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Book review: Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, social class and solidarity, edited by Luke Larner

12 January 2024

Geoff Smith finds the language of an assault on classism perplexing

IT SEEMS that my qualification for reviewing this collection of essays about class in the Church is because of language. I became aware of my accent when, at a college mission in Newbury, as the deacon, I had to read 2 Timothy 4. The only way to say “books” in a Manchester accent is for it to rhyme with “Luke’s”; and the congregation burst into laughter. It could also be that I left school at 15 with an O level in woodwork and became a tyre fitter (probably the most responsible job I’ve ever had). I was ordained nine years later.

The language used here, especially the theological language, confounds me as much as the mighty. If you wish to remain true to your class of origin, then language is crucially important. In my family, the use of “our” was important as a way of acknowledging the community of which we were a part. Our Mum, our kid, our house equalled community.

This book explores what it calls “intersectional experiences of class and church”. Rajiv Sidhu focuses on caste, class, and colour as a “triangle of tragedy”.

Katherine Long and Selina Stone explore the challenges that working-class people face in following their vocational calling in the Church — as Stone describes it, “resisting coloniality”.

In the third section, Sally Mann and Victoria Turner offer a whistle-stop tour from East Ham to Iona. But it left me little wiser about “Bullshit Jobs” and the “Precariat”, although the reinventing of Bonny Downs Baptist Church — a work in progress, I suspect — gave an intriguing insight into how the “common good” might be realised in practice.

Fr Larner encourages us to challenge “feckless faith”. I like the alliteration, but was left wondering to whom a working-class theology without the odd “f*ck” would be aimed.

There is, I feel, a complete failure on the part of the writers to appreciate that the Church, the Established Church, is predicated on patronage. Interestingly, the connections between the various authors hint at a form of patronage. Working-class people don’t enjoy such patronage. I like to think that my recent novel, Holy Disorder, illustrates the corrupting influence of patronage in the Church.

While I accept that the use of personal story is profoundly important, it seemed to me, as I read the stories, that individual authors were less than comfortable with their own “journey” through the class system. It is a basic truism that “class” can be a shape-shifter as people’s lives develop.

When I was ordained, my “class” changed. None of my children is, or could be, thought of as working-class. My grandchildren have all attended university, including Oxford. So, the sociology of class needs to be better understood. Pretty much all the writers claimed to be working-class, themselves, in origin, but their class destination was never roadblocked by life.

At a meeting on an outer-city estate during the Faith in the City process, the chairman questioned why people didn’t attend church. “Because we can’t afford to,” was the reply. “We’ve nothing to put in the collection, and we feel ashamed.” The next day, at a meeting with the city council, he was told: “We have three problems: poverty, poverty, poverty.”

Not much has changed in the years since the report was published.

On the positive side, the authors of these essays make an important point that classism, alongside racism and sexism, needs to be named, shamed, and rooted out; but, if we try to speak on behalf of the oppressed, we should avoid doing that in the language of the oppressor.

The Revd Geoff Smith is a retired priest and author. He is the author of
Holy Disorder (Foreshore Publishing, 2022).

Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, social class and solidarity
Luke Larner, editor
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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