Has the Church Abandoned the Poor?

Bishop Philip North has been a vocal critic of the Church’s approach to working class people. ©Diocese of Blackburn Facebook page

In April 2018, Philip North, Bishop of Burnley expressed the opinion that there was “a widespread perception among northern DDOs [diocesan directors of ordinands] that candidates from working-class backgrounds with northern accents are victims of prejudice” in the selection process for ordination training.  Bishop North has, in recent years, become one of the sharpest critics of the church regarding its treatment of working-class people.  In 2017 he claimed that the church spent considerably less money per person in working class areas than in other areas, even saying “the poorer you are, the less we care about you”.  Whilst this drew praise from some quarters, North’s comments are largely anecdotal or left unsubstantiated, with no statistics readily available.  Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons to take such claims seriously.

Even the ‘father of Christian socialism’, F.D. Maurice’s, motivations were paternalistic. ©Wikimedia Commons

The Church of England has always struggled to shake off its paternalistic image, even, or perhaps especially, when it is trying to address the difficulties faced by poor and working-class people.  Indeed, even the so called ‘father of Christian socialism’, the nineteenth century Anglican clergyman, F.D. Maurice, did not advocate for actual equality in response to the legitimate grievances of the working-classes.  Rather, he was motivated in large part by opposition to the violence of revolutionary fervour found on the European mainland at the time.1  Thus, the social gospel that has developed in the established church to this day is predisposed to uphold the state, even when it is critical of those running it.

Nineteenth century Britain was, of course, very different to the Britain of today, but many of the concerns of working-classes movements of yesteryear, bear a striking resemblance to those of today.  The Chartist demand for universal suffrage has, for example, given way in many quarters, to the belief that it matters little who one votes for because the system is stacked against working-class people anyway.  This, it must be said, is not a hundred miles away from the truth.  Disenfranchisement can come just as effectively through the hegemonic structures of state, media, and culture as it can through the circumscription of the ballot box.

Today, just 38% of regular worshippers identify as working class, but this number is likely inflated.  The 33rd British Social Attitudes Survey shows that those from a working class background who attain financial success are still likely to identify as working class. This suggests that the 38% figure does not tell the whole story, and that those who are both culturally working class and financially poor make up an even smaller percentage of regular worshippers.  The Church of England’s engagement with these facts is barely noticeable, its efforts to combat poverty manifestly paternalistic.  That is not to diminish these efforts.  The Church has played an incredibly important role in ameliorating the worst effects of government austerity policies, but when this is not led predominantly by working-class voices, the effects will only ever be limited, and ultimately perpetuate unjust socio-economic structures.

This can, perhaps, sound a little sensationalised, however the lack of working-class voices in the Church as a whole is reflected in its own ‘Ordained Vocations Statistics 1949-2014’, which states that the church’s aim is:

an increase of 50% in the number of candidates for ordained ministry[…] [and]     diversity within the cohort of ordinands so that it reflects the communities in wider society where the church is engaged in mission, in terms of age, gender and ethnic and social background.

There is of course, much to be lauded in this report.  The focus on black, Asian, and minority ethnic ordinations is an important one given that they are still such an underrepresented group in the clergy when compared to both the percentage of population and of regular worshippers.  Nevertheless, this is not a good report for working class ordinations.  Social class is alluded to just twice, once in the above quote as ‘social background’ and once again in the same section of the paper.  When such a vastly underrepresented group receives consideration so negligible as to be virtually non-existent in the one paper designed to analyse the statistics for such unfortunate trends, there can be little argument that the voices of working class people are almost entirely worthless to the church’s hierarchy and culture.

Simon Sudbury (1316-1381), until George Carey, the last Archbishop of Canterbury not educated at Oxford or Cambridge. ©T5Cambridge

A further statistic indicative of this paternalistic failure and superficial engagement with such issues is this: only one Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey (Archbishop 1991-2002) has not been a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge University since Simon Sudbury (Archbishop 1375-1381).  That’s 638 years.  The current Archbishop, Justin Welby, does not buck this trend.  That said, Welby commendably recognises many of the social-economic issues facing Britain today, both in his books and elsewhere, connecting them with the 2008 Financial Crisis and the corruption in the economic and political spheres.2  Given the misery caused by such things, it is of course right that the church, and particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, should address them.  One 2017 study for example, connected austerity policies in health and social care funding with ‘120000 excess deaths from 2010 to 2017’ with one of the paper’s authors, Lawrence King saying:

It is now very clear that austerity does not promote growth or reduce deficits – it is bad economics, but good class politics […] This study shows it is also a public health disaster.  It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder.

