A Church for the Poor? Learning from a peasant girl

Inspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this. Their reflections will appear here, and in a new publication to be released soon. Today: Robert Ritter, a Brother in the Society of St Francis, who has convened a group to take action on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation.

My church is located on a poor housing estate, and it does a very good job to serve the community. However, there are several trends that seem to me characteristic of problems for the church as a whole in this country (or I should rather speak for my own Church of England).  A few years back, my parish, then largely consisting of white working-class people, seemed to be dying. Then suddenly a number of African people seeking sanctuary were settled in the area; and they became a lifeline for us. More immigrants have arrived since, lifting our numbers. But we are still a fairly small island in a largely non-Christian ocean. It has to be said that the diocese made a strong commitment to keep the church open despite small numbers, as a conscious effort to support a poor community.

The fight for survival and the arrival of a young vicar brought a certain will to experiment, although the older members of the congregation still struggle with it. A new youth worker was finally employed, through the generosity of the national church and various donations. He made the church into a hub for young people. But despite earnest attempts, few of them seem to make a deep commitment to Christ.

In my perception, this has a lot to do with class divisions. England is a deeply entrenched class society, with ever decreasing social mobility since the eighties.

It seems to me that many of the problems in poor areas are related to the fact that great segments of the working class have given up hope for a decent and fulfilling life.

Now, clergy and even our youth worker are by and large middle-class people. Despite all their commitment, they have a very different outlook on life, and they speak a different language. In one of our Bible study groups, the only working-class person simply switches off, when the middle-class people start to talk with references to all the books they’ve read. I can’t help but wonder how much of the sermons preached in our area really reach the receiver. How can we make the Christian experience meaningful to working-class people, if they can’t relate to the middle-class packaging?

Part of the answer is that the church has to make a much bigger effort to encourage working-class people to consider ordination. Alas, at the moment the Church of England seems to do the very  opposite. It seeks ‘safe’ candidates (i.e. middle-class educated people).

But we also have to stand by the side of the working class, first and foremost as an act of Christian love.

We live in a time when the dominant political paradigm is marginalising more and more working-class people. The cuts of the Tory-led governments since 2010 have deliberately targeted the weakest members of society first, knowing that they had no public voice and could not defend themselves. The few lukewarm attempts of the church to challenge those policies usually were too little, too late. Whilst millions of working-class people are increasingly deprived of their dignity, I suspect that the hardly affected churchy middle class is simply not sensitive enough to their sufferings. When really, it is the job of the church to lift its voice in defence of those who have no voice.

I would like to leave the last words to the Blessed Virgin Mary;

My soul magnifies the Lord… He has shown strength with his arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.


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