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Pay more attention to the laity’s daily grind

by
09 October 2020

The faithful go to church far more often than the Church goes to the workplace, says Hugh Valentine. This needs to change

I HAVE spent the past 30 years following the path of the worker priest. Throughout these decades, the perspective of the Church on the ordinary business of selling one’s labour has interested me. But what has been a puzzle, repeatedly, is how little is said about it. How can this dominant aspect of our lived lives somehow go so unattended?

A part answer is that most of those who do most of the talking in the life of the Church — priests, pastors, and ministers — are insulated from aspects of the selling-one’s-labour experience. This is said to be a defining feature of their job: “set apart” and “freed” from the necessity of work, so as to pursue their calling unhindered.

Yet such sequestration comes with drawbacks — one of which is their becoming increasingly distanced from contingent realities that bear down on many of the laity. It is not that stipendiary clergy don’t work: some work very hard, and some overwork. It is more that their context removes them to a degree from the work experiences of those to whom they preach and minister.

 

FOR most people, work requires regimented attendance, a commute, the assignment of tasks and priorities by someone else, a pecking order, close supervision, and the risk of redundancy or forced reassignment. And it may involve contributing to a “product” that they do not much believe in or about which they have unexpressed, troublesome scruples.

For these reasons and more, the Church is often poorly informed about “the world of work” as experienced by its members who are of working age. The faithful go to church far more often than the Church goes to the workplace.

For Christian people, the questions that are thrown up by their working lives should find a home in church discourse and within church communities. Yet this is rare. More than this, they might reasonably expect the gospel to be preached in ways that fully engage with the realities in which they live and work.

Search the internet for this, and you will find material and books, but few of them are helpful. Too many of the so-called “theologies of” work, or “the spirituality of” work are sentimental, and sometimes patronising, for the large part written by those unacquainted with the demands, stresses, compromises, and challenges of selling their labour in industrial, commercial, private, and public settings.

Some examples would be funny, were they not seriously said: this injunction, for example: “Employees are to work as though God were their boss” (well, many of us have worked for bosses who seem, at times, to think they are God); and the ever-so-slightly reassuring “Exploitation of workers by employers does not escape God’s notice.” This is certain to act as an effective brake on all workplace exploitation.

The situation appears to be that many of those who write or speak about Christian faith and paid work are not really qualified to do so, and the Christians who are qualified by their experience of being Christian people at work too often lack the voice, the encouragement, or the confidence to do so.

 

NOW, if we were to try to remedy this astonishing silence, what might we say were the main issues?

The most obvious is to do with the attitude and behaviour to be commended to Christians in their workplaces (honesty, reliability, conscientiousness, for example). In other words, be a good employee. You cannot fault that.

Other matters — hardly ever raised from the pulpit — are to do with structural questions: how the human person is seen too often only as a means to profit and production; the expendability of persons; what kind of work — and working practices — best affirm the dignity of the human person; the routine moral challenges of obedience to corporate demands; the tricky question of ends and means; the legitimate part played by unions.

There is little attention to structural and corporate sin and guilt. The manifestations of sin that crop up in the world of work are often heavily cloaked. Examples include: the claims of “expediency”, productivity, and profit; the pressures (they are, in fact, idolatries) always to please bosses, shareholders, and regulatory bodies; and the burden placed on so many by excessive workloads, long hours, and the drive to hit those “vital” performance or profit targets.

Karl Marx may be out of fashion, but much of his analysis of the harm and injustices of the world of work (premised, as so much of it is, on maximising financial profit, privately owned) ring true, not least with some of the insights of the New Testament.

For the bulk of humanity, paid work is the principal shaper of their experience, and, whether it is a grim cycle of low-paid work which never quite allows escape from debt, or some broadly tolerable activity providing some degree of creativity and routine, or one that provides rewards by way of status and pay and pension, it is, for everyone, at some time or another, a form of bondage.

Many who work within these systems and organisations will, at times, wonder what to do and how to act when faced with conflicts and what they regard as immoral trends, priorities, or actions, and will be fearful about speaking out. It is unlikely that they will find help from the Church. Yet the talent, experience, and thoughtfulness are there, in the pews.

 

The Revd Hugh Valentine has worked in public services and the third sector. www.workerpriest.uk

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