thebusypriest

Estates, the poor and culture war stereotypes

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Paulsgrove, Portsmouth

There’s a debate about the Church of England’s attitude to parishes in estates: especially those in what might be termed ‘white, working class’ areas. That debate has actually been going on for years (anyone remember Faith in the City and the creation of Urban Priority Areas?). In truth, its a historic debate that stretches back through the centuries.

It has gathered pace again recently. In part, that has been through the advocacy of the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North. It has also played into all kinds of discourse about Brexit, Trump and income disparity.

There have been both thoughtful and knee-jerk responses. What are some of the issues, and how does this affect the Church of England’s agenda of Reform and Renewal?

I was tempted not to write anything (some of you will rather wish I hadn’t), but felt that there are some things we’re shying away from saying. So what follows isn’t an academic treatise. It is observation, personal experience and comment. Don’t quote it at me in ten years time – my views might have changed. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all evolve in the light of learning, context and experience.

I grew up in what would be easily described as a white working class household. We had little money, I qualified for free school meals (at secondary school) and (remember those days) a full grant to go to University. Whilst that is my “root” – of which I am enormously proud – I’d be hard pressed today not to be described as apparently very middle class (grammar school, Durham, Oxford – and for heavens sake, Rector of a Parish in Harrogate).

I was Vicar of a UPA parish, Paulsgrove, in the Diocese of Portsmouth for ten years. So I have some experience of estate ministry. And in the interests of transparency, I’ve known +Philip since we were both ordinands, more years ago than either of us care to remember. He too was Vicar of a large UPA in Hartlepool – and served a curacy in Sunderland – so any ‘typical middle class out of touch bishop pontificating about poor people’ critiques are, I would suggest, a little wide of the mark.

The contention is that the CofE is a white middle class Church, which for decades has rather sneered at poor white estate parishes in a middle class ‘pity them’ way and under-invested, under-supported, and over-patronized them. The feeling being that such places are left to rot – and might hopefully fade away.

After all, why should nice middle class parishes (and this is an argument I hear often) pay huge parish shares to employ clergy for places which can’t support themselves, don’t flourish, have small congregations and don’t fit the glossy PR brochures stereotype for smiling CofE hipsters?

Indeed, the suspicion is that if we had the choice of a picture of an ordinand in a Jack Wills outfit, it’d be included in preference to an ordinand (if we could find one) in a Kappa tracksuit and a burberry baseball cap (unless, of course, they were achingly trendy middle class clergy-to-be, trying oh so hard to ‘identify’).

I think there’s an awful lot going on here. There’s a lot of assumptions being made. There are incredibly important and valid points – and a lot of tosh tied up in this too.

I used to be dismayed in my last parish how many people (from outside) thought if they ventured onto the estate they’d need body armour and to drive a tank (which would probably be nicked). So yes, there’s much talk about estates and ‘the white working poor’ from often those who have never been near – but assume all such estates are chock full of feckless, druggie, single mother, child abusing, racist, thick, workshy, illiterate, criminal, broke, granny bashing, BNP supporting, common, fake gold encrusted, trackie wearing, obese, ugly, football hooligan, benefit cheats.

That’s, of course, a stereotype too. It’s perpetuated by the media (in part) and by ignorance. Not every estate is like watching an episode of Shameless. Nor are they like the more sensationalist elements of Benefits Street. But there are always some elements of truth in that – all stereotypes emanate from at least some truths… and to fail to acknowledge that or to fall into an inverted snobbery or naive engagement with those unpalatable truths is dishonest. There is a nuanced argument to be had here.

Some of this is historical and generational. When slum clearance happened, many new estates were created. These were often ‘sold’ as utopian ideals. But what was often transported was a sense that ‘those people’ had been cleared out of city and town centers – often to the periphery – where they might be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ so everyone else could get on with gentrification and ‘urban renewal’.

For some who I’ve known, the stigma of being ‘poor’ never went away when they were moved like cattle from one place to the next. If they were generationally ‘looked down on’ in slums, so they are still ‘looked down on’ in new estates. Even now, I personally still find the rare accusation of not quite ‘being one of us’ is a painful stick to be poked with. As someone put it when I was appointed here: “is he really the sort to be Team Rector, surely more suited to be a Team Vicar for the poorer part of the parish.” Ho hum. I’m still here.

That aspect of ‘enforced movement’,  betterment by societal deportation, was exacerbated by cuts to public transport. Now, estate dwellers often became physically less well connected. That feeling of disconnect was exacerbated. If you had a car, fine – but if you couldn’t afford one (we had no car in our household from me being 5 until I was 16) then you walked, or had to rely on an erratic (and expensive) bus service. Where estates were less well planned you’d be divorced from access to services and healthcare. And where estates have rapidly expanded, the pressure on minimal provision of such services has only increased the concomitant problems.

