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C of E is spurning the gifts of working-class people

26 April 2024

The approach to ordination selection and training is too biased towards the privileged and educated, argues Alex Frost

THE General Synod has committed itself to “taking the necessary steps to raise up and support a new generation of lay and ordained leaders from estates and working-class backgrounds” (News, 1 March). But it will fail in this task if it continues to give the impression that it prefers candidates for ordination who are university-educated and middle-class.

As the Principal of Emmanuel Theological College, the Revd Dr Michael Leyden, said this month: “Without greater diversity within the formational pathways we have, we will continue to give the impression that the Church of England prefers middle-class clergy — but that does and will continue to hinder our engagement with the communities we’re called to serve in Christ’s name” (News, 12 April).

His remarks resonated with me. I have a practical-theology degree now, and am a priest; but I started out as a habitual truant who left school at the age 15 with not a single qualification. I went on to be a van assistant for Curry’s Electrical; a failed stand-up comedian; a successful store manager for Argos; and ended up, eventually, as an Anglican priest in Burnley and a bestselling author who was diagnosed with dyslexia in his late forties.

IN A video posted on social media responding to Dr Leyden’s remarks, I suggested that the Church was missing a trick by not throwing more energy and endeavour into seeking out the hidden gems of leadership which could be found in urban housing estates up and down the country.

In my experience as a parish priest in Burnley, I have met some incredible “raw diamonds” who have had upbringings as challenging as my own — in many cases, far more challenging: stories of abuse, addiction, crime, and confusion float across my parish like a morning mist over the finest theological colleges in our land.

My post seemed to hit a nerve. Bishops reached out to me, academics applauded me, organisations contacted me, and, most significantly, like-minded Christians and priests got in touch.

I heard examples of intelligent and highly capable individuals from urban working-class settings who had struggled to break through the pomp and procedures of the Church of England; and of individuals dismayed by the Church and its approach to training and developing leaders who happened to drink Vimto more than they did Vin Mariani. People painted a picture of Bishops’ Advisory Panels led by upper-class ladies resembling Audrey fforbes-Hamilton from the BBC sitcom To the Manor Born, who would look down their noses at candidates as something like the cat had dragged in.

I could relate to this. In my own journey to ordination, I had many advocates; but, for every advocate I had, there were dreadfully high hurdles put in front of me to demonstrate whether I might be worthy of fulfilling my authentic and genuine call to ordination. I was almost always judged on academic ability and rarely on life experience; almost every week, I wanted to chuck it all in, simply because I was often made to feel not quite good enough.

Some have accused me of wanting to “dumb down” and to dilute the academic rigour of ordination training. I do not want that, but a one-size-fits-all approach to ministry is as damaging as a denial to allow opportunity to all people. As Dr Leyden said, “we’re not forming them for university life, but for priestly leadership in local churches. But stressing over ‘academic culture’ and how to fit in with it can detract from meaningful ministerial formation.”

After all, we are supposed to be the Church of England, not the Church in England; a complement of many flavours and backgrounds should be welcomed in a diverse Church.

I AM pleased to see a response from some parts of the Church, such as this diocese, Blackburn, through our fabulous M:Power programme. But I implore the wider Church to go mining for these individual human beings of raw material that, once excavated, reveal an abundance of 24-carat potential — 24-carat potential that can change the direction of travel for the Church.

The process of ordination selection would certainly benefit from having assessors who are familiar with, and receptive to, working-class language — language that is heavily loaded with a gritty honest reality that speaks to its own community, but certainly has the capacity to break through class structures, if given the opportunity.

The Church should be welcoming and searching for the language of urban settings, particularly from our young adults, many of whom are older and wiser than their time, owing to the often challenging settings in which they live.

If we continue to set our aspiration bars low in this regard, and do things as we have always done them, I believe that the Church will sleepwalk into oblivion — and we will have no one to blame but ourselves. If we are brave, however, and reach into the untapped talent that is under our noses, there is an opportunity to create an exciting adventure for the Church, and for the many people who offer a whole different set of the skills that are so needed in God’s Church at this time.

The Revd Alex Frost is the Vicar of St Matthew the Apostle, Burnley, a member of the General Synod, and host of the podcast The God Cast. His book, Our Daily Bread: From Argos to the altar — a priest’s story is published by Harper North (Books, 11 November 2022).

Listen to an interview with Fr Alex on the Church Times Podcast.

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