Monthly Archives: April 2014

Notes on the issue of class – work in progress

Firstly, this is NOT an academic document, one day it may be, but that would require adding lots of references and bringing those I have used into one of the various referencing schemes. This is a working document.  The larger study it is part of is on the ‘separation of the church from the poor’ and it is requiring me to think in terms of social classes – but I don’t have a definition for the particular group of people I am concerned about.  As it is a working document, an effort to ‘feel my way’ towards a point, I would really appreciate constructive criticism.  There would be no point however in criticising it as if it were a finished piece of writing – it isn’t!

 I was reading Social Change and the Middle Classes – Butler and Savage, which started a chain of ideas.  I note that I need to read their references: Giddins and Margaret Archer.

 

These days I often come across the suggestion that the whole concept of ‘class’ is no longer relevant.  [refs]  This seems to result from a definition of class as a political self-awareness developing within a group which shares a socio-economic status.  The definition is usually rooted in an understanding of a developing politicization of the ‘working class’ with all other classes defined in relation to it.  Clearly there have been some changes in class patterns, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a politicized working class any more compared to previous generations but that doesn’t mean that class itself has gone away.

 I have a very different interest in the whole issue of class.  I do not require a group of people to be politicized or to be aware of itself as a group with the potential of collective power.  I need, merely, to recognize and acknowledge the existence of groups with shared socio-economic circumstances in order to study the tendencies which exist for relationship between the group and the power-structures of the society of their time – in particular the church, since my study is in the social history of that organization.

 It is undeniable that in every era (certainly, in Britain, since 1300 where my studies have effectively begun) there have been people for whom their economic existence was, to say the least, precarious.  People who, if not destitute, lived just one disaster away from destitution.  And the potential disasters have always been many: a bad harvest, an unusually cold winter, epidemic, loss of a bread-winner (a variety of possible causes), eviction by landlord, downturn in trade, loss of employment etc.  All of these potential disasters have been, through the ages, of sufficient likelihood that between them they must have produced a tendency for people to live in constant awareness that they were ‘on the edge’ – that the boundary between themselves and destitution was very thin indeed.

 In previous times, before the politicization of the working class (described so ably by EP Thompson) they were much more likely to be aware of themselves as ‘folk of this parish’ (Pounds, The English Parish) or at a later stage, of ‘this mine’, or ‘this factory’ than as a politico-economic class. 

 So, I can’t possibly use the term ‘working-class’ to describe the mediaeval poor, since I have no reason to suppose that they had any political self-awareness of themselves as a group.  And it appears that it doesn’t seem to work as a descriptive term today either – the people who would come within my field of interest can see the unions, supposedly representing the working class, as relating to those groups who, to a large extent through union action, now have secure, relatively well-paid jobs.  While the people I am concerned about are in insecure employment, working irregular hours either part-time or on so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts and on very low wages indeed. To them, the salary and conditions of employment of a teacher, nurse or train driver is beyond their dreams – and, largely, these are the sort of people they will see the unions representing.  Butler and Savage include these types of employment within their description of a new class – the ‘service class’ – a subset of middle-class.

I am left with two possible terms to use to describe this group of people which has existed through the ages.  The ‘underclass’ or the ‘precariat’. 

 The term ‘underclass’ is sometimes used dismissively or pejoratively which certainly counts against it.  And yet it does adequately describe a group of people who are simply ignored when class structures are drawn up according to people’s long term employment.  A person who has (relatively) secure employment as a nurse, or a carpenter, a shop assistant or a cleaner can have an economic status defined by such a structure.  The person who manages to get a few weeks or months work in one form of employment and then some time later a short period in another – interspersed by periods when it becomes necessary to fall back on whatever safety net may be provided by society at that time – that person is simply missed out of class structures when they are defined by type of employment.

 The term ‘underclass’ is however defined in terms of a politico-economic structure of society and although such a definition could be used in all periods it would require re-definition in each period to relate to the political realities of the time.  In other words, defining people as being part of an under-class is time specific – it begs the question, in each period – ‘under what class?’  I therefore choose, for simplicity’s sake, not to use this term.

