stop terming the working class “marginalised”, because that continues to excuse the skewed nature of our culture. The working class forms between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the UK population, depending whose statistics you use and how the data is defined. That is not marginal. Working-class people form the main customer base of many organisations and businesses.
Second, this should be seen as a whole Church issue. This is not about “them and us”. We need the working class in the Church to be affirmed in their identity, and for attempts at greater class neutrality across our systems, structures, and narratives to be nurtured.
On this, I applaud work on selection oversight currently being led by the Bishop of Berwick, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, and staff at the Ministry Division, where a policy-review model has emerged that embraces a broader range of voices. It is not yet a 360-degree view, but it is certainly a move in the right direction.
We also need the gifted, committed, compassionate visionaries in our middle-class leadership to pledge to affirm working-class vocations. And we need appointments to our episcopate made the subject of far greater scrutiny: white middle-class females’ replacing white middle-class males does little to enthuse those of us seeking greater diversity in senior ranks.
We need nothing less than for this to be a gateway generation in the Church; for our middle-class leadership to facilitate the nurturing of disciples by the working class in their own communities, to lead churches in their own communities — gateways, not gatekeepers, of apostles from the poor to the poor.
The Revd Lynne Cullens is Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew with St John the Baptist, Crewe, in the diocese of Chester.