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Is the C of E still a class-riddled act?

25 June 2021

Is the Church as alert to social prejudices as it now is to race and gender bias, asks Madeleine Davies


IN 1895, the Revd John Burn, the Vicar of All Saints’, Middlesbrough, posted fliers in the parish, setting out the numerous reasons that “a very large number of people” did not go to church. In response, he offered a later service time (after “bairns” were in bed), a simpler structure (less “getting up and down”), and reassurance about dress (“it is dark at 8 p.m. on Sunday evenings, and an old coat looks as good as new then”).

A Cambridge graduate who joined the Oxford Movement, introducing incense and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament to a deprived urban parish, he illustrates just one wave of the great tide of energy that the Victorians poured into mission to working-class parishes. Thousands of churches were built or rebuilt, Evangelicals held huge public meetings, and reformers such as Samuel and Henrietta Barnett pioneered the settlement movement, seeking to place like-minded activists among the poor.

Edward Pusey called for clergy to “penetrate our mines, to migrate with our emigrants, to shift with our shifting population, to grapple with our manufacturing system as the Apostles did with the slave system of the ancient world, to secure in Christ’s name the Deltas of our population which the overflowing, overspreading stream of our English race is continually casting up”.

Anxiety that the Church is failing to connect with the working class is not a recent phenomenon. Bishop David Sheppard, writing in the wake of the Faith in the City report, described it as an estrangement “generations deep — hundreds of years deep” (News, 21 November 1986).


FAST forward to 2021, and some would argue that little has changed. When the Church Times advertised its forthcoming seminar (“Is the C of E too middle class?”) online, one respondent questioned whether we really needed an hour to decide.

Statistics are an imperfect measure of the Church’s reach, but the C of E’s own figures suggest that, while the percentage of the population going to church is small and shrinking, it’s even smaller among those living in the most deprived parishes (0.9 per cent, compared with 2.4 per cent in the least deprived), and 0.8 per cent on housing estates. The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has warned of the creation of “a white middle-class graduate Church for white middle-class graduates” (News, 11 August 2017).

A ComRes church-mapping survey of 8000 people, about half of whom identified as Christians, commissioned by the Church of England in 2017, found little difference, in terms of the numbers who described themselves as Anglicans, by class (56 per cent of those in “AB” categories — of which more later — and 55 per cent in “DE”). But the percentage of the Christians who said that they read the Bible, prayed, or went to church was markedly different. Almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of those in AB reported going to church, compared with 55 per cent in DE.


Yet, despite financial pressures and a parish system under immense strain — and thanks, in part, to those Victorian church-building efforts — the Church of England is not geographically confined to middle-class enclaves. To describe it as middle-class runs the risk of erasing centuries of stories of working-class clergy and laity.

“The truth is, the Church has always been involved in working-class areas and those of greatest social need,” the Revd Dr Sharon Prentis, Canon Theologian of Lichfield Cathedral, said. “However, it was often the case that people from a different social background were the leaders. . . I do think there is something about being missionally intentional about supporting local people to be the ones who bring the message of hope and make the difference in those contexts.”

The Revd Luke Larner, Assistant Curate of St Paul’s, Bedford, a bricklayer before ordination, agrees. “It can be hard for working-class people to feel that they belong in an environment where the culture feels alien, the leaders represent a more dominant class, and the structures seem so closely aligned to those which represent the interests of the middle and upper classes,” he says.

“Key places for change are representation, dialogue, and the equipping and empowering of leaders from the wide diversity of working-class communities which are represented in our parishes.”


THE Rector of Stockport and Brinnington, the Revd Lynne Cullens, who chairs the National Estates Churches Network, has observed a certain wariness when it comes to discussing class in the Church. She recently questioned a bishop who, after trumpeting the diversity of his staff team, admitted that all of its members were middle-class.

Perhaps one of the reasons a conversation about class remains so fraught is the tricky matter of definitions and measurement. When the socialist writer Grace Blakeley argued last month that class had “nothing to do with your accent, where you live, where you grew up, what your parents do, where you went to school”, but was “a social relationship rooted in production”, the backlash was fierce.

