Why I hated a blog post that hated my blog post: a reply to Ian Williamson

I linked to this article by Ian Williamson yesterday in my Snippets feature. I linked to it because I think Ian makes some important points and I think his comment should be heard. I didn’t want to write any comment in my summary because I think it needed to be read on its own terms. But the reason I want to respond is two-fold. One is personal and the other is to correct what appears to be misunderstandings of what I said in my original post.

First, let me start with the personal reason. I have spent the last 30 years being bullied for who I am. I have never fitted into a class group and have been repeatedly told I don’t belong. Despite being told as I shifted around as a kid, this will give me ‘cultural flexibility’ (whatever that means), generally, it just means nobody wanted me around at all and most people feel at liberty to tell me to shut up because I am not one of them. I’ve known I don’t belong anywhere from being a young kid.

I suffered it throughout school. I was bullied in one school because I came from a poor part of Birkenhead and spoke with a Wirral accent and didn’t think in the same way as people around me and then I was treated as a total outsider when I moved back to Merseyside because, having spent time down South, my accent was more mixed. All of this was based on nothing more than the way I pronounced words. Both cases were middle class and working class people making clear I was in neither of their clubs.

As I have said here and here, I have never belonged. I suffered it in almost every school I went to at one level or another – made much worse by the fact that my parents never owned their own home so we moved frequently – found it at university and have also found similar attitudes in the church too. Now I am leading a church, it seems other church leaders feel exactly the same and treat me in ways I have received all my life. I am not like them – middle class nor working class – so I don’t fit in. It bites all the more when it comes from those who consider themselves marginalised because I feel they should know what it’s like.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t think Ian was bullying me. I don’t think he was (or, at least, I’m choosing to believe) he wasn’t trying to be nasty. He kindly called me ‘a good man, with a heart for the gospel… ministering to the lost in a deprived area.’ I think he is a good man doing the same. But I have faced exclusion, not just 30 years ago as a child, but my entire life. It didn’t feel all that different to stuff I have heard for years and – as I’m sure Ian can empathise – it is even worse when people deny it even exists!

This view of me doesn’t seem to be based on much more than I have a degree and write this blog. But I notice other people Ian is happy to consider part of the camp also blog, write well and have degrees too. But apparently, I’m not qualified (or not welcome) to speak based on that.

Nor do I accept that Affinity invited me because I’m comfortable and middle class just like them. It was interesting to notice that my blog post was treated by both camps the same way. I was written off by some (though not all) because I didn’t speak and present like them. I wasn’t heard because I wasn’t culturally middle class enough. By the same token, I am being written off by others (though not all) as too middle class and thus not worth hearing either. So maybe my kind aren’t welcome in any church at all!

I don’t know the specific reasons Affinity invited me to speak. If I were to guess, they had picked up my blog and, those who arrange speakers, found the stuff I was writing interesting or true. No more, no less. Certainly, I didn’t know anybody who invited me before I got there and they didn’t know me. So, I struggle to believe they invited me because I spoke with the right accent (that they’d never heard) or had the right middle class credentials (which don’t exist).

But I also want to address some of the specific criticism. First, I don’t accept I was invited because of paternalism. I went because I was asked and the points I raised either bear considering or not. As I mentioned on Twitter, I would be delighted if they invited other working class people. I’m not particularly bothered about having a platform and I don’t think I alone have the inside track on this stuff. If other people are out there making the same points I am, I don’t care what background they’re from, I praise God they’re trying to do right by Christ and his church and reach all people, particularly those we have largely left behind.

I haven’t kicked off about the fact that Ian has been on more conference panels than I have ever been! In fact, the Affinity talk was the first and only one of this kind I’ve ever given. I’m really pleased Ian has a voice – a much louder and wider heard voice than mine – and is using it. Irrespective of what class bracket he thinks I fall into, I share Ian’s view that I would like to see more working class people raised up to leadership and given a voice in these things. I would gladly see more people from council estates and deprived communities given the space to speak that I was. But I was asked, so I went, and I believe some people listened and want to do something. I don’t see why that isn’t something to get behind, regardless of the source it came from.

What is more, I – like most working class people making these arguments – want to be judged on what I said not based on the sound of my accent or your assumptions about my background. To be honest, it is annoying that someone who doesn’t know me that well feels capable of telling me with more certainty about my class, upbringing and current situation than I know about myself!

Nor do I accept the critcism that I only presented half a solution. Where, in anything I wrote in my original post, did I say we should see middle class churches planted in working class areas? That is just making up stuff I never said. I agree we need more churches planted and led by indigenous working class people.

But who is going to be raised up in Oldham, for example, when nobody has gone there to begin with? At some point, we have to accept that unless somebody goes – whether they’re middle class, working class or a misfit like me – nobody will be reached with the gospel. I want to see indigenous Oldhammers raised up to lead the church and reach their own people. But I can’t expect that to happen if nobody bothers taking the gospel to them in the first place. That attitude would kill every missionary endeavour that has ever existed.

I simply disagree that ‘no people is better than the wrong people’. Unless by ‘wrong’ we mean they don’t believe the gospel and are encouraging people in their rebellion against Christ, I would not want to be stood before the Lord making that argument as I see people from my town ushered into Hell. “Sorry, I felt it was better nobody went than me!” I would rather middle class people were leading churches in areas where there are none than we hung on for working class leaders to be raised up while whole towns, boroughs and regions die in their sin. I find that attitude perverse.