Archbishop Justin Welby recognises many of the issues facing working class people, but fails to challenge the underlying causes. ©Wikimedia Commons

Whilst however, Welby acknowledges the many injustices of such policies, his approach is severely constrained by the fact that his knowledge is evidently limited to his own context.  For example, his analysis of policy and rhetoric around immigration does little more than say that whilst immigration can enrich local and national culture, there can be societal tensions around integration. He then briefly mentions the fact that for some migrants, Britain’s colonial past may ‘tinge with suspicion their gratitude for being here’.3  Apart from the inherently colonialist assumption that migrants ought to feel ‘gratitude’ for being allowed to reside in a country other than the one in which they were born, Welby fails to acknowledge whatsoever the fact that opposition to immigration, and fascism both increase significantly when communities feel the pressure of unjust fiscal policies.4  This is symptomatic of the brand of politics Welby represents.  During a recent interview with the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, Welby argued that he would ‘be worried’ if his economic ‘analysis was based on a secular economic model’ such as Marxism, Keynesianism, or ‘Friedmanite’, but that he had ‘to keep going back to the Bible’.  And herein lies the problem: for all Welby may be well intentioned, it is still true that conformity to a system, even when criticising some acting within it, is complicity; that criticising individual actors for their greed whilst staying silent on the foundational principles that allow such greed, is deeply ideological.  This is how he is able to court both the right-wing Spectator and the left-wing Trades Union Congress (TUC).  Welby thinks he hasn’t picked a side, but by steadfastly refusing to do so, his allegiance rings out loud and clear.

Karl Marx, just in case you had forgotten what he looked like.

This lack of critical engagement is shown in Welby’s brief mentions of Karl Marx and left-wing ideologies. Welby equates ‘common ownership of the means of production’ with ‘wholesale nationalisation’, thinking that this is what Marx envisioned.5  This not only a highly selective reading of Marx, but a wholly inaccurate representation of communist ideology, which is further compounded by stating that Marx ‘famously’ begins ‘The Communist Manifesto’ with the words ‘Workers of the world, unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains!’, when these words in actual fact end the work.  Of course one could argue that because Welby writes for a popular audience, it is unfair to expect a rigorous grounding in socio-economic theory and its relation to theology and ministry, however the fact that it is aimed at a popular audience means that it is more likely that there will be tangible consequences.  It is therefore imperative to have a rigorous grounding in the subject matter, especially if you’re the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Philip North’s claim then that the Church is “complicit in the abandonment of the poor” is difficult to overcome on the above evidence.  It is not so much that the Church intends to abandon the poor though, so much as it has, often unconsciously, always looked after the interests of its monied members first.  It seems to have forgotten and even to some extent depoliticised the central figure of the Christian faith: a man who we are told fashioned a whip and drove moneychangers from the temple, who claimed it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, who associated closely with anti-imperialists, and who was eventually executed by the state.6  According to the statistics, an overwhelming majority of the public prefer this sanitised version of Jesus.  Nevertheless, the gospels do not allow for such indifference, and in the presence of the practical realities of unjust legislation, neither does the working-class context.  It is time for the Church’s social action to be led by working-class voices, accompanied by a robust critique of social class, and resourced fairly and equitably.  Until this happens, we cannot honestly say that these efforts are born of genuine egalitarian concern.  They are not.  They are simply a well meaning, yet paternalistic pat on the head from the middle and upper classes.

F.D. Maurice, Reconstructing Christian Ethics: Selected Writings, ed. Ellen K. Wondra (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 202.
2 Justin Welby, Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018), 274.
3 Ibid., 212.
4 Yanis Varoufakis, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability, (London: Bodley Head, 2016), 205-207.
5 Justin Welby, Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016), 86.
6 Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973), 132.


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