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Race, Class & the Gospel in Multi-Cultural Britain

By Gary Jenkins.

In 1985 the Archbishop’s report on urban priority areas, Faith in the City, stated that “the Church of England's most enduring problem of the city has been its relationship with the working class.”[1]

Thirty years later, how do issues of race and class interact in the church's relationship with the people of multi-cultural Britain? What has been done to improve the church’s relationship with the working class and how does this relate to Britain’s multi-cultural context in the twenty first century? This is the concern of this paper.

Since the publication of Faith of the City, it has been race rather than class that has been uppermost in the church’s thinking, despite that report’s recognition of the seriousness and longstanding nature of the church’s estrangement from the working class people of England. This trend has been mirrored in the wider society. There are many reasons for this, including: the growth in the minority ethnic population, in terms of both size and diversity; the challenge of racism; and the political situation post-9/11.

Not only has the neglect of class disadvantaged working people, including black working class people, by a perverse operation of the law of unintended consequences, it has increased, rather than diminished social privilege. The journalist, Nick Cohen, argues that the current interest in what he terms ‘identity politics’ (concern for issues of sexuality, gender and race) and the neglect of issues of class has meant that anti-discrimination and equal opportunities policies have disproportionately benefited the middle class.

“From the Seventies on, the public and to a lesser extent the private sector made strenuous efforts to give top jobs to women and people from ethnic minorities, but because class played no part in the selection criteria the beneficiaries of the anti-discrimination measures were from the upper middleclass as often as not…..In the name of equality, privilege grew.”[2]

Michael Collins, in his book, The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, detects a similar phenomenon among newspaper columnists, particularly in left leaning journals:

“As race was embraced and class relegated to the back burner the contemporary model of those columnists materialised, inflating their affiliation with minorities, ethnic or otherwise, for display. Many of them came across like the middle aged teacher desperate to appear to be down with the kids.”[3]

Julie Burchill argues that many progressive thinkers harbour an underlying contempt for the white working class:

“What we have now is a new version of the deserving and undeserving poor – the noble new British working class, who are ethnic, and the thoroughly swine-ish old working class, who are white”[4]

This disapproval is linked to the perceived racism of the white working classes. In a culture that is particularly attuned to the social evil of racism, the perceived perpetrators of that evil are regarded as social pariahs. Not all working class people are racists – in fact, the Institute for Public Policy Research found that whites of all classes had lower levels of racist attitudes than other groups in its survey, but that some are, and have been guilty of racist crime, has allowed the working class as a whole to be viewed as racist, and has made discrimination against them, or at least disapproval of them, seem almost virtuous.[5]  Burchill states that the very people who will go to almost any length not to offend a particular ethnic or cultural group are quite prepared to mock the attitudes, behaviour and culture of the working class. In fact, she argues:

“The English working class is now the only group of people the chattering classes are happy to hear mocked or attacked”[6]

It seems, then, that the working class, especially the white working class, suffers a two-fold disadvantage. Not only has the neglect of class as a category of thought led to them being overlooked and disregarded in the formation of social policy, but those who have done the overlooking nurse a deep prejudice against them which they are not embarrassed to express.

If that analysis, admittedly put by Cohen, Burchill, Collins in a deliberately provocative and polemical manner, is even partially correct then it is surely appropriate to ask to what extent it applies to the church, especially a church that aspires to be the church of the whole nation, such as the one in which I serve, the Church of England. In any case, the universal nature of the Gospel demands that the church should be concerned that its message is proclaimed to all people everywhere. 

The issue of class should concern the church, but does it?

To take the Church of England as a case in point, it seems clear that, notwithstanding Faith in the City’s recognition of the problem of class, the Church has largely followed the trends of the rest of society in being principally interested in matters of race. This has been to the detriment of the working class in general, and the white working class in particular. 