My last parish wasn’t though ‘poor’ in the way many would assume. There was some endemic fiscal poverty – but many had well paid semi-skilled and skilled manual jobs. Where there was real poverty was in education. Rates of adult illiteracy were incredibly high. Educational achievement scores (i.e. how many GCSEs through to PhDs) were rock bottom – in the lowest 1% for the country. Schools, with dedicated teachers hovered in and out of special measures for not hitting targets.

But these targets were often incredibly difficult to meet in a system which presumed that the learning in school continued at home. If one of the keys to success is the partnership between school and home – then that was an uphill struggle. It’s hard to teach a child to read if, as a parent, you can’t read. Just as its a proper observation that it’s hard to get people to join in with liturgy which requires degree age literacy skills if you can’t read. I learned the hard way – never change the words to well known hymns, even if everyone has a service booklet. If they can’t read – they’ll simply sing the words they know – and you’ll embarrass them.

Granted, governments have invested in schools – and SureStart and Pupil Premium did make a difference. But, in general, very little resourcing ever went into Adult literacy projects – with the knock on effects that as the digital age dawned, more people were excluded. It’s hard to order from Amazon and get that black friday discount if you can’t read (and don’t have a debit or credit card).

That’s been a significant problem. That kids today still have to do what I had to do as a child – write your own absence letter to school because mum or dad “can’t find their glasses” should be a tell tale sign that something isn’t working.

That also followed through in other areas of funding allocation. Regeneration money was often available to communities – but – the reality was the only people who could manage to complete the complex application forms were from specialized departments in the local council. They’d specify what, in their view, the community needed – and then grant fund their own allocation to finance it. Or simply use ‘community funds’ to pay for what they could no longer to pay for out of normal revenue because of cut backs.

Genuine community inspired and led grants were, I’d submit, far fewer in number than might have appeared the case. So for many communities what they might have actually wanted – decent access to healthcare, transport, somewhere for the kids to play – were supplanted by councils wanting to demolish crumbling offices, community centers and libraries to be replaced by vanity projects filled with the sort of books and leaflets no one could read.

Now, there’s no doubt some exaggeration there and whistful memorializing of my own past. But the central point remains that the disconnected, down-trodden and dispossessed could and would often resent being given a ‘hand out’ they neither wanted nor needed whilst being told to be grateful for what they’d been given – when their needs were entirely different and continued to be unanswered. To be then told they were all ‘scroungers and cheats’ only added insult to injury.

It’s also true that this social group isn’t a homogeneous entity in the perception of the hegemony. For many, perhaps older (but not exclusively so) people there is a real resistance to being given help. There has existed a deep seated stigma to receiving ‘hand outs’ from the state. Many (my parents were exactly the same) would refuse benefits because they were fundamentally aspirational – they wanted to stand on their own feet without acknowledging they were struggling – and as such very much hated being made to feel like they were the ‘deserving poor’. Memories of the workhouse were not far away – and whilst living standards and social care in post war Britain did improve many things – pride still had an important part to play. To take up a benefit, to receive a ‘hand out’ was for a lot of folk a knock to their pride and sense of self: “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”.

Why should such communities and people live on ‘handouts’? If you are poor, life was demeaning if you were even remotely made to feel like you needed to tug the forelock as you queued up in the jobcentre or at the post office for the giro. Part of that has diminished if your payments are made through direct banking now. Of course, you need a bank account for that – and without one, you are a social leper.

I grew up laughing at Carla Lane’s Bread. The story of a Liverpool family who lived in relative luxury having worked out how to game the benefits system to their advantage. It was funny – and at times painfully well observed without being cruel. Yet it – and other programmes like it, fed an increasing suspicion in political and middle class circles (what we’d now in a reverse-snobbery way refer to as ‘the elites’) that all benefits recipients were ‘scroungers’ who were ‘spending our money on booze and fags’ and living a tax-payer funded half lie.

That stereotype is projected with even fiercer venom today. Survey after survey tells us that the perception continues that benefit fraud is very significantly higher than is the actual case (and yet that’s a drop in the ocean compared to corporate and high net worth tax evasion).

So today, added to the mix is the blanket term of the ‘undeserving poor’. That’s increasingly the way in which the population is encouraged to see anyone on any form of Universal Credit. It’s not just the white working class who ‘get it in the neck’ – now its the working poor, disabled people, anyone from a minority background and refugees and assylum seekers. The go-to mantra is ‘feckless workshy’. The stigmatization of the working classes and poorest is now inexorably transposing to the middle classes.

