More cheese and wine, vicar? Report urges working-class clergy to challenge CofE class bias

St Mary's church, Moss Side, Manchester. Image credit: Dai O'Nysius, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Rosie Dawson

Working-class clergy in the Church of England feel marginalised and typecast and have fewer opportunities for advancement than their middle-class colleagues, a CofE report reveals today

The report’s authors, Dr Alex Fry from Bournemouth University and Dr Sharon Jagger from York St John University, interviewed 50 clergy about how their class experience affected their wellbeing.

“We start from the position that the wellbeing of working-class clergy is a matter of social justice,” they say. “Wellbeing cannot simply be about self-care.” Their recommendations for changing the church’s culture and practice include adopting a more flexible approach and person-centred approach to training, examining the provision for retirement, and ensuring greater transparency in the appointments process.

The Bishop of Barking, Lynne Cullens, was on the advisory group that commissioned the study. She told the Religion Media Centre that every level of the church was affected by class bias.

“This report has been commissioned because of years of feedback from working-class church leaders in the Church of England, who have felt that they are suffering from class bias in one way or another, whether because of their regional accent, or their lack of opportunities for advancement, or feelings of isolation or marginalisation.

“I’m absolutely delighted to see church looking at issues of class and embracing the changes that are going to be necessary for all of God’s children to thrive within the Church of England.”

Financial and material wellbeing was a key area of the report. Clergy spoke of the anxiety caused by being financially dependent on the church not only for their income but for their housing. It’s often assumed that they have savings, their own home or the prospect of inheritance to fall back on, they said.

One participant told researchers that the CofE “assumes that clergy are richer than they are … this is where the rhetoric that comes from the leadership can become toxic, because they’ll talk about the calling to be a priest as a life of sacrifice … but of course the life of sacrifice is very different if you’re middle-class”.

The process of discernment and training was another area covered in the report. Irene, a curate in the north of England, was turned down by the first panel who assessed her suitability for ministry. “Every single one of my selectors was southern, well-spoken and male,” she said.

Some participants said they needed more support in learning academic skills that they hadn’t had the opportunity to acquire earlier. Others struggled with the atmosphere of elitism in higher education or with the perception that they were unsuited to academia or “thick” because they spoke with a strong regional accent.

While some clergy felt that they had been actively encouraged to serve in middle-class communities, others felt their backgrounds inhibited their opportunities for ministry. “They feel that they don’t have control over their own destiny in the Church of England and feel very much stereotyped — that because they’re working class, they should be interested in ministering to working class areas,” Dr Jagger told the RMC.

The church needs to work on “allowing folk to decide for themselves how they’re going to be trained, whether they want to be self-supporting or whether they want to be paid for their labour and where they want to be deployed”.

The peculiar nature of the relationship between the church and its clergy (the vast majority of clergy are “office-holders” rather than “employees”) leads the report to conclude that clergy are vulnerable to exploitative practices. They recommend that the CofE promotes membership of the faith workers’ branch of the Unite union as a means of peer and work-related support.

The Rev Luke Larner, a priest in Luton who contributed to the study and has recently published a book on theology and class, welcomed the recommendation.

“For me, as a working-class person to survive in this environment with this lack of transparency, with this lack of employment law … at times I feel there’s a risk of almost moral injury participating in a structure which I’d say is harmful to the working class on the whole. To enable people to have a voice and to be heard. Unionisation is key.”

Many of the difficulties faced by working-class clergy stem from the fact that they haven’t acquired what the authors term “cultural capital” (knowing the rules of an elite institution) or “social capital” (knowing the right people.)

This may lead them to feel that they do not fit in at the bishop’s garden party, for example. (“The prevalence of cheese and wine became a theme so common it evoked laughter in several interviews.”) Not knowing the right people was seen as major impediment to career progression.

One participant said “church structures still look like something out of the cabinet or Eton”.  Another said: “I have only ever seen the structure of bishops and archdeacons work in way which favour the powerful. And they decide pretty much who’s going to flourish.”

“It’s not just an implicit bias. In some cases, it is actually explicit as well,” Dr Fry said. “One person said to me that they received a phone call to say that they would never be shortlisted for a cathedral dean’s post, in part because of their working-class regional accent.”

The report calls on the office of the archbishops of Canterbury and York to develop more transparency around the appointment process, particularly for senior leadership positions, and it suggests “reverse coaching” to help leaders widen their cultural perspective.

“There is a real lack of awareness of in the house of bishops,” Bishop Cullens said. “It’s monocultural really and that needs to change. Entry into the House of Bishops is shrouded in some element of secrecy, and that shouldn’t be the case. Until our appointment systems are made transparent, we won’t have the trust in the process that we should have.”

Canon Nick McKee, the Church of England’s new director of ministry, said the report was an important contribution that needed to be continued through further research. “We are committed as a church to being younger and more diverse,” he said. “And part of that diversity needs to include facing up to some of the difficult inheritance that we have around class.

“It may be painful — indeed I’m confident that it will be painful for the church to face up to the classism that exists. But we need to face up to that if we’re to change in the way that we need to.”


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