Are We Truly a Church “Of the People”?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge


Jeremy Morris

With the Grenfell inquiry under way, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) about to resume its hearings, the ongoing Windrush controversy, and the aftermath of the report of the Gosport Independent Panel – to name but some current stories – once respected or even ‘cherished’ institutions (here local government, the Church, the Home Office, the NHS) remain under scrutiny and criticism for having failed people.

It’s probably true that every situation is different.  In the case of the Windrush scandal, a specific political agenda on immigration forced the pace on a policy originally designed to deal with illegal migrants, and in the process trampled on common sense and natural justice.  In the case of incidents dealt with by IICSA, naiveté and the unwillingness to raise difficult questions with colleagues often conspired with ineffective or inadequate processes and – of course crucially – unscrupulous individuals to perpetuate a cycle of abuse and collusion.

But in all these cases, what emerges is nonetheless a common, cultural theme – people who are failed at so many levels or in so many ways experience those in authority as distant, as ‘other’, ignorant often of the real conditions in which people live and struggle, and unconcerned about them.

It’s particularly distressing, for those of us who are supposed to be ministers of the Gospel, to think that this is how people see the Church.  Of course, the Church isn’t the clergy – it’s everyone, and not just those who think they are members (I’m reminded of those challenging words of Augustine, “in the ineffable foreknowledge of God many who seem to be outside are within: while many who seem to be within are outside”).  And that’s got to be right – indeed, we have to reverse the common assumption that to join the clergy is to ‘enter the Church’.  So those who are visibly and identifiably representatives of the Church, in a paid role perhaps, or at least a role with managerial responsibility, should be those we think of in the last breath as ‘the Church’, rather than the first.

And, again, we can say that the Church is a mixture of the divine and the human – the divine, as Jesus’s body in the world, a means of grace, a vehicle for the Word, or however we might articulate the idea, and the human, as the sheer messy, confused, sinning, and constantly failing stuff of humanity.  But these considerations do not affect – well, in fact they underline – the thought that it’s especially a matter of concern if the Church, the body of Christ, which in Vatican II parlance is ‘the whole people of God’, is spoken of and regarded as something set apart from those who make up its members.

When– as a young man – I was influenced a lot by the work of Marxist or New left historians such as E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, I found the distinction between ‘institutions for’ and ‘institutions of’ useful.  To be ‘for’ is obviously not the same as to be ‘of’.  Middle class philanthropy was ‘for’ the working class, but it did not originate with the people and emerge from them – it was not ‘of’ the working class.  Trade unions were both ‘for’ and ‘of’ the working class.  Certain kinds of right-wing organization, so it was argued, might very well be ‘of’ the working class, but were not obviously ‘for’ them.

It’s easy to see how the Church is an organization for people.  It exists to serve them, to bring the light of the Gospel to them, to feed them spiritually, and materially if necessary, to nurture them through life from birth through marriage and human relationships to death, to teach them, to support them, and so on.  If it is too narrow or sectarian in its understanding, it becomes an institution for some people – it sets itself too restricted a goal, too unambitious a sense of the scope of God’s love.  Therefore we ought to say the Church is a Church for the people.  The Church exists to serve everyone; no one is automatically excluded from the scope of God’s love.

But the Church should also be of the people.  It should not be set apart from them, or set over them, or aloof from their lives and their concerns.  It needs to be right down amongst them, indeed composed of them and emerging from them.  It needs to live with them and amongst them, because it is, or should be, them.  Of course that doesn’t exclude the rich and famous, the middle class professionals (like me, obviously), because these are all people too, and the Church is also there for them, though it is plainly of them anyway.  But it cannot be the Church for the people realistically if it is only a Church of some people, or at least of a certain kind of person.

Anglicans in particular like to pride themselves on being there for everyone, and it’s true that having the parish system, and having resident clergy in areas of deprivation as well as wealth is a step – perhaps a big one – towards being a Church of the people.  But let’s no fool ourselves about that.  The Church of England might be spread over the country, but it’s spread incredibly thin in places, almost to vanishing point.

And of course it’s not easy to be of the people, not least because the Church is a complex institution and it needs theologians, educators, financial managers, specialists in a wide range of fields including mission, safeguarding, human resources, law, architecture, and overseers (bishops), and almost invariably these people are recruited from the educated and financially secure.  We want competent, experienced and well-trained people in key positions – but that means, if we’re not careful, we’re caught up in the cycle of affluence, education and opportunity that facilitates the rise of a few but excludes the many.  Try how we might – we have a system of lay involvement in decision-making, we have programmes of positive or affirmative action, we try to deal fairly and firmly with those who manipulate or abuse our systems – we plainly fail time and again to do much more than nod in the direction of opening the arms of the Church to all.

So what’s to be done?  Lots of practical things have to be done – a whole programme of them, in fact.  So full steam ahead on all fronts!

But there’s always something more fundamental than practical action, and that’s our conviction in the Lord who was ‘despised and rejected of men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’.  The Jesus who emerged from the people, and who suffered and was broken as a common criminal, is also the Lord in his Church: in him, all human life is offered up to God, and the God who loves all people is therefore of all people as well as for all people.

We should look in the mirror, as a Church, and hope we see Jesus looking back at us.  If we don’t, we’re in trouble.


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3 Responses to Are We Truly a Church “Of the People”?

  1. Leslie says:

    Thank you for this Jeremy. Your closing sentence about mirror looking reminded me of the saying about Schleiermacher,that looking down the well of history he found a smiling 19th Century German Gentleman looking back at him. The danger of every generation and culture.

  2. Froghole says:

    Many thanks for this.

    However, the Church of England is a sect operated by and for the middle class. Despite the good intentions, everything else is rhetoric. As others have noted, it is England’s answer to Shinto, and about as [in]effective.

    Probably fewer than 2% of churches are demographically viable once the current generation of regular attendees vanishes within the next five to ten years. I have just about completed a pilgrimage around Suffolk (part of a much wider pilgrimage): about 500 churches, just over 100 stipendiaries, and fewer than ten viable churches (probably about five). If it is a church of the people, it is a church of middle class people born before 1940.

Any thoughts?