That cannot, of course be disconnected from the possibility of employment. For some of these communities – often limited by education and poor life-skills to low skill jobs – that supply of employment has dried up, died or been decimated. The routes out of poverty have become harder. If your community has had, historically, a single major employer which provides employment (the pit, the factory line, the industrial center) which closes – and isn’t replaced by another employer – then simple geography can easily mean you are dislocated from easy (or any) access to work.

Globalisation and neo-con free market economics indeed play a significant part in this. But that too is too easy a tag line. The post-banking austerity age has seen the rise of zero hours contracts, the use of ‘self-employed contractors’ as a tax dodge for companies and a stagnation of low paid menial employment. Many new ‘jobs’ are part time – and even a glance at the Church Times reveals how many ).5FTE, .4FTE, .2FTE etc posts replace what were once full time posts (for clergy as for anyone else). Work might well exist – but not work that will pay enough (in rate, hours or conditions) to meet the needs of those who want and need to work.

Automation has probably done as much, if not more damage than globalization. And the more we automate, computerize and digitize, then the rate of ‘De-industrialization’ will only accelerate. Robots replacing people has created more societal decline than any intercontinental company’s employment strategy.

There are, of course, those who whilst not work-shy are decidedly picky (and not just from estates). Entertainment culture easily suggests that if only you can win a talent show, a record contract, a game show or the lottery, then you’ll be fine – and since this is an ‘opportunity for all’ why shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity? Surely it’s more glamorous to be on the TV than clean toilets? If we complain that cleaners and shop assistants and builders are ‘all Poles’ isn’t that in part a creation of culture that fools us into thinking someone else can do all the dirty work? “English jobs for English people!” but only if they’re the kind of jobs we like… and certainly don’t involve too much effort. No wonder the reply to the question “why are your builders Polish, Romanian or from wherever” is often the painful “because they work hard”. No part of society is immune from the fact that as life has got easier, the culture has made us lazier?

Yet this is the pup, mantras of social mobility, equal opportunity, and inclusion tell us: this is a level playing field with no closed doors. But isn’t a level playing field. And there are plenty of closed doors. When the glittering prize is snatched away – and given to someone else – then a fertile ground is created of simmering resentment – perfectly tilled soil for those with a populist slogan, and an equally alluring simplistic agenda of replacing difficult social, political and fiscal choices with a ‘false front’ tirade of ‘name, blame and shame’.

That many of these communities are vastly white adds another dimension – the perception of racism. My experience is yes, there is racism. There’s no backing away from that. My late father’s views were, at times, horrific. But that sadly exists in every social order and group (and often is more prevalent in richer ‘white enclaves’ and bastions of power than elsewhere).

That doesn’t excuse it – it is a social evil which has deep complexities. Perhaps one such complexity is simply suspicion of ‘the other’. Many of those who I have known who live, or who have come from estate backgrounds have had very very little social mobility. They might never have left their village, town or city – in some cases having hardly ventured further than the estate they live on. They know no one who is black, Asian or from any other ethnic (or religious) group – let alone refugees, assylum seekers or immigrants. They see no need to ‘mix’.

But if they are then constantly fed a diet that says ‘your way of life is under threat’ and that ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are) are coming for you, stealing your jobs, homes, lives, children etc then if you don’t know any better, and have never met anyone from such vilified groups (or as we call them now, Supreme Court Judges) then you may well be scared of them, and simply repeat what elements in the media have told you is true.

Social mobility is, in large part it seems to me, a middle class political construction to explain why you need to take a long train journey to eat goose at the family table for Christmas. The idea was laudable, I think – to integrate sections of society and to learn from each other. But it’s never happened. We are as suspicious now as ever. We travel more (as a whole) but know less. Our knowledge is primarily located in our own back yard.

Curiosity is there – but it can be hard to branch out from what you’ve known all your life. That’s not endemic to estates and white working class people either. I know more people in Harrogate who won’t eat garlic, or ‘foreign’ than I ever knew in Portsmouth. Then again, I’m a Yorskhireman, and for Yorkshire folk, almost anywhere is foreign (especially Lancashire). Social mobility works – but only if you have the money to acquire that mobility and perceive or desire the need to engage.

And Benidorm isn’t social mobility either – it’s often recreating the known, just abroad (yep, I’ve been there). The irony there is that the parody of white working class people is that they all holiday in Benidorm (it was once Skegness). They don’t. It’s a stereotype. Many now can’t afford a holiday – others are just as likely to holiday in a heritage city, (or America, Thailand, Dubai or go backpacking) as there are ‘posh people’ in magaluf or Ibiza.

