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Do clergy have to stop being working class?

05 July 2024

The current methods for selecting and teaching candidates alienate many working-class people, Cris Rogers discovers

AS A working-class clergyman, I have often had to learn to navigate, with much confusion, a middle- and upper-class church. No one at theological college told me that going over for “supper” did not mean tea and toast at 11 p.m. I now describe myself as being bilingual: able to speak the language of the working-class estate, besides having learnt at theological college to speak the middle-class language of the institution.

I had always taken this simply to be my own situation, until I started a D.Min. research project on working-class experiences in the Church of England. In doing so, I found that there were many other working-class people who also felt alienated and out of place in an institution dominated by middle- and upper-class culture and values.

From the 434 self-defined working-class respondents to my survey, I discovered that they predominantly felt that they were perceived as “risky” choices as candidates for ordination, and largely believed that they were misunderstood by the C of E. Other phrases, such as “unconventional”, “afterthought”, and “unsuitable” were all used to describe how they believed that they were seen. Shockingly, only three respondents felt that they were trusted or understood, and a mere seven believed that they were seen as equal.

During my study, I heard a number of stories of working-class candidates in the selection process. One ended up sleeping in a bus station to make evening discernment meetings fit in with a 6 a.m. work shift; another took to cleaning themselves with baby wipes in their work van on their way to discernment meetings, at which they felt they needed to wear a suit.

I heard of people training at college who were told: “If you’re going to train for ordination in the C of E, you need to be able to speak not just to peers but to bishops and archdeacons; so you are going to need to change the way that you talk and dress.” Such advice might have been well-intentioned; however, in their own words, it just made them feel like scum.

I met one newly ordained priest who said: “I was well thought of at home and on the estate; people liked me, and I had lots of social credit. At the college, I was seen as a village idiot.” One theological college lecturer said: “The C of E sees ordination in affirming the gift that is in you, and then sending you away to change.” Time after time in interviews, the working-class candidates, ordinands, or newly ordained priests repeated the same sad stories of feeling on the outside, and this ultimately affected their mental health in having to become someone else.

WHAT would change this experience? What is it that the working-class are hoping for?

Many are looking for better representation, seeing others like them who wear the same clothing and laugh at the same kind of humour. Imagine a training route on which tracksuit bottoms were the norm and not chinos. When asked for their view on the best training option for them, the message was clear: working-class people are crying out for apprenticeship models of training for the priesthood.

The classroom, by and large, does not work for them, and neither do essays. Working-class candidates need workshops over lectures, portfolios over essays. Every college lecturer whom I interviewed stated that the present Durham Awards scheme did not allow them the flexibility to work with people where they were at, or give them the amount of time that they needed. Many argued that a BTEC qualification was needed more than a degree.

Among the other suggestions in survey responses was shorter discernment application forms. If you have only ever worked in a supermarket, a building site, or in maintenance work, you may have never filled in an application form beyond one side of A4, never mind writing your life story.

Respondents asked for conversation-based application processes, and for financial support to attend discernment meetings around shift-work patterns. It became evident that selectors and trainers needed training to recognise and value diverse types of intelligence, leadership potential, and ministry gifts rather than paying attention to academic abilities.

SELECTORS need an enhanced understanding of the immense pressures that working-class candidates face to adapt their self-presentation and conform to perceived expectations of acceptability. Formal unconscious-bias training is needed to equip selectors to look beyond academic performance and welcome candidates who express their authentic selves.

Other suggestions were that the Church of England should intentionally recruit working-class chaplains in the process, and encourage peer mentoring, and recruit working-class people to co-facilitate the training.

I am encouraged that a Private Member’s Motion on working-class vocations has been submitted to the General Synod by Fr Alex Frost (Comment, 26 April). I encourage them to think widely about the issue.

If we want to see more working-class leaders in the Church, we need to create space for them to thrive and to be invested in by those whom they see as like them. We need to reimagine training as an apprenticeship to priesthood — and be willing to take some risks.

The Revd Dr Cris Rogers is the Rector of All Hallows’, Bow, in east London. His books include
Making Disciples (Essential Christian) and The Bible Book by Book (Monarch Books). His full research findings can seen at urbanmission.uk.

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