The Revd Lynne Cullens

For George Orwell, England was “the most class-ridden country under the sun”, and there are few signs that our fascination with its divisions is abating. Within a week of its publication in 2013, roughly one in five of the British adult population — about seven million people — had clicked on the BBC’s Great British Class Calculator.

Instead of the traditional occupation-based classes used by the Office for National Statistics, this asked questions to determine people’s economic, social, and cultural capital before allocating them to one of seven groups, including “new affluent workers” (often young homeowners from a working-class background) and “emergent service workers” (young and financially insecure, but enjoying a “cultured social life”).

It was designed by a team led by Professor Mike Savage, a sociologist at LSE, whose book Social Class in the 21st Century argues that, “while most people in Britain might not directly identify with a particular class, the extent of inequality, and the way that it shapes people’s life chances unequally, means that class is still deeply felt in people’s identities.”

At either end of a “fuzzy middle”, he identifies two extremes: an “ordinary elite”, which is increasingly pulling away from the rest of us, and the “precariat” — the 15 per cent of the population who have the lowest income, little if any savings, few social ties, and limited cultural capital. He has observed “a hardening of stigmatisation of those at the bottom reaches of society. . . Unfair, patronising, and mean representations of poor, working-class people, and the places where they live, are everywhere in the UK.”

Canon Prentis argues that, while class is not solely a matter of income, “it is important for us to understand that inequality and economic disparity are linked to limited life opportunities.” She also points out that “an increasing underclass of the very poor, those without income, are homeless who don’t strictly fit into the ‘working’-class category.”

In the Church, conversations about class run up against the limitations of generalisations and the risk of binaries. “Working-class” and “academic” or “graduate” are not mutually exclusive. Not all working-class people are poor. Neither do they all live on estates.


FOR working-class clergy, questions about labels raise deep questions about identity. Mr Larner, in Bedford, agrees that class is “notoriously difficult to pin down”. The son of a man who was “fiercely proud of being working-class, having left school at 14 to become a printer’s apprentice”, and a Methodist lay preacher who “made less fuss about class, but had also come from humble roots”, he still feels working-class “culturally . . . and this often comes across in how I speak and how I look.

“I remember reading Grayson Perry write something about how middle-class people see something ‘chaotic’ in the working-class body shaped by years of manual labour, with a beer belly and tattoos in contrast to the tightly buttoned-up middle-class body. I often feel discomfort in spaces dominated by the middle and upper classes in a very bodily way. I have had more negative and sarcastic comments about the way I look in Church of England spaces than I care to mention.”

But, as a priest studying for a doctorate in practical theology, he finds it “hard to feel I fully belong among the working class any more”, Mr Larner says. He relates to the “cleft-habitus” label coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “never really feeling like I belong to either the working or middle class any more”.

He is “really grateful” to the Church for access to “an education I never hoped for in my wildest dreams”, but recalls “major challenges related to my class through discernment, training, and deployment. My presence often feels somewhat disruptive — I feel like I don’t always know the cultural rules and taboos in middle-class-dominated spaces, and can feel a bit awkward.”

He remembers a BAP interviewer looking him in the eye and saying; “‘You’ve had a colourful life haven’t you?’ I responded that I was like a choirboy compared to most of my friends. It’s just that where you stand affects what you see.”

The Revd Dr Sharon Prentis

For Canon Prentis, navigating the transition from working-class roots to middle-class professions, having worked as a lecturer and held senior positions in several organisations, has meant encountering racism, sexism, and class prejudice. The daughter of parents of the Windrush generation — her mother worked for the NHS, and her father as a supervisor in a factory in West Yorkshire — she describes inheriting “a strong work ethic from my parents, who instilled in their children not only to work hard, but that education provided the means for social progress. This aspiration is what most immigrant parents have for their children.”

The Church needs to be “attentive to the various layers and experiences people have, and not just see working-class communities as being a standardised group of people”, she observes. “The double impact of racism and classism can further compound disadvantage.”

