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Clocking on: the world of the worker priest

06 September 2019

Hugh Williamson speaks to the heirs of this movement about being part of an increasingly precarious labour force


THE altar at the morning service had an unusual look. One by one, members of the congregation had brought up items from their daily work: clothing, keys, an office ID, a shift plan, a stethoscope. A worn work-shoe lay on the floor near by.

At the end of the gathering — part of the International Meeting of European Worker Priests — the two dozen people in the congregation took their things and returned to work. Anne-Marieke, a former pastoral worker from Utrecht, in the Netherlands, resumed her cleaning job. Albert, a German priest, went back to checking rental cars returned to Düsseldorf airport. Phil, an ordained chemical-industry consultant, headed back to the Midlands in the UK. Pepe, a priest from Catalonia, resumed his work as caretaker of a sports centre in Barcelona.

Lionel, a French priest, had had to leave early: a shift as an ambulance-crew member, shuttling patients across Lille, was beckoning.


QUESTIONS about the relationship between faith and work pose many challenges for Christians. Some priests and lay people see their religious calling in manual labour. By the middle of the last century, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in France had chosen factory work, frustrated at the gulf between ordinary people and their tradition-bound Church. In the Second World War, dozens of French worker priests secretly joined compatriots forced to work in German arms-factories; some were later murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

In the UK, the Worker Church Group (WCG), a small group of Anglican worker priests and their wives — including my parents — signed a statement in 1959 calling on the Church to open its eyes to the impact of industry on society, and to actively stand with working people.

“The expression of religion in daily life in the world is not an extra, but is of the essence of Christianity,” they wrote. “It therefore seems right that some clergy should be fully in the strains and stresses of daily life to the extent of earning their living at secular work.”

The reaction of the Established Church ranged between caution, in the UK, to outright hostility, in France. The Vatican banned the French movement in 1954 as too radical (only to later lift the ban). Yet, the ideas that gave birth to the movement live on, and many Christians in Europe are finding new ways to express them through their work.

In Herzogenrath, in Germany, participants said that God’s concern for the world was more important than church structures. Being a worker priest meant sharing the experience of having little control over work conditions, feeling physical tiredness from work, and sharing the shock when your workplace was closed or “restructured”, with attendant unemployment and insecurity.

The huge economic changes in recent decades, including the decline of manufacturing, the fracturing of many full-time jobs into flexible contracts with worse pay and conditions, and the birth of the digital economy, are all shaping the landscape, and with it the understanding of the worker priests’ heirs.

The priests in the WCG were men doing industrial work. My father, Canon Tony Williamson (Obituary, 22 March), worked in a car factory, and his colleagues included two coal miners and several other factory labourers. Now, the movement includes women and men, priests, members of Christian orders, and lay people, mostly in the service sector, and many of whom are doing precarious jobs.

In the UK, the WCG ceased activities in the 1980s, and I’m not aware of a similar group of priests and laity in manual work today. The UK is, however, unusual for its thousands of self-supporting ministers (SSMs), working mainly in professional jobs. Some of these, who call themselves ministers in secular employment (MSEs), see their secular work as their primary Christian ministry.

The work of MSEs forms a different tradition from that of worker priests in Europe (and of the WCG), but there is longstanding engagement between the two. CHRISM, the UK Association of Christians in Secular Ministry, which represents MSEs, is a part of the network that met in Herzogenrath and several members were present.

The C of E’s interim director of ministry, Canon Mandy Ford, says that many SSMs — who now make up 23 per cent of the total clergy workforce — “see the focus of their ministry in their place of work”.

“This ministry is especially valued as the Church focuses on Monday-to-Sunday faith and encourages all its members to express their discipleship in the worlds of work, family, and society, as well as in worship and study.”

Pressures on these clergy are “particularly acute”, she reports, “as they seek to balance work, family, and ministry in busy lives”.


Fr Lionel Vandenbriele, ambulance-crew member, Lille, France

Fr Lionel Vandenbriele

“I WAS looking for a simple job with low social recognition,” Fr Vandenbriele, a Roman Catholic priest in Lille who works as an ambulance-crew member, says. “Priests have such a high social status, and I wanted a job distinctly different to that.”

Fr Vandenbriele works most days with the same crew member, driving patients from home to hospital or between hospitals, checking patients’ medical condition, and giving reassurance. He also works occasional nights, taking calls on an emergency medical-assistance hotline. Normal daytime shifts last from between seven to 12 hours. “It’s tiring work, and I know now what it’s like to not be in control of your working hours.”

Fr Vandenbriele worked for seven years as a parish priest and curate with the Young Christian Workers organisation, but felt drawn to being a worker priest, after hearing about the French worker-priest movement and having had some factory experience. “People came to me as a priest often at three key times: baptism, marriage, and funerals. These were important moments, but I felt the need to really share the daily lives of people I live among. It’s, of course, about trying to live like Jesus of Nazareth.”

There is always pressure, not least as his employer is a private contractor. “Recently, I was talking with an older patient about his heart operation and his daughter’s cancer. They were worried. But my phone rang, and I had to leave for the next job. . .

“I wish the Church would step out of its usual preoccupations with structures and ask the question: ‘How can we come closer to people in their ordinary lives?’”


Anne-Marieke Koot, cleaner, Utrecht, Netherlands

Anne-Marieke Koot

ANNE-MARIEKE KOOT, who is 55, has been a cleaner and home help for the past 17 years, and the job does not get any easier. “Cleaning two to three houses a day is hard work. I realise I’m getting old. I worry I won’t be able to do this until retirement age.”

