Church and the Workers
Long ago, bus conductors collected fares after people had boarded. For three months in the long hot summer of 1976, I was one, as part of my graduate training scheme in the passenger transport industry. Some Sundays, I would be booked on as a “spare”. If I wasn’t needed, after an hour or so waiting at the garage, I would be sent home. This meant being able to attend the morning service at my church, but only if I went there directly, without changing from my uniform.
The reactions of the congregation were interesting. Some knew me and would chat as we always had done. Others, especially visitors, were cautious and ignored me. It was a prestigious central London church, made up of people who took taxis rather than buses or the tube.
If there was any teaching about being an authentic Christian at work, it would be applied to accountants, advertising executives, lawyers and merchant bankers, rather than people who conveyed them to their work or who made real things. The decades since have seen a growing number of books and conferences about faith and work, generally written or provided by professionals for professionals.
In 2016, the Church of England’s “Renewal and Reform” group produced “Setting God’s People Free”, a paper for its General Synod. It asked, “Will we determine to empower, liberate and disciple the 98% of the Church of England who are not ordained and therefore set them free for fruitful, faithful mission and ministry, influence, leadership and, most importantly, vibrant relationship with Jesus in all of life?” It is an important document which addresses a vital topic with some perceptive comments and recommendations. But that reference to “leadership” was the first of 51 appearances in the document. Perhaps this was because the Task Group which compiled it included a former senior civil servant, a director of a merchant bank, a senior partner of a legal firm, a bishop and the founder of a leading executive search firm.
Why is it that, relating the Christian faith to the world of work, we so easily ignore the people who don’t have influence, the people who have the decisions made about them, and focus on the people who make the decisions?
It wasn’t always like that. Before the industrial revolution, priests would be found working in the fields with their parishioners. Faith, work and the church’s year were inseparably bound together. As industry developed, the Methodist Church grew among the urban working classes, strengthening their communities, and was often closely linked with the emergence of trades unions and the Labour Movement. As Morgan Philips, a General Secretary of the Labour Party, put it, “The Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism.”
Perhaps people working in “dark satanic mills” held on to faith because it offered them freedom and joy in the world to come. But there was more than that: the Methodist class system was firmly rooted in daily life, and the churches encouraged education, temperance and thrift which enabled some to find new opportunities as a way to “better themselves”. Many enlightened employers were people of faith, who realised that they were called to do something in this world to improve the conditions of the people who worked for them. Friendly societies gave practical expression to a Christian principle: the duty of care for those who hit hard times.
As industry and the churches have declined together, the descendants of those who bettered themselves find themselves working with ideas and information in a post-industrial society. A gospel message which is based on concepts and propositions, as many evangelistic courses are, fits better with their lives than it does with those providing services or working in manufacturing. People who handle investments, with the promise of eventual return, can relate to the future hope of heaven better than people on zero hour contracts wondering how they are going to meet their bills tomorrow. Contemporary interpretations of the Gospel message stress individual choice and freedom, with the opportunity to maximise personal potential, but the vast majority of the people have little real choice about what they do for a living and don’t see their work as developing their potential.
Underlying and giving substance to any approach will be recognition of the value of the physical world. The Christian faith offers the biblical revelation beginning with God’s good creation. The fall brought frustration to the material world and to work within it. God’s remedy was decisively enacted with the incarnation, with Jesus’ human life in a carpenter’s family. His ministry was amongst working people, the people who were witnesses to his death and resurrection. But, as Tom Wright makes clear, “God’s purpose is not just to save human beings, but to renew the whole world.”  In Colossians chapter 1, St Paul writes of “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” being reconciled to God. The Christian hope is not of escaping from creation at death to enjoy a disembodied “heaven”, but of sharing in the new creation.
So there is a particular dignity to working with things, with material creativity being affirmed and celebrated, throughout the scriptures. The early church would quickly come to recognise and include the working class, the service providers, of its day, there being “neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3: 28), and addressing them directly, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (Colossians 3: 23).
One place to start is for churches to celebrate local industry. Some already do this instead of Harvest Festivals which are less relevant as agriculture declines in the economy and is outside the experience of most people in urban areas. The celebration can be both of individual talents as well as the contribution made by industries to a community.
We can encourage young people, as they make choices about employment, to consider manufacturing or service industries, perhaps through apprenticeships. Churches can support them as they take their early steps in work, being well placed to offer mentoring.This would be helpful to employers who are keen to take on apprentices, but are disappointed by the lack of work ethic, often blamed on relaxed discipline in schools.
The lack of suitable employment means that many young people take on roles which are below their educational attainment. Many of those working in bars have degrees. They may see this as temporary, something from which they aim to escape, but they have the capacity, as they interact with people, to make a positive impact in what they do. Discussing this with a group of school children, I was able to use the example of two ladies working in a fast food outlet, who created a positive atmosphere as they emptied bins and wiped tables.
Local churches can support workplace chaplaincy, especially by encouraging people to volunteer for this ministry. Chaplains are visible Christians, frequently meeting the people who have decisions made about them, listening to their experiences and rejoicing to find that God is already at work in places that the church doesn’t often recognise. At an organisational level resources need to be maintained for this ministry which ensures that the church is in touch with working people, and is there for them at times of need.It provides a valuable means for the church to hear and reflect on the work and lives of people from whom it easily becomes remote.
Many of our congregations are aging, some being entirely made up of people in retirement. People look back to the industrial past of their area, when they had secure jobs.It isn’t too late to hear their wisdom about their work and the strength it gave to communities. It may be the first time they have been asked to think about their working life in the context of faith, and we may have much to learn from them.
Where churches include people of working age, many are introducing “This Time Tomorrow” in their worship. It is important that this covers people from as wide a range of jobs as possible, including manual workers and service providers. It is an opportunity to encourage them and to affirm that their work is vital and valued. It will provide us with a helpful reminder to pray for people in their daily work.
Some churches encourage people to discover their vocation, in most cases meaning to ordained ministry and leadership. It is important that potential ministers are identified and developed, but this must not suggest that other occupations, especially manual work, are less valuable.
And it makes an enormous impact if we appreciate the people who work to provide the services we need. We have many opportunities to show respect for the people we meet on the bus, in a café, at the checkout or patrolling our streets. A smile, a greeting, a genuine question about them, will show that they are important to us, because we believe they are important to God.
If the church is to model the principles of God’s kingdom, to be a pointer to his new creation in the midst of the old, then we will seek to do all we can, in the power of his Spirit, to help people find fulfilment rather than frustration. An essential part of that will be a focus on the people who work hard to provide for our basic daily needs.
 “Scripture and the Authority of God”, p.27