Belonging, Class and Gender in the Church of England

In 2023 the Institute for Social Justice provided funding to the Centre for Religion in Society at York St John University for a Research Assistant to work on two projects under the title of ‘Belonging, Class and Gender in the Church of England’. Becky Tyndall, currently studying for a PhD at Durham University, joins the team of researchers, taking a lead on several aspects of the work. In this blog, Becky reflects on her experiences of the research project and the importance of a social justice perspective on wellbeing.

The working-class clergy wellbeing project is a satellite project of a much larger, longitudinal study about clergy wellbeing conducted by the Church of England’s Ministry Division. That study pointed to particular wellbeing challenges being faced by clergy who were under-represented in the longitudinal study. These included Global Majority Heritage clergy, neurodivergent clergy and those who are working class. Ministry Division therefore commissioned further research. Following a successful bid, York St John’s Dr Sharon Jagger and Dr Alex Fry at Bournemouth University, began research into the experiences of working-class clergy in the Church of England. Significantly, the board sought applications from researchers who were themselves working class. This has been an important opportunity for Sharon to bring her lived experience as a working-class woman into her research. Social class in contemporary Britain is complex and having a researcher who understands the subtleties and nuances of class and regionality personally has been invaluable.

Following the initial call for participants in December 2022 the researchers were inundated with responses from working-class curates, priests and archdeacons wanting to take part in the study. Many seemed to have been waiting for the opportunity to share their experiences as a working-class person in an institution where middle-class culture and norms dominate. This was excellent news for the project, but to honour the many deep and rich stories which were being shared, the Institute for Social Justice at York St. John made it possible for Sharon and Alex to bring Becky on board. It was important to the team that no-one who wished to take part was turned away and in total they conducted fifty interviews with working-class clergy and hosted four working groups. The working groups allowed participants to reflect together, sharpen the findings and suggest recommendations and resources which should come from the project. Not only will the team produce a report for the Church of England, but they will also create resources – including a series of podcasts – to enable the vital conversation about class and the Church to continue.

Participants ranged from those who were still in training roles (curacy) to those who held senior positions in the institution. There was a huge variety of experiences of both being working-class and being part of the Church of England. The working groups and interviews involved a huge amount of laughter, but also tears and anger, as participants had space to reflect on the classism which is so pervasive in wider society and the Church, but so often neither discussed nor understood.

It is important to note that there is no one, homogenous ‘working-class experience’. Differences in regionality, access to material resources, intersections of gender and sexuality, but also personality and outlook, were all noticeable in the fifty interviews. As well as looking for themes and commonalities, the researchers sought to appreciate points of difference and tension.

Wellbeing and Justice

The research project centred around the idea of clergy wellbeing, with a focus on the structural classed impacts on wellbeing. Current research, such as Dodge et al. (2012), defines wellbeing as an equilibrium between threats to wellbeing and resources that enable us to manage those threats. Classed factors beyond the individual’s control impact profoundly on both threats to wellbeing and access to the resources used to manage those threats.  To reflect this understanding, the researchers resisted the treatment of wellbeing as purely self-care and propose that wellbeing is not primarily an individual’s personal responsibility.  What we found in the research was that working-class clergy do not have equal access to wellbeing resources. It also became apparent that participants were keen to challenge individualistic framings of wellbeing and resilience. One focus group described resilience being used as a weapon by the institutional hierarchy, ‘sometimes we do need to be more resilient, but sometimes we need to change the system.’ This was echoed in the interviews. One participant stated:

My resilience is not an issue here. The lack of support is.

Together with their participants, the research team have argued that an individualistic understanding of wellbeing, which ignores societal factors, institutional responsibility, and the idea of justice, will simply perpetuate the inequality that working-class people face. Furthermore, communities who face significant stigma are right to suspect they will be treated differently when they seek to access certain wellbeing resources. Participants shared the toll that being othered takes – pervasive imposter syndrome, unbelonging when their culture and values go unacknowledged, and a sense that they had to work twice as hard as their middle-class counterparts. One participant simply said, ‘you never catch up.’

Despite the challenges of being working-class in a predominantly middle- and upper-class institution, one of the clearest themes to come out of the research was the benefit that being working-class brings. Participants described resourcefulness that their upbringing had given them and reflected on how being working-class allowed them to connect with those who might normally feel alienated by a middle-class institution. Being working-class gave them a different way to see, both when they entered a room and when they reflected on society.

Further Research

As part of a future plan of work, the team are interested in drawing out whether working-classness contributed to a distinctive engagement with the Christian tradition: is there a working-class theology? There are also intersections of class and gender that have emerged that requires further research, along with a deeper analysis of how working-classness challenges and reveals the way modes of expression are privileged and naturalised.

The main research report will be published in September 2023, and contains recommendations to various parts of the Church of England. The first podcasts are currently being recorded to accompany the collection of resources to stimulate further conversation. This collaborative research on class, the Church and society has only just begun. The team are in continuing conversation with many of their participants who are themselves engaged in activism and theology around issues of class and classism. The intersection of class and religion has been underexplored in recent decades. However, this important aspect of human experience is both deeply personal and profoundly structural and overdue for further research.

For further resources see our website which will be coming soon at York St. John.