Friday, 16 October 2015

Worship in the Working Class Tradition - or How Marie Stopes and the Former Bishop of Southwark Tried to Poison London

It is well known in progressive liturgical circles that working-class people, or those I had better describe as the "not as nice as us" (NANAU) category, do not go to church. As long ago as the 1960s the church hierarchy in Southwark realised that their congregations relative to the population were tiny, that they were not relating to their working class parishioners. The poor, frankly, did not believe in God. The strategy of getting the Bishop to write a book explaining that he didn't believe in God either did not help in making contact. Maybe the working classes took opposing views to the bishop of the work of Tillich and Bultmann? We will never know, as the working classes never turned up at the cathedral to tell him.

I notice that the Diocese of London in recent years has had a strategy of clear communication, simplification, belief in God and letting people get on with things. How they expect that sort of thing to work is beyond me.

And so, in order to bring the sweaty masses to the pews, last night was our first "Worship in the Working Class Tradition".  Brilliant work by Pearly Queen Charlii for leading. Thanks to Grenville for his playing of the old Joanna, to Parquin for his virtuosity on the comb and paper, and Dezmelza for her attempts at playing the spoons. To be fair to Demelza, she is keen but maybe needs a little more practice. And a second spoon.

The bring and share working class finger buffet was frankly disgusting. Black pudding, fried lights, jellied eels. Frankly I don't see why anyone would want to be working class.  It's hardly a good career option. The only recognisable food was pie and mash. But someone had poured some kind of green poison on it. Bernie the chef said it was called " liquor" but it didn't look like whisky to me. I don't know who first had the idea of putting green poison on working-class food, but I suspect it may have been Marie Stopes. She made it her life's work to reduce their numbers. I have no evidence that she ever collaborated with John AT Robinson to deliberately rid South London of the working classes, as I think the good bishop liked the poor but didn't "get" them, but there's no doubt that it would have improved the percentage of his diocese's congregation that went to church. And some of them would have preferred the green poison to reading Honest to God, in my opinion.

At the end of the day, we had an exciting and informative Worship in the Working Class Tradition. We may do it again, and invite some people from Bletchley. And you may think that we have celebrated a rosy, stereotypical view of a group of people that weren't homogeneous, that we don't understood and who, in the idealistic form we have presented them, never existed. And you'd be right. But I have only two words to say to you. "Celtic Tradition."


  1. One of the keys to this is the word "working", which is what many people now have to do on Sundays to make ends meet. I guess the place to start would be an old pub, with a publican who really listens. Publications which resemble The Sun? I'm trying to think of other places where working people feel at home, and comfortable.
    Slightly more seriously, is it not incredibly hard to be compassionate towards those who are just a step below you on the social ladder when you pulled yourself up by sheer bloody hard graft? One thing really grates: how do the working class feel when their homes are gentrified, and are taken off the market to be later reinstated as homes to let - at rents that are unaffordable. Or turned into holiday homes.
    There are many obstacles: swearing in church, for example: those that cannot express themselves without it, and then those who have taught themselves not to, replacing it with a rigid politeness.
    The place to start is hell: many working class kids believe in hell, but cannot conceive what heaven might be like. It's a starting point. One has to start where people are, not where we would like them to be. One has to use their own language, and to listen. We may have to unpick racist or other politically incorrect views, to find out what the real fear is. But until we respect those who clean our streets or care for our elderly, then we cannot begin to expect them to respect our traditions..
    Having recently moved to Cornwall, where the evangelist alliance has a stranglehold over the Methodists, who used to be the friends of the working class, I find that the church has a poor reputation.
    My sociology of religion tells me that churches are very much places where people like to be with like people.. not to mix with difference, unless difference is the likeness.

  2. Did the C of E ever make much headway with the urban poor? Serious question. The rural poor, yes, because the Squire could compel attendance since everybody worked for him (see Laurie Lee on this) and everybody in the village knew everybody else's business. But the urban poor, I doubt it, even in the heyday of the 19th century, not according to Dickens anyway.

    Part of my family comes from industrial Lancashire. There, well into the 20th century, the battle lines were drawn between the Methodists and the Roman Catholics; the C of E presence was negligible.

    1. In some spots, Anglo Catholics did make headway with the urban poor. As you say, even in the 19th Century, the poor didn't go to church in the towns. The Victorians were staggered to discover that only 40% of the population went to Church. And even among the Methodists, the Prims were much more working class than the lah-di-dah Wesleyans.


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl