The work and culture of the Church of England can leave working-class members of the clergy feeling marginalised, ignored and misunderstood. Those are some of the findings of a new report by Bournemouth University and York St. John University.
The “Rally Cry for Change” report was commissioned by the Church of England, aiming to examine the wellbeing of clergy who come from working-class backgrounds, and provide recommendations about how it can change its culture and practices to challenge elitism.
Participants in the study highlighted a lack of practical and emotional support from the Church, including from those who had pastoral oversight for them, and a lack of understanding of the specific barriers that they faced.
Other observations included being type-cast for roles in areas of with high levels of poverty and social housing and being unable to train in the Church’s residential colleges due to lack of financial means. Overall, findings show working-class clergy can be disadvantaged compared to clergy from middle class backgrounds.
The researchers also heard how the material culture such as the issuing of book tokens, wine and cheese as a ‘thank you’, and assumed dress codes reflected an upper middle-class culture that is not representative of how everyone lives and interacts.
These experiences caused a mixture of psychological, social and physical implications for the individuals’ wellbeing.
Dr Alex Fry, Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Health and Illness at Bournemouth University, who jointly authored the report, said, “throughout this research, we heard stories of clergy who have experienced mental health breakdowns, anxiety, depression, feelings of agitation, dejection and long-standing feelings of being ground down.
“Having smaller professional networks in the Church means they had fewer supportive relationships and fewer opportunities to move into new roles. Concerns about their financial circumstances, including their immediate and longer-term housing situation were also very common.”
The research team spoke to fifty clergy across England, including newly ordained ministers, vicars, chaplains, those with regional, national or senior leadership roles—including those paid for their ministry, those doing it voluntarily and those who were retired. Twenty-five of these then took part in focus groups so the researchers could carry out more in-depth analysis.
Dr Fry and his co-author, Dr Sharon Jagger from York St John University, propose a series of policies to help the Church address these issues.
“The solution lies with transforming the cultural blind spots of the Church, rather than placing the responsibility of wellbeing solely on the individual, who has less power to create change within a large institution such as the Church of England,” said Dr Fry.
Their recommendations cover how clergy are selected and train for ordination, how they are appointed to senior roles, the extent of retirement provision in place, funding available to support working-class clergy, and greater awareness of how the elite culture of the Church influences the lives and working conditions of its clergy.
At the report's launch, hosted by the Religion Media Centre, Reverend Lynne Cullins, who was on the group that commissioned the report said, "This report was commissioned because of years of feedback from working class leaders from the Church of England who have felt that they are suffering from class bias in one way or another.
"Lots of stories have come through over the years, my own story of going through discernment and selection as a single mum from a working class background as well. So lots of lived experience indicated that this was an issue that the Church needed to address and, thankfully, wanted to address."
In the video above you can watch Dr Fry and Dr Jagger discuss the report on with the Religion Media Centre and Reverend Lynne Cullens, Bishop of Barking; Rev Canon Nicholas McKee, Church of England Director for Ministry; and Luke Larner, minister and activist.
The full report is available on the Church of England website here