Nor, I hasten to add, has anybody argued that we are calling just anybody. Nowhere has anybody said that we’re happy for just about anyone to come, even if that would be detrimental to our church. We want the ‘right’ people as much as anybody else. But ‘right’ is not determined by background or class, it is determined by godly character and willingness to share the gospel. As far as I’m concerned, if you love the lost and want to see sinners saved from Hell in Christ, I don’t care whether you do that with hummus dips and manbags or adidas trackies and a bag of chips. What we want are godly Christians to come, join us and serve. They are the right people. It feels a bit like Ian is suggesting my town can go to Hell until they magically manage to raise up indigenous leaders of their own. After all, no people is better than the wrong people, right?

As for sending money, I do think gospel preaching churches in deprived communities should be supported from outside. Not because they have the approved model, or they have the right (or wrong) people in them as you judge it. But because they are preaching the gospel and reaching people who would otherwise die in their sin and go to Hell. I want to see any gospel preaching churches who cannot support themselves being supported because of the people they are reaching, in areas where there is no church, to which few people seem willing to go. I don’t want to prop up dying churches that refuse to change. But I do want to support gospel preaching churches making in-roads for the kingdom. That includes a lot of churches in deprived communities, including my own.

Ian argues:

Without setting up a structure to manage partnerships well, we risk seeing churches that need supporting, miss out and churches that need to be allowed to die, stutter on for a few more years. Partnerships need to be managed well and funding needs to be directed by boards dominated by the people the funding is intended for.

But, if I read him correctly, having committed to Oldham because someone needed to go, he seems to be suggesting people like me in areas like mine shouldn’t get any funds because a board dominated by people like him feel my face doesn’t fit. I would only get funds if I was, as he judges it, more working class than I am. I don’t get that at all. Isn’t that exactly the attitude he has faced? His face didn’t fit and he was locked out and he (rightly) saw that as a problem.

I’d rather see funding structures that support gospel ministry rather than simply propping up churches because they’re run by people whose faces we’ve decided fit. That’s precisely the middle class argument that has seen working class people locked out of ministry and leadership. To then use that exact approach for the opposite purpose is, to me, just as sinful, tribal and anti-gospel as anything I’ve heard from middle class churches. I expect better from people who claim to want to resolve that sort of sin in the church.

Ian closes with this:

I am grateful for the the subject of class and the church being talked about, I am thankful that people like the author of the blog is wanting to see change, yet I am saddened that people like me, like my brothers and sisters are still missing from the table, and I am angry that whenever we challenge the status quo we are banded as divisive and excluded further.

If you seriously want to see the poor and the working class in our churches, the poor and the working class need to be seen at the table, in the pulpit, guiding training and assessment, and allocating funding. If you don’t start to listen to us, you will never see us.

I agree with Ian we need to give working class people a seat at the table. I agree that we need to see more people being given leadership roles – both within the church and in our broader national organisations – from working class background. I’m not so sure my existence doesn’t qualify but, even if that is conceded, I want to see people from estates and deprived places raised up to leadership locally and nationally. We agree on the issue.

But despite what he says, his blog post doesn’t sound like he’s that thankful to me. It sounds like the calls for me to sling my hook that I’ve heard from middle class and working class people for decades because I don’t look like either of them. It feels a lot like Ian doing the very thing he says he has faced as a working class man in majority middle class churches (and I can believe it because I’ve faced it too!) It also feels a lot like frustration that, irrespective of what I was actually saying, he wished I wasn’t the one to say it. I don’t see how the gospel and the cause of truth is served by slamming people because they’re the wrong person saying it.

Ian says, ‘if you don’t start listening to us, you’ll never see us.’ I’m sure that’s true. So what does he think the end of people who don’t fit in anywhere, like me, is going to be when we struggle in middle class and working class churches and, when we dare to speak the truth, we’re told that although people agree we should shut up because we’re the wrong person saying it? It sounds a bit like a threat: ‘either listen to us and let us run everything – which necessarily means locking you out – or we’re gone.’ Basically, either shut up and let us kick you out or we’ll leave ourselves. Quality.

I’ve got a bunch of Iranian asylum seekers in my church asking these same sorts of questions. Shall we give them the flick too because they don’t fit into our class structures very easily either? They’re certainly not ‘local people’. But tell me how that serves the cause of the gospel? We’re all one in Christ Jesus, unless you’re the wrong person, in which case you can get lost and go to Hell. If that was essentially the problem among our majority middle class churches – which both Ian and I and trying to push back against – I cannot see, for the life of me, how we help anything by replicating that same sinful attitude in our majority working class churches.

If we really want to see churches planted in deprived communities and working class representation increased, I am pretty sure this is not the way to go about it. It sometimes feels as though we’re less concerned about the gospel and the unity in Christ of people from different class, ethnic and cultural backgrounds that goes with it, and more bothered about tribalism and flaunting our cultural badges at the expense of gospel unity. It seems to me dunking on people who agree with you because they’re not working class enough is nothing more than an exercise in punching ourselves in the face.