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Well-being study finds class divide among Church of England clergy

05 October 2023

‘Culture of privilege’ alienates and affects well-being, it says


One participant recalled being advised by her tutor to obtain an M.Phil, while at Cambridge: “anything that wasn’t Oxbridge was just thought of as kind of worthless”

One participant recalled being advised by her tutor to obtain an M.Phil, while at Cambridge: “anything that wasn’t Oxbridge was just thought of as kin...

WORKING-CLASS clergy are “deeply alienated from a church culture that favours and naturalises middle-class ways”, a report commissioned by the Church’s National Ministry Team concludes.

Informed by 50 interviews and four focus groups, the study heard from clergy who felt “ground down” over the course of their ministry in a Church with an “upper-middle-class culture”, in which they encountered “disapproval, judgementalism, and lack of sensitivity towards cultural difference”.

Participants described being judged on their accent and labelled as “gobby”. One knew of an advertisement in which the parish profile initially stated a preference for no regional accent. One woman had been told by her bishop: “You need to learn to speak middle-class.”

Many were concerned about the precariousness of church finances, and spoke of the assumption that clergy owned property. Among the report’s recommendations are that senior leaders undergo “reverse coaching” to avoid a “narrow cultural perspective”.

The report — “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters’”: Exploring the wellbeing of working-class clergy in the Church of England: a rally cry for change — is the fourth qualitative focused study carried out as part of the Living Ministry study, launched by the Ministry Division in 2017, and tracking four cohorts over a ten-year period in order to explore “the factors that enable ordained ministers to flourish in ministry” (News, 15 September 2017).

The authors of the report are Dr Sharon Jagger, senior lecturer in religion and philosophy at York St John University, with Dr Alex Fry, senior lecturer in the sociology of health and illness at the University of Bournemouth, and a research assistant, Rebecca Tyndall. They were given the task of exploring how participants’ experience of class affected their well-being.

They acknowledge the challenge of definitions. Participants “recognised the awkwardness of defining class identity because they have high-level education and are in an occupation defined as middle-class [according to ONS classifications]”.

Nevertheless, there were “significant similarities” in the way in which participants defined “working-class”: many referred to their parents’ occupations and housing tenure. Others highlighted their jobs before ordination as working-class. “Values of honesty and social justice were highlighted as part of working-class culture, along with authenticity and a dislike for pretence.” Participants had “complex” feelings about social mobility, “with loss and dislocation existing alongside gratitude for improved material circumstance”.


IN RECENT years, the National Ministry Team has paid greater attention to questions of social class (Features, 25 June 2021). In 2021, a new selection framework was launched, after reports that the existing framework favoured middle-class candidates (News, 27 April 2018; 25 June 2021). The social background of candidates entering the discernment process is now being recorded.

A survey of two years of participants in the first stage of discernment (2021-23) found that 64 per cent grew up in households where the main earner had a professional job, compared with a national average of 37 per cent. All those who had finished school after 1980 were asked whether they had been eligible for free school meals at any point. Twenty-one per cent said that they had been, compared with a national average of 15 per cent.

The report describes the Church of England as a “predominantly elite Church”. There is, it says, “a culture of privilege amongst many of its ordained representatives who often benefit from elite educations and come from highly respected professions prior to their ordination. . . Our research reveals that clergy identifying as working-class often find themselves socially and culturally at odds with the Church environment, and that this negatively affects wellbeing. . .

“Whilst there was an abundance of joy, pride, fun, and generosity within the storytelling, we also heard a great deal about the harms caused by class bias and inequality, leading to feelings of frustration, anger, fear, grief, and sadness.”


THE most common topics raised by participants concerned working conditions and financial constraints. The report acknowledges that financial concerns are not limited to working-class clergy. A Living Ministry survey carried out in the spring (and due to be published shortly) found that 70 per cent of stipendiary clergy respondents “required some form of financial assistance from the diocese, Clergy Support Trust, government, family or elsewhere”.

But the report highlights that working-class families are less likely to have savings or own property: “Many are not in a position to absorb financial shocks.”

Many participants were fearful about retirement, and some noted “assumptions made that clergy are renting out family property”. One participant observed: “Unless you’re already middle-class or have housing somewhere . . . this is where the rhetoric that comes from the leadership can become toxic, because they’ll talk about, oh, the calling to be a priest as a life of sacrifice. . . But of course, the life of sacrifice is very different if you’re middle-class.”

Some participants felt that seeking charitable assistance had “significant classed dimensions which are potentially stigmatising”.

Among the report’s recommendations is that dioceses promote membership of the Faith Workers branch of Unite trade union (News, 21 January 2022).

One man observed: “If you’re from a working-class background [. . .] you’re used to an employment structure where there’s rights and obligations on both sides and unionisation. There is no unionisation in the clergy, and the rights and obligations on either side are exceedingly vague.”

The study highlights issues that go beyond social class, including “the culture of overwork” in the Church. One participant in a leadership position reported that 19 of the clergy in the same area had reported being either on antidepressants or having had time off for stress.


WHILE the report recommends that theological education institutions (TEIs) adopt an approach that “values a wider variation of learning styles, rather than privileging particular forms of academic achievement”, it is careful to avoid the implication that working-class clergy cannot thrive in academic environments (News, 25 June 2021). Participants argued that “needing to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere of higher education, with its specialist language and skills, is not about intelligence or ability but about the need to culturally adapt.”

