What we can learn from bigotgate in the church

My wife and I, being sad politics nerds, recently watched the BBC documentary Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution. It was really interesting (to us, at least). But, as Danny Finkelstein wrote here in The Times:

Particularly in the first three programmes (the last one, dealing with decline and fall, is revealingly less guilty of this) Blair and Brown are portrayed as entirely the authors of their own rise and success. Editorial decisions have to be made, of course. And even five hours isn’t long enough to include everything. Blair’s decision to abolish Clause IV is, for example, not mentioned at all. Yet time might still have been found to touch at least upon two things that were pretty central to New Labour’s political dominance.

He went on to argue that leaving out the Tories’ collapse after 18 years in power was something of an odd choice, as it played a significant part in the New Labour victory in 1997. Similarly, not to note the extended period of economic stability enjoyed by Labour when it was not an insignificant part of them retaining power was an oversight.

It is interesting he lands on those omissions – mainly for the sake of the particular point he is driving at – because one of the (many) things missed was the incident in Rochdale with Gillian Duffy and her role in #bigotgate2010. Of course, the party will point to the fact that they went on to gain Rochdale from the Lib Dems (though how far Cyril Smith’s activities were known at that point is unclear, which wouldn’t have helped the incumbent). However, Gordon Brown’s comments to Gillian Duffy reverberated around the country. So much so, that in his recent book Despised: Why the modern left loathes the working class Paul Embery cites the incident – knowing full well anyone involved in Labour would remember it well – and points to it as an exemplar of shift in UK politics.

There can be no doubt that bigotgate was part and parcel of Labour’s, particularly Brown’s, campaign failure in 2010. Most people simply do not vote for those people who seem to hold them and their views in contempt. This is why the Labour Party have all but imploded in recent years and their Jewish vote largely disappeared altogether. Similarly, Hilary Clinton failed to secure the votes of those she said belonged in ‘a basket of deplorables’. If people think you hate them and everything they stand for, you can’t be that surprised if they don’t vote for you.

I bring this up because I think there is a similar issue within the church. Just as people do not vote for politicians who barely conceal their contempt for them, people do not go to churches which give off the same vibes. My wife was once interacting with somebody who was involved in politics who made some very disparaging comments about where we live and the people who live here, somewhat ruefully remarking ‘but these are the people we have to engage’. The church can often give off this same sort of ‘I’ll hold my nose, but Jesus says we have to’ vibes. Unsurprisingly, people just don’t go to churches that hold them in contempt.

I think particularly of those churches that always seem to have a ‘heart for the poor’ but definitely want to keep them at a distance. They will run a youth group or a mission event where they live, but they wouldn’t go and live among them and they certainly wouldn’t send their kids to school with them. I think of those who turn their noses up at the way people speak and dress when they come into their churches. I think of those who get a frosty reception because they don’t seem to know all the rules of ‘how we do things around here’. I think of those who are spoken down to and treated condescendingly because they ‘probably don’t have the education to understand’. I think of those who are fronted for pictures and advertising at the church, but never seem to be listened to when anything of substance is decided. Unsurprisingly, people just don’t stick around in churches where they are treated in these ways. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t either.

I am sure many of us don’t intend to convey these sorts of things. But that, in many ways, doesn’t really matter. If people are under the impression that we do think these things, that we do look down on them, that we even hold them in contempt, they aren’t going to settle in our church. If we seem to have whole demographics missing from our churches, it does bear asking why. It might be that you live in an area where there simply aren’t m/any of that kind of person. But all of us will have some working class and some middle class people around. A number of us will have ethnic minorities in the vicinity too. If we never seem to reach them, but only ever seem to reach people like us, it bears asking why not. Could it be that, even unintentionally, we are conveying that ours is not a place for people like them? Might people think (whether we do or not) that we hold them in contempt? Are there simple steps we can take – given our makeup is what it is – that might limit those things being a problem before people settle with us?