Five frustrating comments whenever we discuss problems of class

There are lots of frustrating things that happen whenever you begin talking about class and the church. But perhaps among the most frustrating is when people become very defensive about it. Yesterday, I looked at some of the things we aren’t saying in this conversation. Today, I want to think about some of the things we hear that are quite frustrating.

Now, to be frank, the statistics are freely available to anybody who wishes to look. There really is no argument to be made with the fact that the Conservative Evangelical church in the UK is particularly white and very middle class. But, more often than not, any discussion about these statistics becomes less about the facts of the matter and always descends into frustrating discussions that stem from the insecurities of those who seem to take any mention of class as a personal affront.

I don’t know whether it is borne out of a sense that any mention of the reality is taken as an implicit criticism of the specific person to whom you are talking (which it almost never is) or it is the manifestation of some sense of guilt that we are where we are and the unfortunate knee-jerk reaction to try and justify ourselves for it (even if it has nothing specifically to do with you). What I do know is that very few are prepared to look at the facts of the matter and simply acknowledge what is clearly the case without desperately defending the situation or denying it exists altogether.

But here are some of the more frustrating comments I have heard on this:

Class isn’t an issue these days

I wish it weren’t, but it obviously is. It is, interestingly, only ever middle class people who make this argument. Those who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination and whose culture is dominant are the only ones who brush aside class concerns on the grounds that they have never experienced it and, naturally, they believe they would never be so crass as to discriminate against somebody like that.

But the fact of the matter is that class discrimination still very much exists. One person who insisted nobody discriminates against people based on class proceeded to claim that everyone who lives in council houses are entitled and demand everything as their right. Obviously no discriminatory or partial views based on class going on there! Phrases like, ‘those people’ get bandied around without irony. Fact is, the only people who insist class isn’t an issue are those for whom it never has been an issue.

I just take people as I find them

Which is excellent if you actually rub shoulders with working class people, but if you never spend any time with them, there isn’t much to find. On those occasions where you do spend time with them, the problem is that you tend to find that working class people dress, think and act differently to you and because your cultural values tell you these things are wrong (even though they may be not such thing) the way you take them is very negative. It sounds very fair minded and equitable but it is actually so culturally bound as to find people who do not share your culture to be problematic.

But I’m working class…

This one gets trotted out a lot. Usually from people who are so clearly not working class that they feel the need to state it because it’s not obvious to anyone else. In the worst cases, folk claim they are working class because their grandfather was a miner or something (which, for the avoidance of doubt, may make your grandfather working class but it doesn’t make you working class). Other times, people claim that they are working class because their parents were. Whilst there is more legitimacy here, unless your parents were working class at the point you were growing up, there is no reason to assume that you are. Others might say they are working class because, when they were 5, their parents were working class and they lived in poverty. Certainly that might give you a working class upbringing, but it doesn’t account for the fact that there is such a thing as social mobility.

I would say only the last of those would have any real understanding of the issues as they experienced them (the former two are neither working class nor give them any great insight into the working classes), but none of them necessarily make you working class now. Whilst it isn’t all quite as simple as going to university makes you middle class, there are certain values you may now hold and things you have done that make it very hard to maintain your working class credentials any more. But this becomes a real problem when those who have ceased to be working class then go on to suggest that class doesn’t exist as an issue because they have had enough opportunity to become upwardly mobile and break into a new class.

You can’t just talk about people as a monolithic bloc

Certainly, people are individuals. Not every individual experiences the world the same way just because they share characteristics with somebody else. But, it is nonetheless true that there are some issues that certain groups of people will face, that others will not, simply because of their shared characteristics.

Whilst there are always outliers and counterexamples, the fact is that there are issues that people face specifically because of their class that others won’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is to blame for those things (though, again, sometimes they will be) it is just to state a reality. If we can talk in general terms about any group of people, it is not unreasonable to talk in general terms about class. There are different issues that will affect upper, middle and working class people differently. That is just a brute reality.

Isn’t it just divisive to talk about this?

I don’t think so. It only becomes divisive when people want to dismiss the legitimate concerns of any other group of people or if people are raising concerns that are wholly illegitimate and untrue. But the stats on the UK church do nothing to support the case that deprived and working class areas are over-served with gospel preaching churches. It is simply a fact that it is easier to find a church in a middle class area of the country than it is to find them in working class areas.

The only reason not to talk about this is if we are inclined to recognise problems and then do nothing about them. Nobody is trying to have a go at middle class people when we point these things out. Nobody is trying to say there is something inherently wrong with being middle class (there isn’t). They are simply trying to say that there is an issue that must be dealt with. Our churches are largely in middle class communities, our people are largely white and middle class and our overarching culture, reflecting the makeup of our people, is white and middle class too.

Shutting down the discussion as divisive might salve the conscience of the middle classes who don’t like what they perceive to be (but, in actuality, isn’t) an implicit dig at them. Sadly, it will do nothing to resolve the fact that we are missing large swathes of our country with the gospel and refusing to plant and support churches among them. If our reason for doing so is it makes us feel uncomfortable that somebody is pointing out the fact that we haven’t done this already, I’d say that is – to do my best middle class impression – a pretty poor show.