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In 2011, the leftist social commentator Owen Jones’ book Chavs brought the issue of the demonization of the working class to a wide audience. Has the Church been guilty of this too? Two years on, a new Christian author has made a case for reclaiming the word ‘chav’ and encouraging authentic working class Christian communities. Lucinda Borkett-Jones evaluates his approach.
Owen Jones’ Chavs (Verso) was the political book of the year in 2011. In it, Jones claimed that Britain had found a convenient scapegoat for all its social ills; political correctness applied to colour and creed, but not to chavs. The very use of the word ‘chav’ in society he saw as part of the demonization of the working class.
Naturally, the book was lambasted by the right and applauded by the left. Nonetheless, it powerfully communicated the idea that Britain still had a class problem. At the time there was an obvious challenge for the Church to deviate from prevalent attitudes, set an example in fostering diversity, and not ghettoise the poor.
We might think that the number of Christian ministries working on estates is a clear indication that the Church fulfils this vision. However, notwithstanding some amazing work done by Christians, there are some who argue that churchgoing in the UK remains largely the preserve of the middle class. In the meantime, the Church may be overlooking the spiritual needs of working-class people.
Having been strongly influenced by Jones, Darren Edwards ‐ who identifies himself as a ‘chav’ ‐ published Chav Christianity (New Generation) late last year. He wanted to write a book that would communicate the idea that ‘chav Christianity’ is something that should be encouraged ‐ or, at the very least, allowed. Of course this goes against the grain in more ways thanone ‐ not least because Edwards is prepared to use this pejorative term.
So is Edwards right? Is the Church failing working class people? And, if it is, what more can be done to encourage an authentic breed of working-class Christianity?
What’s the problem?
Two main criticisms come out of the idea that the Church is largely middle class. The first is that we have overlooked the working class in mission, or done mission in a way that limits and undermines working-class culture. The second is that we too are guilty of denigrating the working class.
We’re not deliberately excluding the working class; we do it by default
The idea that the UK Church is predominantly middle class is relatively undisputed. A Tearfund report in 2007 found that churchgoing was a largely middle-class pursuit. This need not be seen as a vendetta against the middle class. But if left unchecked, it could result in a self-perpetuating problem, because the more homogenous our social attitudes and church format, the less likely we are to see a need for change.
And what of the effect on mission? Could churches be undermining working-class culture (albeit inadvertently) by inviting people into a middle-class space, rather than building churches which reflect all UK cultures? Carl Beech, director of Christian Vision for Men, describes a phenomenon of ‘gentrification by conversion’. ‘We’re not deliberately excluding the working class; we do it by default,’ he says. When someone joins a middle-class environment, those around them shape their attitudes and ideals.
Edwards also sees this as a natural occurrence. Changes include things from sartorial choices to social attitudes ‐ such as the assumption that personal development includes financial stability, moving off a council estate and ensuring your children are well educated. In this way, joining a middle-class church could result in a separation from old friends and shared experiences, and therefore further distance the church and its new member from the community from which they came.
Edwards’ book presents a case for allowing ‘chavs’ to be themselves in church; encouraging Christian faith among their own communities rather than morphing into the middle-class habits of the rest of the Church. Chav Christianity is not a critique of the Church; it resembles more a manual for a new Christian thinking about how to transform cultural inheritance into redeemed habits.
‘The best thing for the Church and for this nation,’ says Edwards, ‘would be to encourage working class people to learn what it means to be a working class Christian and express what it means to be a person of faith in that environment.’
Because there has been relatively little study of the norms of working-class culture, suggests Beech, cultural differences between the classes are not generally appreciated. Consequently, this is one of the ways in which the Church may have overlooked the working class in mission. One example is the problem of middle-class people ‘parachuting’ into a council estate to run a project, rather than being part of the community themselves.
In highlighting these issues, there is a risk that we entrench social differences, discourage middle-class and upper-class Christians from engaging with people from different social groups, and only make the problem worse. Surely the ideal would be to have integrated, diverse churches that give people the freedom to worship God within their own cultural framework‐ not creating segregated communities?
‘Part of me thinks, “Why highlight any differences, aren’t we just creating more distinctions and divisions?”’ says Beech. ‘The other part of me thinks that unless we highlight a significant need, we’re going to miss reaching millions of people in the UK.’
"I was once introduced at a conference as: ‘This is Carl. Don’t let his accent fool you, he’s not as thick as he sounds’"
The suggestion that we denigrate the working class is a less quantifiable, but a nonetheless worrying, claim. Beech suggests that we have adopted widespread misconceptions and demonised them as a result. For example, he says there’s often an assumption that working class people are stupid. ‘I was once introduced by someone at a conference who said: “This is Carl Beech. Don’t let his accent fool you, he’s not as thick as he sounds!”’
This isn’t a problem confined to the Church, but found throughout British society ‐ as Jones argued in Chavs. It has become acceptable ‐ even amusing ‐ to denigrate this particular community. Beech recalls seeing a greetings card with a picture of two upper class people on a hunt; the caption read: ‘It wasn’t quite the same. Chavs were a lot slower than foxes, but at least no one complained!’ ‘As an experiment, I showed some friends the card and they laughed. We’ve totally demonized the working class and it’s become acceptable, which is frightening,’ he adds.
Is it really about class?
These are fair critiques, but it is worth asking whether the problem described is really one of class, or a smaller social group that has been marginalised in society. What are we talking about when we say ‘working class’, and are the differences really as significant as Beech and Edwards make out? A predominantly middle-class Church is relatively unproblematic if we consider the majority of the UK to be middle class. But even this is open to discussion.