The church has been rightly concerned with the integration of Black Minority Ethnic (BME) Christians in the life of the church and with the other challenges and opportunities of the multi-cultural context. The under-representation of BME Christians in synods, PCCs, the ordained clergy and among senior dignitaries is a matter of serious concern and is being pursued vigorously in a number of dioceses. However, although individual parishes and clergy remain engaged in ministry and mission to working class people, in my diocese there is little interest or discussion of the issues surrounding class, and certainly no reports to the Diocesan Synod or the Bishop’s Council and no full-time officer with a brief to promote working class concerns, despite the large working class population of the diocese. The Church, it seems, is following the rest of society in neglecting questions of class.

One of the reasons that matters of race have so strongly attracted the church’s interest is the growth in the number of black Christians in the pews. Many urban dioceses have seen trends of decline halted or even reversed by the influx of Christians from overseas, West Africa in particular. This transfer of existing Christians from one part of the world to another – welcome though it is – has tended to disguise the underlying trends of decline in many urban churches and obscure the church’s failure to reach the white working class who are present in large numbers in many urban parishes, but in few urban congregations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that clergy overestimate the proportion of BME people in the parish and underestimate the proportion of white working class people. This tends to happen because the parish is seen through the lens of the congregation, where black people are over represented and the whites under represented. For example, a vicar of a largely black congregation was heard to say that they were very few white people left in his parish, when in actual fact the census returns indicate that the whites are not only the largest group in the parish but at 63% of the population, actually the majority.

Very often the working class are simply absent from the church and its councils. They are not there to plead their cause, and few others are prepared to speak on their behalf and perhaps even fewer are prepared to listen. While it is absolutely right to address the under-representation of BME people in the leadership of the Church, it is strange that so little recognition is given to the fact that the white working class of England are so sparsely represented, not just in the national church’s leadership, but in its congregations, too.

This is a scandal which, quite scandalously, does not scandalise the church.

In many parts of inner London, there is a serious under-representation of white people in a majority of congregations. In these largely working class communities of South London, we can rejoice at the large numbers of non-white Christians in the churches, but the very serious under-representation of white people, almost certainly white working class people, is clearly a matter of concern, yet very little is said about this, and even less done, because the Church’s attention is largely devoted to being fair to its existing members. The church seems to have little time or energy to consider those who are not yet its members.

None of this means that the church should not delight in its black members, nor give up its efforts to achieve greater justice for them, but it does need to recognise its tendency to overlook the absence of the working class. It needs to consider more carefully than at present how the Gospel may be communicated to this group. Of course, precisely because this is an enduring (i.e. longstanding) problem, it is not an easy one to solve.

There are no simple answers to the long term estrangement of the working class from the church in England, but the Scriptures encourage us to consider the disregarded, the poor, insignificant and the outsider. In 1 Corinthians 1, the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of their own humble origins:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.[7]

And the reaction of the crowd in Acts 4.13 to early apostolic preaching reminds us that the first leaders of the church were ordinary working men, transformed by an encounter with Jesus:

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.[8]

To conclude, the really strange thing about the problem of the church’s relationship with the working class is that it is simply not perceived as a problem. The issue of class is hardly on the agenda at all, but if we recall the famous saying of Archbishop Temple that the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of its non-members, the church will do well to reconsider its most enduring problem of the cities – its relationship with the working class – because in many areas those are the people most likely to be its non-members.

[1] ACUPA, Faith in the City, London: Church House Publishing, 1985, p28

[2] Cohen, p204

[3] Collins, M., The Likes  of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, London:Granta, 2004, p222

[4] Collins, p225

[5] Collins, p224

[6] Cohen, N., What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way, London: Fourth Estate, 2007 p207

[7] 1 Corinthians 1:25-27 (NIV)

[8] Acts 4:13 (NIV)

Gary Jenkins

Vicar of St James and St Anne, Bermondsey

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You are reading Race, Class and the Gospel in Multi-Cultural Britain by Gary Jenkins, part of Issue 65 of Ministry Today, published in November 2015.

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