 The term ‘precariat’ however seems to describe the circumstances that I am concerned with.  An existence which hovers on one side or the other of whatever line, at the time, defines the minimum for existence.  While it might (or might in fact be very difficult) be possible to define that line for any period it is the insecurity of such a life which is its distinguishing feature – and that is so for any period.

 So when the Webbs (History of the English Poor Law) talk of what they describe as the ‘labouring classes’ of the 18thC, being largely dependant on poor relief regardless of employment status, they are describing a precarious existence. Their ‘labouring classes’ could be defined as members of the Precariat, just as today’s benefit claimants, many of whom we are told are in fact working (Refs) who live in fear of whatever scheme may be brought in next by the government to reduce or remove their benefit, may also be so described. 

 I do however, have an interest in the politicization of the working class.  In previous eras, much political activity among the sub-gentry levels of society was at least to some extent in relation to the church.  Noticeably however, from the so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ (1381 Ref) to the chapel revivals of the early 20thC, the people concerned are consistently described (refs) are being of the ‘middling sort’: yeomen, small traders, artisans etc.  If these were to be considered as the ‘working-class’ equivalent of their era, there were definitely people in more constrained economic circumstances than these.

 And so I have to consider what the impact of the politicization of the working class was on the precariat.  To what extent it involved them?  It certainly did, but in what manner?  Did it have the effect of lifting some forms of employment from precarious to secure status resulting in what is perceived today as a reduced relevance of the whole concept of working-class? Is the precariat something which re-forms in every generation as working practices change?  Or is it more continuous, with a culture carrying on from one generation to the next?

Isaiah to Paul: From Feeling Rotten – to the Fruits of the Spirit

One of my very first sermons, I was still in training – but it’s not a bad effort and does have something valuable to say.

 

Have you ever thought, ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m useless at that’?  Have you ever refused to try to do something, saying, ‘I’m not clever like you’, or I’m not…’ or ‘I can’t…’  That’s what Moses said when God called him in Exodus 4:10, ‘But Moses said, “No, Lord, don’t send me. I have never been a good speaker, and I haven’t become one since you began to speak to me. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant.” Today’s reading are about people coming to recognise what they can offer even when they’ve thought they were really useless.

 The reading from Isaiah comes when God is going to restore Israel to the land.  They’ve been exiled in Babylon for about 70 years and they’ve heard every possible criticism from their prophets during that time.  They’ve been told how sinful they were, that all their actions and behaviour have been wrong for ages, their precious city, Jerusalem, the city of the lord they’ve heard described as a harlot.  They’ve been downtrodden among the Babylonians and cast down by God.  They’ve been so miserable its unbelievable – they’ve been utterly shattered, and worst of all, it seemed that God didn’t love them anymore. 

 Imagine if something like this happened to you, your whole community transplanted to a nasty council estate on the edge of some really wealthy area where you could see how the other half live but live in grotty circumstances yourselves; your working folk condemned to work on the bins; and your church back home burnt down. Worst of all, some spiritual authority comes along, maybe the Bishop, and tells you you’re all useless and its all happened because you were so sinful.

 You’d feel truly awful.  Now, Isaiah, who certainly took his share of having a go at the people for their awfulness, comes along with a series of songs of joy.  He’s telling the people that God still loves them.  That their city is to be his Bride.  That a time of rejoicing is coming.  Do they deserve it?  Well, according to all the prophesies until just before this one, presumably not.  But God is infinitely generous, they’ve been through their bad times and God has wiped the slate clean, but he’s not waiting for them to start behaving properly again before he starts telling them the good news of what’s coming, he’s rejoicing in it, and asking them to rejoice with him.

