A while ago, the thorny issue of class divisions caused several weeks of debate in the online feminist circles I’m part of. This debate is nothing new. The feminist movement has navigated division and conflict around class since before women were able to vote – a subject that also received a lot of attention in 2015, thanks to the release of the film Suffragette – but every so often, the issue rears its head, highlighting painful truths and hurt that goes deep.
Much of this discussion focused on the marginalisation of working class women within feminism, often due to the way that middle class ‘codes of conduct’ act against them and middle class women appear to close ranks against them as soon as they ‘cross the line’, as Natalie Collins writes about in this post.
Britain is a nation obsessed by class – even though we’re squeamish about discussing it – and for the middle class among us, if we’re big enough to admit it, this often manifests in a bit of an obsession with respectability, being polite, using the right words, and not ‘making a fuss’. The fact that we feel so uncomfortable discussing class also means that we often simply have no idea of the significant differences in the way we make our way through the world – until conflict occurs and people are deeply hurt. We know class privilege exists, but we might not want to admit it’s a part of our lives.
As the debate progressed and some Christian feminists used social media to discuss the impact of class on their lives, it provided what should be something of a wake-up call to the Church. Without being ignorant of the work already being done – we know that most churches are dedicated to reaching those who are marginalised or living in poverty, and we know that books and have been published on the subject and that people have dedicated their ministry and entire lives to breaking down class barriers – I think it’s fair to say the Church needs to work on its class problem.
We all need to challenge ourselves about being more inclusive across the social spectrum. The uncomfortable truth is that many churches are middle class enclaves. Our festivals are incredibly middle class – the ticket prices alone mean attendance is out of the question for many families – as are many of our conferences and the speakers they feature. Our high profile leaders are middle class, the sort of activities we love to get together and take part in are too, and so is our way of looking at the world. I know that for some people, these statements seem almost offensive, as if I’m tearing down a particular way of life – but this is about acknowledging privilege, not tearing down. We need to take a look at how the things we do, even unconsciously, exclude others.
It’s worth pointing out, here, that over the centuries the church has been instrumental in creating what we think of as middle class mores, so the issue of class and Christian culture is not clear-cut. It’s not simply a case of 21st century middle class lifestyles being seen as the norm and as something to aspire to – although this is certainly a factor.
Rachel Held Evans has written about how she has often felt that being ‘plugged in’ to evangelical culture felt like having to ‘assimilate’ to a whole list of viewpoints and lifestyle choices to fit in. Whether we like it or not, this culture has a lot of unspoken rules that can make it feel like an exclusive club, without the patience or the grace to accept the messiness of people’s lives. We expect people to use the right words, the right tone of voice, and enmesh themselves in church life with its meetings and get-togethers and teams, sometimes to the extent that we have time for little else.
When people first become Christians, they’re often praised for the little steps they take in beginning to adhere to these norms – the words they no longer use, the people they’re spending less time with. Getting more involved in church life often means getting more involved in middle class life – one friend of mine who’s from a working class background said she thinks it often means having to leave behind working class identity altogether; the sense of community and opportunities for socialising. When long-time Christians don’t completely fit in, they’re often referred to, with a smile, as ‘a bit of a character’. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how this is often a coded reference to class, or to a tendency to rock the boat.
Our class privilege as Christians also manifests itself in the way we choose who gets to lead. We know that across society, people in power look to people like them to join their teams, be their successors – blinkered to the fact that ‘different’ can be just as good or even better. And so once again, people are excluded because the imperative is that their face fits, that they speak ‘nicely’, that they have the right sort of influence.
Just as in the secular workplace, relying on a ‘talent pool’ of young interns who are often related to existing church leaders and able to work for free or very little pay excludes people. Not stepping out of your comfort zone when you pick the speakers for your panel debate excludes people. Choosing conventional, photogenic families with influential jobs and good networks to be the ‘faces’ of your church excludes people. They look at what they see, and they don’t see that it’s ‘for them’.
I don’t think there are any quick answers here. Class divisions are so complex and such a painful subject; they’re not going to be solved in three simple steps or five points all beginning with the same letter. It’s stepping out of our comfort zone and remembering our call to radical inclusivity that should be the key here.
I know that I’ve been incredibly challenged by discussions on class because these conversations have highlighted the things I unconsciously do that privilege middle class culture. It seems to me that Church culture can be incredibly comfortable with working class people as subjects of our ‘outreach’ or our ‘success stories’ and less comfortable with them as leaders, people of influence, instigators of change. What would it take to change that?
This article first appeared on Christian Today. Reproduced with permission.