Church’s ‘cheese and wine’ culture is alienating working class clergy
Published: 06 October 2023
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 York St John University and Bournemouth 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 ow it can change its culture and practices to challenge its elitism.
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.
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.
The report also shed light on the material culture within the Church, including the distribution of book tokens, wine and cheese as tokens of appreciation. The prevalence of cheese and wine was a theme so common it “evoked laughter in several interviews”. Others mentioned dinner parties, black tie events and supper socials which were intended as times for clergy to relax, but were unfamiliar and sometimes stressful for the study’s participants.
Other observations included assumptions sometimes being made that working-class clergy will work in poorer areas with a high proportion of social housing, and that there are issues around being able 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.
These experiences have psychological, social, material, and physical implications for the individuals’ wellbeing.
Dr Sharon Jagger, Senior Lecturer in Religion, York St John University 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 report authors are proposing 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.
Read the full report on the Church of England website 'Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters’ Exploring the Wellbeing of Working-Class Clergy in the Church of England: A Rally Cry for Change',