She gives the example of outer estates, where discussion can focus exclusively on the white working-class. “While that is important, it can lead to a failure to recognise . . . that they are the same areas where displaced families experience additional forms of disadvantage. . . Many migrant families are placed in social housing situated in urban or outer estates, where their experiences of alienation are further compounded by racism. If you’re rejected by indigenous communities because of the fear around scarce resources, the colour of your skin or ethnic heritage further compounds isolation.”


AS AN ordinand with a background in manual labour, Mr Larner is unusual. Although, under the Common Awards scheme, ministerial training is open to those without formal educational qualifications, most ordinands already have a degree, and often a professional background.

Bishop North is among those who have argued that selection procedures favour the middle class (News, 27 April 2018), warning that the criteria “hugely favour eloquence and education and confidence over authenticity and evangelistic gifts and genuine vocation”.

While increasing numbers of students from low-income families are entering university (26 per cent), they are still much less likely to do so than those from wealthier backgrounds (43 per cent). The Social Mobility Foundation has reported “huge disparities” in the attainment of children at school depending on their socio-economic background, with gaps in development evident even before children begin school.

This autumn, selection criteria are to be replaced with a discernment framework, after a review led by the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, which sought to widen access to the discernment process to a broader range of candidates, with socio-economic background as one of the measures (News, 24 June). The new framework talks about six “qualities” rather than criteria. The discernment process itself will also change, as the BAP is replaced by two new national stages — a non-residential day of interviews (and no decision made at this point) and then two interviews with examining chaplains.


DESPITE fictional depictions of clergy as almost exclusively from the privileged classes, the Church of England has a long history of ordaining people from a range of backgrounds (Books, 21 December 2017). John Tomlinson (writing in the Dutch Review of Church History) tells the story of the probationers’ scheme created by George Selwyn, Bishop of Lichfield from 1868 to 1878, who was concerned that a lack of money was preventing able ordinands’ being accepted for training. Among those who passed through the scheme was a blacksmith from Derbyshire “[who] delighted a grave Doctor of Divinity by his facile manner of Greek-construing, and by his vigour and power of mind”.

At theological-education institutes today, staff are keen to rebut the idea that candidates without many formal educational qualifications are incapable of academic study.

“Class might signal a difference in educational opportunities, which might account for some people from a particular economic background having fewer qualifications,” the Warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham, the Revd Dr Philip Plyming, says. “However, this does not determine someone’s intelligence; nor does it determine their formational or academic potential and future qualifications.” He believes that a residential environment offers students the “on-the-spot pastoral and academic support” that can enable them to thrive in academic formation.

The Principal of the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Professor Clive Marsh, argues that “cultural assumptions and practices may be more of a blockage than educational potential. . .

“For some students from working-class backgrounds, the best way to help them thrive in ministerial formation is to take away — or hide — as much of the scary ‘formal academic’ apparatus as possible so that they don’t get distracted or intimidated by it, while recognising that the academic work within the formational process has to be ‘done’ somehow,” he reports.

“From another perspective, though, such an approach can prove very patronising. For some candidates, the best way to help them thrive is to support them to achieve academically more than they could have dreamed. The issue is that ministerial formation is the first chance they’ve had, or been able to take, to blossom academically.”


WHILE the Church currently has no data on the socio-economic background of its clergy, candidates will be asked about it from this autumn. Ms Cullens, a member of the group that has devised the new selection criteria, hopes that the data will be used to “recalibrate class balance across church leadership. And that needs to include senior leadership, too.” She believes that a more diverse leadership is “the number-one factor in the potential effectiveness of our future missional engagement”.

At the top of the Church’s structures, socio-economic diversity has some way to go. Canon Prentis notes that “there is uncertainty when an Anglican but [xx] doesn’t look, speak, or come from the expected background, particularly in leadership”. Of the 54 bishops appointed since 2015, the Church Times was able to gather schooling details for 49 of them. Seventeen, or just over one third, were privately educated — still a higher proportion than for the population (seven per cent), but fewer than in 2014, when the proportion was half (News, 5 September 2014).