 God asking us to rejoice with him is part of what happens at Cana, when Jesus turns the water into wine.  Its something more than that though, we’re not just rejoicing at a wedding that Jesus happened to be invited to, after all, we’re not even told who’s getting married, the wedding isn’t an important part of the story at all.  What we’re rejoicing in is that Jesus turned the water into wine.  In one translation I’ve seen its even described as ‘foot-washing water’, not necessarily the best quality water then.  That’s us.  Just jars of water and not the best water at that.  And with that infinite generosity that is so much the nature of our God, Jesus turns us into wine.  And not just any old wine either, the best wine.  I’ve probably never drunk wine as good as the wine served up at Cana, my limit for a bottle of wine is £5 in Tesco; reasonable wine, but far from the best.  But the wine Jesus serves, like the water he offered to the Samarian woman in John 4 was more than just water,  is more than just wine.  The best wine is that which is of Jesus, the wine of his gift to us.  And that is what our jars of foot-washing water are filled with.  In his generosity, Jesus re-makes our nature of not particularly special with his gift that remakes us into the best wine.

 Now lets think of some people who don’t particularly feel awful but who probably think of themselves as not having any particular strengths, nothing in particular to offer to others.  People who don’t really think of themselves as being of value to their community.  Know some people like that?  Of course you do, there may even be some you know who you think of like that.

 Well that’s the sort of community who Paul is talking of.   People who don’t know or value their own gifts.  And people who don’t value each other’s gifts.  That’s the gifts that God gave them, the gifts that God has given you.

 

When Jesus remakes us as the very best wine we definitely have gifts, not that we deserve them, we are still the very imperfect people that we always were but we all have something to give.  So there are two things we have to do with that, we have to use our gifts and not hide from them, Jesus said, in Mk 4:21: “Does anyone ever bring in a lamp and put it under a bowl or under the bed? Doesn’t he put it on the lampstand?   We also have to try to see those gifts in other people, see how the light of the Lord lights them up too!

 The gifts that Paul is talking about in his letter aren’t particularly meaningful to us today, so what sort of gifts might we think about when we look around us.  What sort of gifts do we see in ourselves, in other people; what sort of gifts do we see as needed by the church or by the community?

 There are some gifts that we easily recognise in the Church, gifts of speaking, gifts of making music, the gifts that make for good planners and committee workers, but there are other gifts that we either don’t notice or undervalue.

 There are the practical gifts, the abilities to make and mend; the abilities to clean and sort out stuff.  Useful to the church when something is broken, dirty or chaotic but useful too in the community.  Do you know someone who can’t afford tradespeople and is having to put up with things being broken in their home?  Or someone who has come through some kind of crisis and could really do with a bit of help putting their home back to rights?  You might think you don’t want to be seen as ‘interfering’ but its not interfering to be available to others to ask for help when they need it.  You might not think of something like fixing your neighbour’s broken cot as a particularly Christian service, but caring about your neighbour is where its all at.

 But there is one gift that is truly special and is not only undervalued, it is hardly noticed.  It’s the gift of listening. We live in a society where it’s the noisy gifts that get noticed, this is the quietest gift of all – but its oh, so precious.   Do you know someone who’s really quiet but who somehow gets to hear everyone’s tales of trouble?  Someone who always seems to have time to listen to others.  Now there’s a real gift and usually, the people who possess it don’t even realize.

 So look at yourself, what gifts do you have?  Not as something to be proud of, after all, your gifts are gifts from God, not something you own but something you can be grateful for.  So, being grateful for them, what do you do with them?  How can you offer them to others?

 And what gifts do you see in your neighbours?  It may be that, looking at someone you don’t even like, you may see some marvelous gift, some quality that they are itching to use in the service of the community around them.  We are told to love our neighbours and sometimes that’s not easy, but if we can’t love them, we can at least value them – it’s a step in the right direction!

 So, we, the jars of poor quality water, turned into the best wine by Jesus, need to see how to offer that wine to others, how to appreciate the Jesus-given qualities of our fellows and truly, how to be glad and thankful to Jesus for the change that he has made, and continues to make in our basic nature.