The church must reconnect with the poor and deprived: a bishop’s swing and a miss

In a recent article for the Church Times, the Bishop of Burnley – Philip North – has taken the Church of England to task for failing to listen to the working classes. He argued:

For the most part, the Church of England has reacted to the election of Donald Trump (News, 11 November) and the UK’s vote to leave the EU (News, 1 July) (the “Trump-Brexit phenomenon”) by jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror. As if set to auto-pilot, the C of E has joined in with those who are decrying the collapse of the liberal consensus and bemoaning a new mood of division in our public life.

The Bishop stated ‘The Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media’. Going on to claim ‘it is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering’. He goes on to aver that the Church of England has ‘become so discon­nected from many of these [deprived] communities that it no longer hears what they are saying, let alone amplifies their voices to the nation. And, until the Church re-invests in urban ministry, places the best leaders in the most deprived parishes, and returns to the estates it has abandoned, these voices will continue to go un­­heard’. You can read his full article in the Church Times which has since been picked up by the mainstream media.

In many ways, this is surely right. The Anglican Communion is dominated by the middle classes, whose concerns take precedence, and discussion is inevitably driven by the concerns of its academic leaders. Nor should we think this is a uniquely Anglican problem. As I have commented here and here (amongst other posts), other denominations also seem to be dominated by middle class professionals who have become somewhat detached from deprived communities and do not always understand, or encourage, those from poorer backgrounds to join, serve, lead or plant churches.

And yet, the Bishop of Burnley errs. The issue is not, as he claims, that the debate on sexuality, ‘has come to dominate the Church’s agenda to an extraordinary extent’. This is specifically not an example of middle class academic concerns dominating the CofE but a media obsession, propagated equally by the dominant liberal political elites drawn from the same pool, to which all Christian denominations have been forced to respond ad nauseam. It is not a debate the church (nor The Church) ever wanted and was never an issue the majority of Christians wished to spend any time. For the Great Commission was not to go into all the world and publicly denounce the gays but to go into all the world and make disciples. Christ, the apostles and most within his church never wished to section off homosexuals as some special category of sinner for whom particular arguments are required. It is simply not a fight the middle class, academically driven church have picked. Nor is it one that the least academic, working class churches are particularly interested in either. To paraphrase Malvolio: some churches are born argumentative, others become argumentative, and some have arguments thrust upon them. By and large, this whole sexuality issue seems to be a case of the latter.

Nor does the Bishop offer any great hope. As the great Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon once remarked, ‘discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s knowing the difference between right and nearly right’. And thus the 19th Century lower class dissenting non-academic teaches a lesson to the middle class academic 21st Century establishmentarian. For the Bishop of Burnley may rightly land upon the truth of Anglicanism’s middle class dominance leading to a general neglect of the poor but his answer seems to bear the hallmarks of that very same patronage. It is indeed the difference between right and nearly right. For the Bishop’s answer to this neglect of the poor is the sad, and more than a little supercilious, suggestion that we should ‘re-engage, listen to the questions, and offer some answers’ to the views of the poor. It smacks of the very middle class condescension that he says so characterises the church and in response to which he offered this censorious article.

What is perhaps most unfortunate is that, alongside his imperious tone, comes the suggestion that only when we (note the first person plural. Apparently all right thinking middle class Anglicans didn’t vote for brexit) begin to ‘re-engage, listen to the questions, and offer some answers’ to the benighted povvos that did, then they may ‘listen afresh to the gospel we proclaim’. Once again, close but no cigar.

Surely the gospel we proclaim should transcend issues of brexit and remain, party affiliation and, yes, even class. People will not reconnect with the gospel if we are happy to accede to their political opinions, they will respond to the gospel when the Holy Spirit works through the teaching of the Word and they see the inherent value, beauty and worth of Jesus Christ. Patronising the poor with a message of ‘we understand’ is not a fulfilment of the Great Commission. Reaching out across political, social, racial and intellectual lines with that great leveller – all fall short of the glory of God but salvation is open to all for in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (cf. Gal 3:28) – is surely more likely to reconnect people with the gospel because of the simple fact that it is the actual gospel. More to the point, the very gospel we proclaim is not patronising for in it we all, regardless of class and intellect, fall short of God’s glory and yet, in Christ, may all be co-heirs with him by faith. It is an equality agenda at its finest.

It is one thing to identify a problem in a church or denomination. It is certainly true that the church as a whole, not merely Anglicans, have become dominated by middle class professionals and academics who have, by and large, done little to reach those in deprived areas. Unfortunately, the Bishop’s answer is something of a swing and a miss. Of course the church (not just Anglicans) should seek afresh to reach deprived areas with the gospel (after all, Jesus himself said it is ‘good news to the poor’). The answer, however, does not lie in a patronising listening exercise whereby middle class Anglican clergy determine not to call those working class brexit voters idiots. If that is the new policy by which the Anglican communion hope swathes of heretofore truculent unbelievers will revive their flagging congregations, they seem on a hiding to nothing. If instead they recapture a love and passion for the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and develop a heart to share it with lost souls in deprived urban areas and council estates, then revival may be possible.

And there, in a nutshell, is the great need of the church at large. We need to recapture a passionate love for Jesus Christ. We need to rekindle our desire to see the good news proclaimed to all, not merely our own kind or those around whom we feel comfortable. We need to engage in genuine partnership across denominational lines based on essential gospel truth. Revival will not be found in political or social programmes, it will be based on grounding ourselves in the truth of God’s word and recognising that the gospel is good news for all the world but, as Jesus highlighted himself, it is especially good news for the poor. We ultimately need to recapture something of the vision of Jesus and then we may begin to reconnect with the marginalised working classes.