By Caleb Roberts
Bishop Philip North made a stir recently with a speech that accused the Church of England, and specifically its clergy, of “deserting the nation’s poor and working-class areas.” He called out the explicit preference of many clergy to serve in wealthier areas, citing a striking comparison between a presumably poorer, Northern parish that took over two years to find a new priest and a parish in central London that immediately had over 100 applicants.
It’s worth reading the full transcript [PDF] if you haven’t already, but the knockout punch comes when Bishop North sarcastically reveals how astonished he is “at the number of people Jesus is calling to plant new churches as long as they are in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system.” He exhorts aspiring church-planters that “if you feel called to plant … we need you in those areas where the trendy coffee shops and artisanal bakers are hard to find. Come there if you really want to make a difference in Jesus’ name.”
Bishop North’s speech is full of insights, along with a penetrating witness into the disjuncture between our verbal opposition to social inequality and our institutional actions that reinforce it. And his concluding suggestion for how to overcome this contradiction — with “sincere, disciplined, authentic prayer … that the Lord will soften our hearts and open our ears to the cry of the poor” — can hardly be improved upon.
I’d like to see us take his points seriously in America. I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I suspect that a similar dynamic is going on within the Episcopal Church. The demographic shifts all point to increasing urbanization at the same time that cities are becoming increasingly inaccessible to all but the most affluent in our society. It shouldn’t surprise us to find that churches and their clergy are following this trend. What most interests me here is whether our dominant modes of discourse in the Episcopal Church may actually serve to exacerbate this neglect of the poor.
For example, it may come as a surprise to learn that Bishop North was dusting off a longstanding critique from within our tradition. All the way back in 1838, at the height of the Oxford Movement, F.D. Maurice was scandalized by the unspoken social and economic conditions upon which he believed much of the Tractarians’ theological project depended. As Alasdair MacIntyre summed it up in one of his earlier works, the substance of Maurice’s critique was ultimately that “the ascetic disciplines which the Tractarians commended were of a kind possible only to a leisured class.”
Granted, we’re not nearly as concerned with ascetic discipline and sacramental doctrines today as the Tractarians were. And it’s also true that Bishop North wasn’t going after any specific theological project per se. But together, what both Maurice and Bishop North suggest is that we can often confuse the concerns of Christianity with what are in fact the concerns of the dominant class of our society.
By itself this may not be a particularly controversial claim. The Episcopal Church seems keenly aware, at least in its rhetoric, of its historic blindness with regard to racial and sexual minorities and its subsequent commitment to join them in solidarity. The inconvenient truth, however, is that adopting such rhetoric and joining in (mostly verbal) solidarity with racial and sexual minorities can be perfectly amenable to the systematic neglect of the poor, to those marginalized by class. In other words, the new church we feel called to plant in that up-and-coming urban neighborhood — inclusive and committed to social justice of course! — may just be the ecclesial accompaniment to gentrification.
But why? Why aren’t our incessant appeals to inclusion and social justice enough to sustain our faithful attention to the poor? Well, to channel Maurice again, a simple answer could be that our clergy are gravitating toward wealthier areas, and channeling certain rhetoric, because the Christianity we’re commending is “of a kind possible only to a leisured class.” And I would suggest that our dominant progressive commitment to inclusion is, ironically, one of the reasons that we continue unwittingly to cultivate an upper-class church.
Before the tomato-hurling begins, let me explain myself by a brief digression into critical theory. Terry Eagleton points out that while
the breaking down of cultural hierarchies is clearly to be welcomed … it is less the upshot of a genuinely democratic spirit than an effect of the commodity form, which levels existing values rather than contesting them in the name of alternative priorities (Culture, p. 156).
What he means is that late capitalism has subsumed the spirit of liberation into itself such that it is now profitable to be opposed to hierarchy, exclusion, and discrimination. Think of the new generation of conscious capitalists represented by Whole Foods and the like, or the swiftness with which some businesses have exerted moral pressure on particular issues. As Eagleton makes clear, the actions of conscious capitalists are not motivated primarily by democracy or any kind of principled moral objection to things like hierarchy, exclusion, and discrimination. Rather, such social evils increasingly stand in the way of the commodification of everything into a means of profit. They can function to protect and enshrine certain kinds of social relations that are not reducible to market relations (which isn’t to say that hierarchy, exclusion, and discrimination are to be commended, but simply that they created a wildly different social sphere than we are now coming to inhabit).
The upshot is that the advance of late capitalism is more than happy to welcome the woke concern “with pluralism, difference, diversity and marginality” (p. 35). But once such a concern is enlisted as a function of the commodity form, says Eagleton, it serves “to displace attention from various more material issues,” becoming “a way of not talking about capitalism” (pp. 35-36).
This is where the Episcopal Church — and I would say progressive Christianity in general — come back into view. To the degree that we understand the imperative of the Church to be one of ever-widening inclusivity, diversity, and marginality, we too risk becoming complicit in the displacement of attention away from the material realities of class division, the very realities we need to attend to in order to heed Bishop North’s call to remember the poor. The breaking down of hierarchies that many progressives mistake for a genuinely democratic spirit is likely to be mistaken by many progressive Episcopalians as a movement of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, we talk a great deal about seeking justice for the poor, and no, Episcopalians probably didn’t represent many of those Christians who produced the recent poll findings that “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” But the way we’ve come to construct our dominant commitments to pluralism, difference, diversity, and marginality stands to exclude class from the fashionable cadre of identity politics. Our uncritical embrace of certain concerns risks putting us at the service of an ideology that, according to Eagleton, “relegates whole swathes of its citizenry to the scrap heap, but is exquisitely sensitive about not offending their beliefs” (pp. 35-36).
I should clarify in closing that the problem is not with any of these commitments. Upending hierarchy and challenging exclusion and marginalization are good things that come from the very depths of the Christian witness. But we in the Episcopal Church need to remember that we don’t merely offer another inclusive space among others, but rather put forth a radically different kind of inclusion altogether.
Otherwise, we’ll be blind to the material realities that lead us to minister in the natural habitats of venture capitalists.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity (Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 108-09. It’s also worth pointing out that despite the alleged failure of the Oxford Movement to attend to matters of class, later generations of Anglo-Catholics would indeed develop a robust synthesis between the theology and piety of the Oxford Movement and an intense social concern for the plight of the poor. See the excellent post by Hannah Matis from last fall on this point: “Slum priests needed for a new Oxford Movement.”
The Rev. Caleb Roberts was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and grew up in a devout family in the Church of the Nazarene. He is curate at Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois.