Gary Waddington wonders whether Reform and Renewal will lead to genuine investment in our poorest parishes

Debating the Church of England’s attitude to ‘white working class’ parishes in estates gathered pace late last year through the advocacy of the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North. What are some of the issues? Will Reform and Renewal make a difference? Does this speak to the parallel debates about Brexit, Trump and income disparity?

For decades has a middle class CofE done little more than sneer at poor white estate parishes and under-invested, under-supported, and over-patronized them, leaving them, hopefully, to fade away? Should better-off parishes pay huge parish shares to provide clergy for places which won’t support themselves, don’t flourish, aren’t growing and don’t fit the glossy PR brochures of smiling CofE hipsters? Where are the pictures of ordinands in Kappa or Burberry rather than Jack Wills or tweeds (unless they’re trendy and trying to ‘identify’)?

My background is white working class: little money, free school meals and, in the 80s, a full grant to go to university. I’m enormously proud of my roots, though I am seen as very middle class (grammar school, Durham, Oxford, and a rector in Harrogate).

For ten years I was Vicar of a brilliant UPA parish, Paulsgrove, in the Diocese of Portsmouth. I was frequently dismayed by those who thought they’d need body armour and a tank to venture onto the estate. Much talk about estates and ‘the white working poor’ comes from those who assume such places are chock-full of feckless, druggie, single mother, child-abusing, racist, thick, workshy, illiterate, common, football hooligan benefit cheats.

This stereotype is perpetuated by both media and ignorance. Not every estate is as portrayed in Shameless or Benefits Street, although there are elements of truth in such programmes. Failing to acknowledge that, or indulging in inverted snobbery or naive engagement with unpalatable truths, is dishonest, but there is a nuanced argument to be had here.

Many estates were utopian creations compared to pre-war slums. They also cleared ‘those people’ out to the periphery so everyone else could get on with ‘urban renewal’. However, the stigma of ‘the poor’ never went away. Families generationally ‘looked down on’ in slums remained ‘looked down on’ in estates. At least they were out of sight, out of mind.

Cuts to public transport created ‘societal deportation’. Estates became physically disconnected from towns and cities. Without a car you walked, or relied on erratic (and expensive) bus services. Poor planning divorced people from shops, services and healthcare. As estates expanded, pressure increased on that scant provision and increased concomitant health and social problems.

Poverty isn’t just about money. Paulsgrove wasn’t poor financially. There was poverty, but many had well paid manual jobs. Real poverty was educational. Adult illiteracy was incredibly high. Educational achievement scores (i.e. GCSEs to PhDs) were in the lowest 1% nationally. Schools, albeit with dedicated teachers, hovered in and out of special measures. Educational targets are incredibly difficult to meet in a system that presumes learning continues at home. Illiterate parents, however, can’t teach a child to read, just as people can’t join in with liturgy requiring degree level literacy skills if they can’t read.

Governmental investment in schools, such as Sure Start and Pupil Premium made some difference, but few resources went into adult literacy projects, and, as the digital age dawned, more people were excluded from mainstream society. The fact that kids today still write their own absence letters to school because mum or dad ‘can’t find their glasses’ should tell us something isn’t working.

Regeneration money for estate communities was in reality managed via complex funding forms by specialized departments in the council. They would specify what the community needed – albeit after ‘consultation’ – awarding themselves grants to finance plans or using community funds to cover services that would otherwise be cut.

Genuine community-inspired and -led projects were far fewer than might have appeared the case. What many communities wanted – decent access to healthcare, transport, somewhere for the kids to play – was supplanted by vanity projects filled with books and leaflets no one could read. Estates were given what they didn’t want or need and told to be grateful, as real needs continued to be unanswered. To be then labelled as ‘scroungers and cheats’ only added insult to injury and built resentment.

There remains, for some, a deep seated stigma of getting ‘handouts’. Many (my parents included) refused benefits. They wanted to stand on their own feet, despite struggling. They hated the tag of ‘deserving poor’. Workhouse memories were not far away. Improved living standards and social care post-war helped, but pride was still important. Handouts knocked that pride and sense of self: ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m a failure’.

Carla Lane’s TV creation Bread, the story of a Liverpool family beating the benefits system to their advantage, was funny, painfully well observed but never cruel. Yet it fed suspicion in political and middle class circles (those now sneered at as ‘elites’) that benefits recipients were ‘scroungers spending our money on booze and fags’, living in tax-payer-funded luxury. The false perception that benefit fraud is endemic (though significantly less than corporate and personal tax evasion) is perpetuated with ever more venom.

Now, the ‘undeserving poor’ is not just the white working class: it’s the working poor, the disabled, minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. The ‘feckless workshy’ stigmatization transposes inexorably and inevitably to the middle classes.

For some communities often limited by education and poor life-skills, employment opportunities have dried up or been decimated. Routes out of poverty have become harder. Where major employers close (the pit, the factory line, the industrial centre), then simple geography dislocates many from easy (or any) access to work.

That globalisation and neo-con free market economics play a part in this is too easy a tag-line. The austerity age has introduced zero hours contracts, and ‘self-employed contractors’ as a tax dodge for companies. Stagnation of low-paid menial employment means many jobs are now part time. Work exists – but doesn’t pay enough for the ‘Just about Managing’. Automation and digitization have also accelerated deindustrialization. Robots have created more societal decline than any intercontinental company’s employment strategy.

Entertainment culture deludes those who are ‘picky’. Winning a talent show, record contract, game show or lottery in an ‘opportunity for all’ culture is about luck, not always talent. Fame is more aspirational than cleaning toilets. We complain that cleaners, shop assistants and builders are ‘all Poles’ in a culture that really wants someone else to do all the dirty work. ‘English jobs for English people!’ but only if they’re the kind of jobs we like. ‘Why are your builders Romanian?’ is answered, ‘Because they work hard’. As life has got easier, has the culture made many of us lazier?

Yet we come to this: social mobility, equal opportunity, and inclusion portray a level playing field with no closed doors, but the playing field isn’t level, and doors slam shut. When the glittering prize is given to others, fertile grounds of simmering resentment emerge: perfect for those with populist slogans, and alluring agendas that ‘name, blame and shame’ while proffering no real answers.

Many ‘white’ estates are perceived as racist enclaves. Yes, there is racism there. There’s no backing away from that. Racism, however, sadly exists in every social order and group including rich ‘white enclaves’ and bastions of power. Often this is simply suspicion of ‘the other’. Many have never have left village, town or city or ventured further than the estate they live in. They know no one from other ethnic or religious groups and see no need to mix.

Being fed a diet that says, ‘Your way of life is under threat’, and ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are) are stealing your jobs and homes’, makes people scared of ‘them’, repeating whatever media and social media say is true, even if it is not.

Social mobility, a laudable idea to integrate society, to learn from each other, never really happened. We’re as suspicious now as ever; travelling more, knowing less. Our knowledge remains primarily located in our own back yard. Branching out is hard. More people in Harrogate won’t eat garlic, or ‘foreign food’ than I ever knew in Portsmouth. As a Yorkshireman I was taught anywhere else is foreign (especially Lancashire). Why try? You won’t like it!

Neo-economic orthodoxy led us to believe that if the rich got richer, eventually downstream redistribution would alleviate poverty, but trickle-down economics hasn’t worked. The divide between rich and poor is stubbornly wide. The wealthiest flourish most.

For services and life chances to improve means that taxes have to be spent on them: a politically unpalatable ‘sell’. Governments can’t just ratchet up borrowing, can they? If that saves banks, lobbyists and the rich and powerful, that’s fine (avoiding contagious economic collapse). Improving life at the other end of the social scale? Well – that’s the fault of those who should help themselves and work harder, innit?

Social justice is the responsibility of all society: caring for those least able to care for themselves, without qualification. We increasingly fail to recognize each other’s need in a poisonous atmosphere of blame and counter-blame. Justice, however, requires investment, commitment and perseverance.

The Church must commit to the poor as much as to the middle-class church plant. The debate has re-focussed us to be attentive to the unloved, the unglamorous, the rejected and the alienated, whatever class or background, but especially on our estates.

But has this priority for the poor really been a priority for high profile ‘glossy’ middle class mission? Given money, staff (clergy and lay) and five years off the quota, can’t anyone reclaim a warehouse in a university town and steal every teenager and student lured by high intensity youth work (with an in-house band and light show), or, as we call it now, establish a ‘resourcing’ church? They will manage better than parishes that struggle or are lacking capacity. Investing in buildings that aren’t falling down, and paying all the bills, is not equal resourcing though; it’s a land grab, albeit with a nice café that looks great in the diocesan magazine.

Aren’t we perpetuating the historic cycle? Well resourced ‘hubs’ promising to ‘re-evangelize England’, helping ‘struggling’ parishes? Isn’t this just handouts from nice middle class people, helping the helpless, whether they want help or not?

Is this the premise of an ecclesiological inter-generational loan? Help: but on ‘my terms’. If we have the courage of our convictions, why not move from Brompton to Blackburn, Bolton or Burnley? Move the diocesan office to a derelict factory in a UPA parish, rather than a gated business park? Can we only administer the Lord’s song in middle class safety?

I am genuinely pleased that there is an absolute commitment, in Reform and Renewal, for significant funding for estates, for places of deprivation and dispossession. That is a welcome development, and one I applaud; it is long overdue. Such an investment cannot simply slide into existing diocesan and national budget lines, however, diverted into high profile, pipe dream projects. We cannot save souls in some of our estates by hoping we can make the people there just that bit more middle class. We cannot simply operate on our own terms; we have to operate on theirs. Promise has to turn into presence: one that listens rather than patronizes.

Creating ‘hub’ and ‘resourcing’ churches is dangerous if what results is the withdrawal of clergy and laity from our estates and poorest parishes. Priests are often the last professional left, but in the words of Fr Graeme Buttery, ‘For how much longer?’ We need to invest in our poorest parishes and most deprived estates genuinely, not just distribute handouts. Otherwise, we perpetuate injustice and won’t deliver where there has long been chronic underinvestment.

The case to be addressed is the charge that the church is the rich man in his castle, looking down on the poor man at his gate. God does not need to make us high or lowly, if the church stops depriving our large estates.

Fr Gary Waddington is the Team Rector of St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate, and a member of the General Synod.