Worker priests: Sharing toils, hopes and fears

by
06 September 2019

John Strong writes about worker priests, 60 years ago

SLIM HEWITT/HULTON GETTY

The Revd John Strong (left), at work underground in Tilman-stone Colliery, Kent, in 1954, as photographed in Picture Post

The Revd John Strong (left), at work underground in Tilman-stone Colliery, Kent, in 1954, as photographed in Picture Post

THE handful of worker-priests in this country claim that theirs is a religious vocation in the true sense. Whatever the future brings forth for it, they feel bound to obey the spirit that is in them. So do their wives and other lay associates, for all are one in this, and all alike have a voice in their conferences.

To speak of a “Worker-Priest Movement” is therefore quite inadequate, how ever convenient or inevitable the term might be. Rather is it conceived as a cross-section of the Church united in a common cause. Between its clergy and laity there is no sense at all of any difference in status — only in function. This last is a thing which many congregations have yet to learn, and, if it seems odd in towns, how much more so in villages, where the feudal remnants are long dying and are kept in artificial life by interested parties.

THE worker-priests pursue their ministry in different ways and under diverse conditions, though only one or two earn as much as a normal incumbent. They all feel that the Church is largely estranged from the lives of most manual workers in factory, field and mine. While acknowledging the value of missions to industry from more conventional platforms, they recognise for themselves a call to active involvement in the common life of these people. They desire to be at one with them, in the actual conditions of life and work, as well as in heart and mind.

They are of several varieties of Churchmanship, but all are markedly sacramental in outlook and in varying degrees of practice. One says, “You cannot expect workers to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness if you do not demonstrate it sacramentally in their presence. The sacramental life of the Church must be lived in the midst of the working-class life it we are to show the relevance of eternity to life in time.”

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IT WOULD be a mistake to assume that all are drawn to Leftish Party-politics, or that this is the hallmark of the worker-priest and his associates, whether clerical or lay. Some flatly refuse to wear any party label at all, on the ground that they wish to be known first and foremost as Christians, without denying in any way that the faith must be applied — and that involves politics. Our inspiration is Christian and on this at least all are agreed.

The theological and practical implications of priesthood are an ever-recurring subject at conferences. But, like their French counterparts, the worker-priests in this country entirely reject the notion, promulgated by the Vatican, that their manner of life is out of keeping with the priestly vocation. They hold it pious nonsense that the priestly soul is more in peril in factories than in Paris salons or in some church congregations.

If such was the case, what a feeble thing the priestly soul must be, and how hopelessly distant from reality the training of it! Is it not fitting for a priest to share the toils, hopes and fears (which still are real) of the humblest of his flock? If it is fitting to do so in spirit, how .much more in practice, which alone can prove the spirit— both to one’s own self, and to others.

Not all miners were happy about their parish priests working in the pit. Their reasons were various: “Religion has nothing to do with this”; “Keep to your own class”; “What must your father think after all that money spent on your education. I’d disown my son if he did that!”; “I can’t look up to a man who works down here!” Other comments were revealing: “You must be at rather a loose end when you get home.” This reaction is a common one.

 

[IN THE case of one worker priest] all his personal failings, his lack of success in any direction, anything different he does (like insisting on adequate thought before baptisms and weddings) are put down to his way of life. (A “normal” priest, it is fondly hoped, would have none of these faults.)

He is classed, by those who fancy themselves, as a crypto-Communist, and as somehow letting them down. His very existence is an affront to snobbery and class-consciousness.

He brings to light a whole crop of parish diseases, which have long festered in decent obscurity. If he retains his place there very long, it would be a miracle, for he has forgone the privilege of security, by which an incumbent is hedged around.

Even genuine progress, in spite of some objectors who have left because of him, may avail him little — least of all those things actually capable of proof, like more Communions, bigger collections, etc. Quite right: the thing that matters is a growth of genuine Christian living, and that is not so open to proof.

An extract from an article by the Revd John Strong, a worker-priest at Tilmanstone Colliery, Kent, in the 1950s, published in the Church Times on 2 October 1959.

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