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We do not want a middle-class Church

The Catholic Church in England has lost its working-class base

By on Thursday, 17 October 2013

Westminster Cathedral, built by and for the Irish poor of London (CNS)

Westminster Cathedral, built by and for the Irish poor of London (CNS)

I have just been at a conference where a distinguished speaker, outlining the state of the Catholic Church in this country today, brought up the phenomenon of embourgeoisement. This term might ring a few bells with some. In the Catholic context it refers to the way so many of our parishes have been taken over by middle-class elites, and are no longer places where working class people can feel at home.

Historically speaking, British Catholicism, especially in England, has been made up of a few, a very few, descendants of recusant families, some of whom may be upper class, and a rank and file that is sprung from the working class, chiefly the descendants of Irish immigrants, with the middle class significantly under-represented. This may have been true back in the 1950s, but nowadays, despite the old fashioned snobbery of the few, Catholics are no longer seen as being of a lower social status than Anglicans. But, as Catholics have become more middle class, have we lost something? And if we have lost something, can we recover it?

My reflections on this matter are, I suppose, deeply personal, and I have no special expertise in the sociology of religion. But it seems to me that a middle-class Church is not the sort of Church we should want, in that it would exclude from itself a large swathe of the population. Moreover, that large swathe has historically been at home in Catholicism, and their exclusion now would represent an injustice. But it goes further than this: middle class values do not sit well with any authentic type of Catholicism. Middle class values smack too heavily of individualism and Pelagianism, the idea that we get to heaven through our own efforts. While it may be true that we rise into the middle classes by hard work, dedication and effort, these things will not help us to arrive at salvation. In fact, quite the opposite. Salvation comes from grace, and grace is given to those who admit their need of it in humility before God.

Has the “middle-classing” of the Church come about from purely sociological reasons? Is it because the immigrants of old are now full absorbed into the fabric of society? This may well be so, but the middle-classing of the Church may be theological as well.

Do we preach the values of individualism, self-reliance, and social betterment? Or do we admit to ourselves that life is a slow moving train crash, and that we are all sinners, and that things rarely go to plan? Getting on sounds like a good thing, but it is how we get on, and towards what we strive that needs to be examined. Quite a lot of social justice concerns seem straight from the pages of The Guardian; but many of the people who come to church, or would come to church, may in fact be the sort of people who read the Daily Mirror.

There is one caveat: a church that sets itself against middle class values may well find itself alienating its most fervent members; and it may open itself up to the idea that it is against social progress. After all, if immigrants have become more prosperous, that is a good thing. In the process they may well expect something different of their church. But – and it is a but that troubles me – we need to keep the best of our traditions, and we need to be open to all, to the many, not just the few.