Ms Koot studied theology, and was a Roman Catholic pastoral worker for 12 years before she became a cleaner. She cycles around Utrecht between clients, and enjoys the social contact that her job brings. “I get meaning through relationships. I’m there for people in my local community, and they are there for me.” One client is a 95-year-old man whose wife and children have died. “We are like family,” she says.

To earn the €1000 a month that she needs to live on, she has to work six to seven hours a day. The work has become more precarious: compared with when she started, she earns less, subsidies for her travel and mobile-phone costs have been cut, and she works alone, having less contact with colleagues.

She values the contacts that she does have, especially with other women who are cleaners. “I call them ‘golden women’. They have little formal education, but I have learnt so much from them. It makes me angry that cleaners and their work is so undervalued in our society.”

Ms Koot believes that priests are put on a pedestal and people “present their best side” to the clergy. “I want them to be as they are with me.” She takes occasional church services, and her clients sometimes attend. “One said: ‘Our cleaner is also a preacher!’ . . .

“More generally, I’m missing the space in church to talk about faith in daily life.”


Marianne Hayward, NHS consultant psychiatrist, London

Marianne Hayward

MARIANNE HAYWARD, 46, sees herself as a minister in secular employment, and recognises that her job as an NHS consultant psychiatrist contrasts with those of others at the conference. “I’m in a different situation to many of you who have little power, recognition, or money,” she acknowledges to the group.

What she has in common is seeing “the workplace as the context of my ministry”. After ten years as a consultant, Ms Hayward is training for ordained ministry at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. She looks forward to returning to her NHS work in London: direct work with patients, teaching, supervising other staff, leading a team, and “lots of paperwork”.

“It’s important to see patients as people; to make decisions with them, not for them. That can seem difficult with workload pressures and targets to meet. I see myself as a point of stability in my team, where staff turnover is high. I try to give colleagues courage.

“God’s concern is for the world, not just for the Church. Having priests who are rooted in the secular world is an important expression of this theological principle.

“I’ve talked with many MSEs, and there are lots of stories of how being a priest changes how people relate to you. MSEs are often asked to take on sensitive, difficult roles, as they can be trusted to act with integrity.

“I’d like to see the Church more outwardly focused, not focused on just keeping things going. This is theologically wrong. The Church is there to serve the world, not to look after itself.”


Maria Jans-Wenstrup, temping-agency worker, Oberhausen, north-west Germany

Maria Jans-Wenstrup

MARIA JANS-WENSTRUP, 55, has an unusual biography. She became a nun at the age of 20, studied theology and Latin, and taught in a Roman Catholic school. Then, after 25 years, she left her religious order to do poorly paid manual work for a temping agency. For the past ten years, she has been checking the contents of supermarket shelves for an inventory service.

“There’s pressure to work fast — the faster we complete the job, the more money the company makes. Its tiring, bending down and reaching up along the shelves to count things with a scanner.”

As a nun, she often felt that she was on the “wrong side”, that she was not really in touch with poor or disadvantaged people. A year spent working as a hotel cleaner in Berlin gave her the chance to build relationships with colleagues through the solidarity of sharing hard work.

She recognised that such precarious work was her calling, which led her to the supermarket job. “Every morning at 7 a.m., my colleagues and I meet at Essen railway station, get into the inventory company’s van, and are driven to the supermarkets that need checking. Each inventory takes around five hours. Sometimes, we do two a day. We never know when we will be home. . .

“God is everywhere, and especially where people are treated badly, where life is difficult. Being present there makes a difference, even if you can’t say what it is. It’s about valuing people who are invisible.”

Ms Jans-Westrup has now left the inventory job and is looking for similar work but with more regular hours. She needs time to look after her wife — a former colleague in a previous factory job — who requires medical care.

She helps in her church, but can feel alienated from parish life. “My colleagues often have basic worries, such as having no money at the end of the month. Parishioners cannot really relate to that.”


Urs Haener, newspaper printer, Lucerne, Switzerland

Urs HaenerURS HAENER, 63, worked as a printer for 33 years before his newspaper printing company shut down last year. As chairman of the factory works council, an employee representation body, he negotiated with management on acceptable redundancy terms for 150 staff at the closure. “I saw my role in particular as bringing to the table the views of those without a voice.”

Mr Haener studied theology, and intended to become a Roman Catholic parish priest, but changed his mind after meeting worker priests doing factory labour in Germany. “I realised I didn’t want to earn money with my theology but to use it in the normal working world.”

For the first 13 years, in the packaging department, Mr Haener clocked on at 7.30 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m. “This was physically really hard work.” Later, he also took on more administrative work. He worked part-time, and remains a community activist in Lucerne, where he lives.

In the 1970s, he was inspired by liberation theology to “see the world through the eyes of working people”. In his early years at the printing company, he was guarded when he talked about his background, worried that being known as a theologian would create a distance between him and his colleagues. Later, he engaged actively in discussions on religion and society.

The negotiations as chairman of the works council were hard, he says. “I had to remind myself that the criteria of success was not getting on with the bosses, but ensuring that marginalised workers get heard. . . I wish that the Church would have a view on what changes in the world of work mean, such as precarious work and working hours. At least trying to be better informed would be a start”.

Hugh Williamson is a human-rights activist and writer. He is writing a book about his father and worker priests today.



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