The next Bishop of Stockport, Canon Sam Corley, was the first person in his family to stay on at school to take A levels and go to university; and the Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd William Hazlewood, left school at 16 with no O levels, enrolling as a YTS motor mechanic before completing an apprenticeship.

“It remains difficult to get middle-class leadership to understand that working-class communities are able to lead and inhabit senior leadership positions,” Ms Cullens observes. “I have no lack of academic qualifications, transferable skills, or confidence, and outside the Church I’m seen as a likely leader — but, in the Church, I’m seen as an unlikely leader.”


The pressure to conform to middle-class expectations is, she says, “very subtle and insidious. If you look at some comments made, it is around your accent, your frames of reference, all of those things that are made to feel ‘other’.”

While she is conscious that at times she has become “a little bit of a caricature of myself” in “digging in and saying ‘This is my identity’”, she believes that there is a value in this, “as there is strong working-class identity in this country that we are failing to engage with”.

She is excited about the presence on national policy-making groups of a “deliberately diverse” group of people: “a deliberate attempt to bring in a range of voices and wider representation in policy reform as we go along”.

Bishop North believes that much has improved since he warned in 2017 that the Church was “abandoning the poor” (News, 4 August 2017). He points not only to the new selection criteria, but to shifts in the Church’s funding streams, including Strategic Development Funding grants going to deprived areas.

The Rt Revd Philip North, Bishop of Burnley

But, as financial pressures are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and dioceses work on restructuring, including the cutting of clergy posts, he can foresee “another wave of church closures and clergy cuts having a serious impact on our presence in many working-class areas”. Last year, a report for the Church Buildings Council found that churches in the most deprived parishes were much more likely to close — “the very places which may be missional priorities” (News, 14 February 2020).

An even greater challenge, Bishop North argues, is that the Church is “still a place in which people from working-class backgrounds can feel awkward or excluded”. His perception is that “there is, in many parts of the Church, a deep distaste for working-class culture and politics. The continuing ferocity of the reaction of so many Anglican leaders towards Brexit evidences this. Aspects of life which are vital to much working-class culture — place, nation, family, the armed forces — are often causes of embarrassment for Anglican leaders.

“Our leadership, especially in the senior echelons, is not a place where working-class voices are often heard. Our diversity agenda will include race, sexuality, and disability, but not class or wealth. And we have sacrificed a key point of contact with working-class people — the Occasional Offices — by unjustifiable hikes in fees. All of this, to me, continues to undermine our claim to be a truly national Church.”

The Revd Luke Larner

Mr Larner questions some of this narrative. “Sometimes, it can feel that the working-class are used as pawns in the narratives of different interests within the Church of England, particularly politics,” he says. “I’ve often heard the narrative of a liberal, left-leaning ‘metropolitan elite’ being to blame for alienating the working class, but this does not always match my experience.”

He is not convinced that middle-class church leaders’ criticism of Brexit and Vote Leave has alienated the working class: “There are a huge variety of cultural expressions and political allegiances among working-class groups. The danger is that, yet again, working-class people are being done to, and spoken for, and not having the chance to represent their own views.”

In his own experience of serving in ministry — in parishes with high levels of deprivation — he has found the biggest challenge to be “challenging the Church’s assumptions about working-class people. So-called ‘working-class sins’ are often given more prominence than the structural issues in society. The dynamic of feeling ‘done to’ is so important for Churches to realise.

“Working-class people have described not feeling like they fit the perfect mould of the families they see represented at the front of Churches. I’ve felt this about my own family at times, to be honest. I have found a remarkable amount of wisdom and resilience among working-class communities, which the Church could learn a lot from.”


