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Church of England told to employ more working-class priests

Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Blackburn, will call on the Church to hire lay ministers from low-income families
Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Blackburn, will call on the Church to hire lay ministers from low-income families - Clive Lawrence Photography

The Church of England must “raise up a new generation of working-class leaders”, a bishop has said.

The Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Blackburn, will call on the Church to hire and promote greater numbers of priests and lay ministers from low-income families and deprived areas.

A report commissioned by the Church found in October last year that working-class vicars believe a predominantly middle-class Anglican hierarchy discriminates against them and inhibits their promotion to prominent roles like cathedral deans and bishops.

The Archbishop of York said in the report’s foreword that the Church needs to eradicate class prejudice if it wants to be “a Christ-shaped church”.

On Monday, Bishop North will move a motion at General Synod, the Church’s legislative body, which if passed will commit it to “taking the necessary steps to raise up a new generation of lay and ordained leaders from estates and working-class backgrounds… at all levels of the Church”.

The Church would also commit to establishing a “loving, serving and worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate”.

‘Wine-and-cheese’ culture

The October report Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters, which was authored by academics from York St John and Bournemouth universities, found that working-class priests are “deeply alienated” from a “wine-and-cheese” middle-class culture.

Vicar appointments were biased towards those with theology degrees from Oxford and Cambridge over other universities, the report found, reflecting “the deeply embedded culture of elitism in the Church”.

It said the vicars had to battle assumptions that they should only minister in deprived areas and that they believed advancement in the Church depends on “knowing the right people”.

Priests told the report’s authors that they had been “laughed at” by other clergy for the way they spoke and that they were assumed to have savings, wealthy relatives and prospective inheritances to fall back on in times of need.

One priest, whose identity was not disclosed, told the report that her bishop had even told her: “You need to learn to speak middle-class.”

Another said she had found her seniors were “surprised that I’m clever” because of “the way I talk”.

“And I feel like when I’m in rooms full of bishops… I feel quite like a novelty like ‘oh, she’s a hoot… like the party trick’,” she said. “She’s northern, and she’s quite bright.”

‘All very alien to me’

Another priest recalled attending a black-tie church dinner. “When we arrived, we were all given a glass of port,” the priest said. “Don’t drink port, so I had me orange juice.

“Then after the meal, they brought the snuff around. ‘Oh right, snuff.’ It was a camel and then you lifted up the camel’s behind and there was snuff inside, and they were all on the snuff. I was like, ‘Oh, this is all very alien to me’.”

The report said senior leaders have not taken the issue seriously enough and need to be given “reverse coaching” to tackle their “narrow cultural perspective”.

Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Blackburn
Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Blackburn - Clive Lawrence Photography

It also urged the Church to promote membership of the priests’ branch of the Unite union, set up working-class peer-support groups in every diocese and guarantee retiring vicars affordable housing if they do not own a house.

The Eton-educated Archbishop of Canterbury is one of 16 incumbent or acting diocesan bishops who went to private school.

Almost all of the 42 were in professional careers before joining the Church and 41 had already studied at university.

The Church said just 25 per cent of candidates for ordination to the priesthood are working class, compared to the 48 per cent of the population as a whole that identifies as such.

But 17 per cent of ordination candidates have been on free school meals, two percentage points higher than the national figure.