Many will take offence at the use of the word ‘chav’, which Edwards uses interchangeably with ‘working class’. The term has accumulated myriad, mostly derogatory, meanings, but he describes a set of values that he ascribes to the working class, and consequently to ‘chavs’
‘They reckon 57% of the UK is working class,’ says Edwards, ‘so if you go back to the original meaning of the term, then 57% of the UK [are effectively] chavs.’ He suggests that the style of most church services is perfect for reaching a middle-class audience, and as a result is failing to connect with much of the population.
Edwards’ assessment of what constitutes working-class culture includes life on a council estate, dressing in a particular way, sense of humour, and attitudes to money and education. The values he sees as part of this culture and worth preserving include, among others, the importance of family, hospitality, and sharing possessions.
‘Most people don’t mean [to be derogatory] when they talk about class,’ he says, ‘but there’s definitely a disagreement ‐ usually between what some would have as their aspirations. People talk about us [the working class] having no aspirations,but I don’t think that’s true, the aspirations of the working class are just different.’
Having inhabited a somewhat different world during his time at theological college, Edwards was keen to return to life on a council estate afterwards ‐ as was the rest of his family. ‘My kids were extremely excited about moving back onto a housing estate. The culture is different ‐ there’s no idea that you have to be or act a certain way. I can tell them that it’s good to get a good education, but you haven’t got the pressure to do well, it’s just not the same.’
By implication, the attitudes and values of the middle class are not those of the working class. Edwards’ perception of the middle class may seem unfair, but as Beech says: ‘He’s only communicating the perception that people have. It’s a misperception, but it is the perception. I encountered all of those sentiments in working-class areas. We’ve got to listen towhat he’s saying and hear the heart behind it. That is what people think of us. We’ve got to work to break the barriers down.’
While differences do exist, in some cases it is difficult to attribute them only to class boundaries. Jim Purves, mission and ministry adviser for the Baptist Union of Scotland, says: ‘I’m not convinced that there is a uniform description that fits “working class”, “middle class” or “upper class” in Scotland today. Scottish society is more complex than that. The issue is more about effective communication and meaningful engagement ‐ and building Christian community that smells of Jesus.’
Authentic and accessible
Ultimately, that’s what we want ‐ community that ‘smells of Jesus’. But how do we achieve it? How do we ensure that by trying to encourage the authentic working-class Christian community that Edwards is looking for, we don’t segregate Christian communities even further?
If we don’t consider our accessibility for all in the community, we will continue to alienate a large part of the population
If we are to avoid the criticism of parachuting in to problem-solve, we need to make long-term commitments to people and to places. This is in part about rebuilding the trust that has been lost in institutions. There is also a need for cultural association ‐ which doesn’t necessarily mean being ‘relevant’, but should mean being both authentic and accessible. And the ideal is to see a greater diversity in Christian leadership; Edwards is essentially asking for permission to look, sound and behave like a Christian from within his community.
‘When we work in communities, it’s often so short term,’ says Patrick Regan, director of urban youth charity XLP. ‘To achieve anything ‐ particularly in a city area ‐ you’re talking about at least seven years. A lot of our evangelism is event-based, but…trust takes so much time to build up. In society generally there’s a real mistrust of institutions; they mistrust the Church, politicians, the media, authorities ‐ that’s the key issue.’
There is a risk that even if we try to focus our mission on a particular part of society, we will still miss the mark. ‘There’s that idea of “to, for, or with” ‐ you can do things to people, for people, but a lot of people are calling out for doing things with them ‐ so the poor aren’t just the subject of outreach efforts, but at the core of our communities,’ says Regan. ‘For me, it’s more aboutjustice ‐ being part of a community, so that my issues are your issues.’
‘Relevance’ has become a difficult word to use; however, both Edwards and Regan feel there is a disjunction between working-class life and the expectations of the Church. The chaotic nature of a life on the breadline often feels unrecognisable in the sermons heard on a Sunday. But as Regan points out, it isn’t about becoming like the people we’re trying to reach: ‘I don’t listen to the right type of music… But hopefully over the last 20 years I’ve put myself in a position to understand and be genuine. It might be a simplistic thing to say, but when you’re trying to be something you’re not, young people see through it.’
So before middle class Christians start wondering how to change their accent or dress differently, it’s worth noting that this is primarily about encouraging people to behave in accordance with their own cultural norms, not adopting new ones. Edwards underscores Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church: ‘Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them’ (1 Corinthians 7:20-22). ‘The question is not, “Should everyone be working class?”’ says Edwards, ‘but “Can we be working class?”’
In Beech’s view, the most successful church plants on estates are those where leaders are raised up from within the community, and they take ownership for planting and multiplying elsewhere.
He describes ministering to working-class communities as a kind of ‘cross-cultural mission’. ‘We’ve got to open our eyes, and be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Not everyone’s cut out for it, but not everyone’s cut out for cross-cultural mission.’
Working class or not, Edwards’ book is a useful reminder that whatever our cultural heritage, it needs to be redeemed. So whether that means using the willingness to spend money to finance Christian mission, or investing and saving to the same end, all of society must be put under the spotlight of the gospel.
There is of course a warning that if we don’t consider our accessibility for all in the community, we will continue to alienate a large part of the population. ‘My fear,’ says Regan, ‘is that the poorest people in the community will get further and further from Church if we don’t resolve this. We need to take a serious look at how we be part of communities like this ‐ and resource it.’