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19 February 2016

The UK Church and the problem with class

Chine McDonald is director of communications & membership at the Evangelical Alliance

Most people at my university didn't look like me.

As a black woman, I didn't fit into the stereotype of a Cambridge student: I wasn't white, wasn't male, and owned neither a tweed jacket nor a pair of red trousers. In fact, during my undergraduate degree, there were more students with the surname 'White' than there were black students at my alma mater.

The Oxbridge toff stereotype is of course just that – a stereotype. And as rare as it was to see another black face walking the cobbled streets, it was even rarer to meet someone who might be considered working class.

That's why I'm delighted about this week's news that the government is making universities do better at working with those from poorer backgrounds – particularly white working class boys. Just one in 10 of these boys who are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds go to university.

Our society is vastly, scarily unequal. The opportunities that are assumed by some are beyond the realms of possibility for most others.

But sadly it seems fewer places are more unequal than the UK Church itself. Recent Talking Jesus research commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance, the Church of England and HOPE, shockingly revealed that 81 per cent of practising Christians have a university degree.

I found it a deeply concerning statistic when you take into account that most people in the UK do not go to university.

As Christians, we profess a faith in a God-man who came that all no matter their background or socio-economic class – might have life in all its fullness. We 'reach out' to those from disadvantaged backgrounds with our foodbanks and our debt advice courses and homeless shelters. These are all amazing things, but what story are we painting of our faith if we're mainly attracting the middle class? What stereotypes exist of churchgoers in communities around the country?

Perhaps the reason our churches are full of middle class people is all down to some hangover of cultural Christianity, the one that equates being British with being Christian, when going to church on a Sunday was about being respectable and proper. Maybe some from poorer backgrounds don't feel 'good enough' to join the Church.

How different that is to the story told of the Church in first century Palestine – a bunch of random people from different backgrounds, doing life together and sharing all they had. How contrary this idea of not being good enough is to so much that Christ did and said.

We've sold a distorted picture of what Christianity is: Church isn't a place that you go if you've got a degree or after you're all cleaned up. It's a place where you're invited in and accepted just as you are.

If we're going to be a Church for all, we've got to rethink some of the church practices that are vestiges of culture rather than true expressions of our faith in Jesus. Encouragingly the Fresh Expressions movements springing up around the UK are doing just this.

We've got to be truly welcoming of people who are not like us. We've got to be prepared to be uncomfortable and not force people into the moulds that make them seem more palatable to us.

There's a great quote in one of my favourite musicals My Fair Lady in which Professor Henry Higgins embarks on an experiment to turn "common flower girl" Eliza Dolittle into a lady fit for a king.

"The difference between a lady and a flower girl," Eliza says, "is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."

The thing that will ultimately draw people of all backgrounds to faith in Jesus is treating them with a profound love that comes not from ourselves, but from God. That's love: not exclusivity or judgment about whether we're wearing the right clothes or pronouncing the words correctly. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35).

Let's love people into the Church and pray they'll realise that because of the cross, they're already fit for the King.

Image: CC Ramdlon