Tax and spend. You get what you pay for. That’s life hard reality. These may all indeed be cliches, but they are true. For decades we have all been led to believe that if the rich get richer, then the fiscal fairy will eventually flutter downstream and the magic pixie redistribution dust will prevent poverty. Trickle-down economics hasn’t worked. The divide between rich and poor is stubbornly wide. Only the very wealthiest have flourished.

If society as a whole is to improve – if services are to improve – if life chances are to improve – then money has to be spent. That money comes from tax. And raising tax is always seen as politically unpalatable. And governments can’t just ratchet up borrowing, can they? Of course, it appears if that saves banks and lobbyists and those perceived to be rich and powerful – then that’s fine (so we’re not all plunged into economic crisis). But to pay to improve life at the bottom end of the social scale? Well – that’s the fault of those who need to learn to help themselves and work harder, innit?

Social justice isn’t the prerogative of the middle class. It is the responsibility of the whole of society – to care for those least able to care for themselves, to care for the stranger, to care for each other without qualification. Both rich and poor alike need that – and we fail to recognize each others’ need more than ever in a time of a poisonous atmosphere of blame and counter-blame.

That requires investment, commitment and perseverance. It needs us to understand that there aren’t magic wands that can fix all of societies ills or problems overnight. We have to work together.

For the Church, I firmly believe that there has to be as much commitment to the poor as to the middle-class swanky new church plant. Philip North (and others) have done us a great service in re-focussing us to be attentive to the unloved, the unglamorous, the rejected and the alienated: whatever class or background, but especially in our estates.

That’s especially true where our priority for the poor has turned into a priority for high profile swish mission orientated PR photo-ops (with lovely powerpoint slides and attractive brochures). After all, if you chuck a lot (and I mean a lot) of money and staff (clergy and lay) at me and let me off the quota for a few years, I can open a reclaimed warehouse in a university town to steal every teenager and young person from parishes from miles around for some swanky high intensity youth work (with an in house band and light show)  – and then proclaim myself a resourcing church.

With such rich resourcing, I might well do it better than many parishes can afford to, especially where they’re struggling or don’t have capacity. After all, you’re investing in giving me a building that isn’t falling down, and paying all the bills for me. That’s not equal resourcing – its a land grab, albeit one with a Christmas Costa black forrest cherry hot chocolate from the hip in house cafe. And it does make a very good photo op for the Diocesan magazine.

And that’s the rub. For isn’t the danger that we perpetuate the cycle? Nice middle class, well resourced ‘hubs’ of generosity  with smiling faced promises to ‘re-evangelize’ England – doing their bit to help ‘struggling’ parishes. Isn’t the danger that this isn’t investment – but handouts. A handout generated by middle class people, to help the helpless, whether they want that help or not?

Isn’t this the premise of an ecclesiological inter-generational loan? You can have help – but only on ‘my terms’. If we have the courage of our convictions, and really aren’t that slightly scared middle class Church then why not move everything from Brompton to Blackburn, Bolton or Burnley?  Why not put the Diocesan office in a UPA parish in a derelict factory, as opposed to next to a stockbrokers office in a genteel terrace or gated business park? If we are serious about moving out from a middle-class hinterland, then won’t it be that by our works we shall be judged?

I am genuinely pleased that there is an absolute commitment, I hear, that in Reform and Renewal  a significant emphasis will be on making funds available for estates, for the poorest areas, for places of deprivation and dispossession.

That’s a significant development. And one I welcome. It is long overdue.

But, careful monitoring needs to be made that such cash, such investment reaches its destination – and isn’t simply sidelined into underwriting existing budget lines in national and diocesan budgets, or diverted into ‘high profile’ projects which don’t target real need – and just supply glossy pipe dreams. We can’t save souls in some of our estates by hoping we can make the people there just that bit more middle class. We can’t simply operate on “our own” terms – we have to operate on “theirs”. Promise has to turn into presence – and one that listens rather than patronizes.

We cannot create hub churches, resourcing churches, or churches with all the dosh if what actually then happens is we withdraw clergy and laity from living and working in our estates and poorest parishes. We are often the last professional left. To echo the words of Fr Graeme Buttery, “for how much longer?”

We need to invest in, not just hound-out to our poorest parishes and most deprived estates. Anything else would be an illusion. One which perpetuates injustice and won’t deliver where there has been chronic under-investment.

The case for the prosecution that needs addressing is one where the charge is that the Church is the rich man in his castle, looking down on the low man at the gate.

God doesn’t need to make us high or lowly – when the church deprives our large estates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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