IN 1913, an unknown author, simply identified as “One of the Bees” (presumably a shy clergyman concerned about his reputation), published a 200-page booklet, Is Christianity a colossal failure?
The booklet describes the horrific lives endured by millions of Edwardian women and the Church’s failure to change the nature of their existence. Here are depicted box and artificial flower makers, shoemakers and dressmakers, hat makers and photographic plate makers, all working diligently to keep their households on the safe side of starvation.
They could just as well be today’s school cleaners and delivery drivers, baristas and cashier assistants, farm laborers or postal workers. The words of the author go through 110 years as if it were a day.
The author is angry and frustrated, and does not spare his blows by targeting the hierarchy of the Church: “I say without hesitation that, if our national Christianity were a practical, vital reality, instead of the petty, hollow and theoretical as it certainly is, our commercial, political, social and religious life would be imbued with the divine spirit of selflessness and consideration for others.
As the church faces unique, even fundamental, challenges to the future of its ministry in this decade, class and the economy once again take center stage. Parishes are told to give, give, give; because the Church is poor. In truth, we all know that the Church is rich in abundance, but the center is determined to preserve it (Comment, December 31, January 7).
The Church of England is stuck in a philanthropic interpretation of the faith of the middle class – we have something to give – rather than a transformational understanding – we have something to receive. Our wealth is representative of this. The privilege and security of Church leadership are dangerously problematic; because we are paralyzed by our privilege.
Having a drink in a social club after a funeral recently, surrounded by ordinary working-class men and women, I became painfully aware of the social distance that separated me from my parishioners: a bridge that I longed for to cross, but who had neither the language nor the culture to find my way.
It was far from the first time I experienced this. I remember more than a decade ago I didn’t have the language to talk to stoner parents pushing their children’s buggies around an estate in Leeds; or, more recently, not really knowing how to talk to retired miners around Nottinghamshire’s old mining villages.
To overcome these class and economic barriers requires a much more radical program than anything currently contemplated. Just as the rich man cannot enter the Kingdom of God, a rich Church cannot represent it. To remain a national church of universal relevance, we must level up to the communities that Jesus cares about, so that he can uplift them.
We must address the embarrassment of our wealth and use it radically to reinvest in Indigenous and parish ministry, with training delivered contextually. Only by addressing both wealth and ministry will parish ministry flourish again.
Our entire training model is currently designed to support and reinforce the ‘set apart’, exclusive, power/wealth model that the institution needs for its own justification and survival. We see it in the way the clergy learn to believe that they have something outside to give rather than something indigenous to discover. We see it in our endless hierarchies and acronyms. It is a state of mind that distances us from others instead of driving them away.
If we continue on the current trajectory, the only church communities that have a chance of thriving in the future are those that already are. Those struggling will have to make an offer for help. When such a feature of the market economy model is used to support the weakest in the Church, one realizes how far we have strayed from the Gospel.
THIS radical agenda begins with the rediscovery of our vocation as human beings created in the image of God. This is our first vocation, and without doubt the most important. Moreover, by being universal, shared with all other human beings, it is also deeply humiliating; because we have nothing to give to someone else, if not the invitation to discover who he really already is: a child of God.
If the Church can use its wealth to invest in indigenous ordained ministry, there is a chance that it can retain universal national relevance. Thanks to him, we could discover a new richness in the ordained ministry, and this will allow the calls of many who feel drawn to Jesus.
Reverend David Ford is Rector of Bromsgrove Team Ministry and Rector of Dodford in the Diocese of Worcester.