The authors write: “On the one hand, making theological training accessible and less narrowly focused on academia answers the need to loosen the dominance of elite education culture. On the other hand, as participants point out, this must not be underpinned by the assumption that working-class people who have not had higher education opportunities cannot flourish, enjoy, and excel in academia.”

One woman observed: “People are surprised that I’m clever. . . Because of the way I talk and because the minute you open your mouth and these vowels come out, people think you’re thick. . . And I feel like when I’m in rooms full of bishops . . . I feel like a novelty like ‘oh, she’s a hoot’ . . . like the party trick. She’s Northern, and she’s quite bright.”

Access to full-time residential training also emerged as a topic. Several participants felt that they had missed out on this route — one that offered “networking benefits” — by being diverted into part-time courses. One participant recalled being advised by her tutor to obtain an M.Phil, while at Cambridge: “anything that wasn’t Oxbridge was just thought of as kind of worthless.”

The authors write: “The privileging of elite education reaches far back into childhood and access to the resources that will secure such a trajectory. In terms of what educational attainment is most prized and rewarded by the Church, the dice are loaded against working-class clergy.”

They report hearing “many positive stories that highlight the support and encouragement offered by mentors, including DDOs and bishops”, but warn that too much depends on individuals’ acting as “culturally aware guide and champions”. Working-class ways of expression (“vernacular, volume, and straightforwardness”) can be “framed as a deficiency in character”, they warn.

One woman not recommended on the first occasion recalled being told that “I was very chatty and very friendly. . . They thought that this was a sign that I was deeply insecure and not robust. . . Every single one of my selectors was southern, well-spoken, and male.”

Several women felt “that they attracted the labels of ‘gobby’ and ‘too much’”. One participant revealed that their TEI cohort had named the ideal ordinand as “Toby”: somebody white, male, and middle-class.


THE report recommends that analysis be conducted to ascertain “whether working-class people are being over-represented in either part-time, non-stipendiary or associate roles”. Some SSM participants in the study “felt strongly that their vocation was not being fulfilled and talked about financial burdens”.

Some felt that they were well-suited for ministry on estates, but others felt that this was not their calling, and that “they had to resist the assumptions that working-class clergy are always inclined to minister in working-class communities.”

One woman who applied for a cathedral post described the feedback from the dean: “You’re our number one on paper, but you were too self-effacing at interview. You were up against four boys who all sold themselves.” She observed: “There are certain kind of ways of presenting yourself, which, I think, don’t come easily to working-class people. It’s everything you’re taught not to be.”

There was a feeling that “certain doors are perceived to be closed to anyone without a privileged and elite educational background,” and the “tap-on-the-shoulder” approach to appointments was discussed.

One woman commented: “Church structures still look like something either out of the Cabinet or Eton. So, if I have an interview . . . I have to be the one that feels uncomfortable and difficult and speak in a certain way and learn how to combat that. Rather than it being incumbent on a bishop, for example. . . there was nothing incumbent on them to make me feel at ease or to have some manners, actually.”

One recalled being offered snuff after a meal: “It was a camel and then you lifted up the camel’s behind and there was snuff inside. And they were all on the snuff. I was like, oh, this is all very alien to me.”

Several mentioned gentlemen’s clubs, croquet tournaments, and attending meetings at a bishop’s palace.


THE report emphasises that participants had positive accounts of working-class culture as “powerful, rich, and edifying . . . something the Church is currently not allowing into its cultural bloodstream, leaving it anaemic in parts”.

Several mentioned “vernacular approaches to communication that, in their view, could help the Church’s conversation be more productive”. Participants felt that they had “an understanding of working-class experiences, and an affinity that helps in relationships with working-class parishioners, such as being able to support more effectively and being able to establish healthier boundaries”. They expressed “deep love for and commitment to the Church. Joy and wellbeing come from fulfilling a vocation in ministry.”

But the report sounds a note of caution on notions of resilience: the authors argue that “experiencing difficulties in life because of class inequality, which generates ‘resilience’, should be understood as a symptom of injustice and not as a discourse that can be leveraged to encourage continued acquiescence to oppressive environments.”

The authors themselves write that they “resist the neoliberal understanding of wellbeing as purely self-care, and so focus here on social structures and institutional cultures and processes beyond the control of the individual”.

Among their recommendations are that dioceses “examine the provision for retirement and ensure clergy who are wholly reliant on Church-provided housing are given clear information and guidance about accessing housing after retirement, regardless of how close they are to retirement age”. Dioceses should “make use of self-supporting ministries only where this is the active choice of individual clergy, and that the process of such agreement includes a financial risk-assessment to ensure individuals are not placed in financial precarity”.

They should also fund “regular spiritual direction/accompaniment, types of therapy and retreat days” for all clergy.

It asks the Archbishops’ Council to make a commitment to “engaging with the issue of classism within its structures and culture and makes this an explicit part of its strategic priorities for the decade”.

The report is bookended with the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2.1-10) and the Magnificat, which were regularly referred by participants “as a representative example of the need for class-based justice advocated for throughout the pages of scripture”. One incumbent observed: “The social order that we have is a historical accident. A product of the Fall and all sorts of sins.”

In a foreword, the Archbishop of York — who is unusual among the bishops in having been educated at a secondary modern school and polytechnic — writes that social class is “not an easy topic to address”, but that tackling it is “vital if we want to achieve a Christ-shaped Church. Jesus was born into the humblest of circumstances, working with his hands as a carpenter. The Church will only ever be fully centred on and fully shaped by Jesus when there is genuinely room and space for everyone.”


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