WHAT of the clergy of middle-class backgrounds serving in working-class areas? Priests such as Fr Burn are just one example of a rich tradition of clergy from more privileged backgrounds serving in working-class parishes. Paternalism is undoubtedly part of the historical picture — a Victorian priest who spent time with Fr Burn recalled: “He used to say that, in dealing with very simple and ignorant people, the only plan was to tell them exactly what they were to do, and see that they did it.” More recently, concerns have been raised that the people living in areas of low income are rarely consulted on how the Church Commissioners’ funding should be spent (News, 8 November 2019). But that is not the whole story.

The Revd Alexander Faludy has fond memories of serving in Wallsend for seven years. While he remembers jokes about his “southern poshness”, he never felt that class created difficulties in pastoral relationships. “What people cared about was how committed and personally open you were, not where you came from.”

Parishioners recalled the incumbencies of Dr John Inge, now Bishop of Worcester, and Canon Sam Wells (now Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields) as a “golden era”, and Fr Faludy believes that “it is a mark of the Church’s catholicity when it is able to mix people from such different backgrounds in this way. . .

“Some things were challenging,” he recalls. “People could lack confidence in gifts they really did possess, and needed more encouragement to use them. However, relationships were often easier. Honestly, much of the time I just felt overwhelmed by kindness.”

Having also served in more middle-class settings, he has noticed that “in congregations with a weighting to professionals and graduates, there can be more ego to manage, and also a tendency for grievances to fester quietly behind apparent politeness. In a working-class parish, people are more willing to be blunt about a problem and sort it out quickly. People have a ‘good row’ and ‘clear the air’ without the baseline being harmed.”

One of his parishioners, the Revd Kim Wears, an NSM in the Willington Team in the diocese of Newcastle, will be priested this Petertide. Fr Faludy was one of those who encouraged her to pursue ordination: it was his appearance at hospital where her sister was dying that convinced her of God’s call. Going to Ely for her BAP, she felt “really, really worried. . . Posh people make me very, very nervous,” but she was accepted, and began training at Lindisfarne College of Theology.

Having left school “with enough qualifications to write on a postage stamp”, she was worried about training, and remembers having a panic attack during a study day. But the tutors were “fantastic — great at helping us . . . I now have — and I still can’t believe it! — a diploma from Durham University.”

While she agrees that being a “local lass” has resonated with her parishioners, she agrees with Fr Faludy that, “for some people, I don’t think it matters whether you are local or whether you are posh. . . Yes, Alex had the education, and he did come from a more privileged background, but it didn’t make him any less approachable.” A quote that has resonated with her is that “God doesn’t call the qualified: he qualifies the called.”


THE catalyst for much of the surge in the Church of England’s activity in working-class areas in the Victorian era was the 1851 Population and Religious Censuses, which suggested that less than half of the population went to church; and, of those people who did, a much higher percentage than expected were attending Nonconformist and Roman Catholic churches.

The C of E’s response was impressive; but, as the Dean of Chester, the Very Revd Dr Timothy Stratford, notes in his Ph.D. thesis (“Urban Liturgy in the Church of England: A historical, theological and anthropological analysis of the Mid Victorian slum priest ritualists and their legacy” — the source of Fr Burn’s story), the motivation for this was rooted in anxiety:

“Much of what drove the ruling bodies of the Church of England was not love for the poor but fear for their own ways of life. . . Much of the impetus to build new churches in poor urban areas came from a desire to make the poor and working classes more like the middle and ruling classes.”

It would be unwise to report that such a desire — subconscious or not — no longer shapes the Church of England. But it is perhaps a mark of progress that the whole issue of class is being brought out into the light for inspection, and that working-class voices are now deliberately being incorporated at national level.

“In embracing a broader range of people, we have to abandon the idea that they will come in and be happy to be subsumed into the dominant existing culture,” Ms Cullens says. “They won’t, and that’s exciting.”

“We have to recognise that the gospel is a vision of liberation and reconciliation. I think we need to learn to build unity across the diversity in the Church of England,” Mr Larner says. “But when one group holds most of the keys, they might have to do a bit of letting go for this to happen.”

Church Times will be holding a webinar on 6 July, addressing the question “Does the Church have a class problem?” For more information and to book tickets, go here 

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