TO WORRY about class is, of course, a quintessentially middle-class trait. To be fair to those interviewed for this week’s feature on the topic, many spoke of class with hesitation and provisos. The old gradations of lower, middle, and upper seem remarkably crude to describe a society in which traditional blue-collar jobs are fast disappearing, and in which a tech entrepreneur can outdo someone who is entitled against every measure of status. Today, there are essentially two approaches to class, one of which is to identify (but struggle to rank) the multiple social strata based on combinations of schooling, geography, profession, clothing, diet, cultural preferences, and voting patterns.
This, however, seems like an trivial parlour game compared with the other approach, which is to acknowledge an increasingly wide gap in UK society. In our optimistically titled post-pandemic issue last July, Dr Eve Poole wrote: “Our new-found national affection for key workers has emerged just as their jobs are becoming precarious” (Comment, 26 July 2020). The striking term used by Professor Mike Savage, quoted in our feature, is the “precariat”, drawing the dividing line simply according to the level of security which people enjoy. This goes beyond an individual’s current line of work, and takes into account the ease with which those with the right attributes of education, experience, and savings can move between jobs and social circles. Those without these benefits still encounter disapproval and hostility.
By this measure, the clergy are remarkably secure. The general shortage means that new posts can be found easily. New insecurities are being introduced, however. Many clergy now feel that they are one mishandled complaint away from ruin. A process of attrition means that parish posts are disappearing. And without a well-paid partner, a cleric’s personal financial position continues to be very precarious. To use the old terms, many are familiar with the expectation that they live a middle-class lifestyle on a working-class salary — a situation that seems set to persist, according to the new clergy-stipends review.
The effect of the pandemic has been to shift many previously secure families across to the precarious sector. Where clergy and congregations feel unease about their social position in relation to others in their community, it tends to be centred on this line between stability and insecurity. Enjoined to be, like God, no respecters of persons, Christians are less enamoured of the advantages of material privilege. But material insecurity is about more than possessions, bringing with it compound problems such as unsafe housing, indifferent health and nutrition, debt, lack of self-esteem, and poor life-choices. Society in general, and the Church within it, would do well to shrug off its fascination with minor differences such as accent and culture, and instead address the factors that consign too many people to a precarious life.