Let's talk about the myth of the classless church.
I grew up believing that America was the place where anybody could be anything as if they worked hard enough. It was easy to think that social institutions like churches, schools and hospitals were classless because, well, we lived in a classless society. But step out of that circular logic and, truth is, that has never really been the case. Schools and hospitals, to name only a few public institutions, have been emblems of class difference – from segregation to access to healthcare. Churches are also emblems of class.
If we’re going to talk about Class – my denomination is a shining example. Episcopalians have been predominantly landed-gentry, the political movers and shakers, the industrialists, intellectuals and elites of our country. A New York Times article from 1981 put it this way:
“Episcopalians are represented disproportionately in America's social aristocracy, and their mores and ways, even their religion, are frequently adopted by non-Episcopalians. More significantly, and more quantifiably, Episcopalians tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups in Americans …While only two of every 100 Americans are Episcopalians, one of every seven members of the 97th Congress belongs to the church. Similarly, two of the 14 Cabinet members are Episcopalians.” (This was in 1981.) LINK
We Episcopalians embody the concept of elitism with our special worship attire and our hegemony of roles for priests, deacons and lay people. We have special titles and lots of jargon that create a code for who’s in and who isn’t.
But every church must deal with class because our classless society is anything but! We bring class issues with us on Sunday morning. Here are some things to bear in mind:*
1. All churches have a class hierarchy. Just look at the seating charts for pew payments in any town and you’ll see how class played a significant role in who had access to God and in what order.
2. Even churches that demand humility and modesty (like the Puritans – now called Congregationalists) are sensitive to class. In colonial times, one could only be a member of the Puritan church if one owned land. The indentured servant could attend but not vote.
3. Mainline churches have been especially shaped by the historical mindset of merit, breeding, and accomplishment. This, mixed with a commitment to the gospel, led them to invest in philanthropy and the social gospel. They began Sunday Schools, Settlement houses, provided community centers in their urban churches, endowed municipal parks --all in the interest of societal uplift. This legacy continues.
4. Mainline and upper class churches understand the value of social capital. These churches have historically been where the banker, the judge, the mayor and other leaders shook hands and spoke on Sunday mornings. The white-collar folks went to the Presbyterian Church and the working class to the Baptist. Social networking served the mainline churches well. Many of us have found our realtor, our attorney, our financial advisory by mixing with them at church.
But there are problems with our class-based systems of church. Two of which are huge:
Colonialism has been at the heart of the Churches' service and missions. Regardless of class identity, churches have perceived themselves as God’s elect or God’s chosen – called to go help the “other”. And that ‘other’ is inferior. Colonialism is deeply unpopular among anyone that is not a Colonist. All of us are colonist and colonized during our lifetimes. It creates inequities that damage the church internally and externally. Christians need to get over it. We need to look at models of mutual respect and integrity in how we interact with the “other”.
Social Capital has left the church. Yes, there are a few churches that still have vigor because their members see it as a place to see and be seen. But the number of those places has decreased dramatically and will continue to do so. Social Capital has moved to the gym, the club, golf course, and most significantly, the Conference and Convention world. (Look for this in my next blog).
So what to do? How do we de-classify the church?
What about this for starters:
Let’s start talking about class. Let’s break the mythology that we churches are classless. All are Welcome doesn’t really mean all are welcome in a particular church. Who are the “Alls?” in your church context? Are transgendered people welcome? Are all ethnicities? The homeless? Those with mental illness? Disabilities? No car? (That’s a big one.)
Let’s acknowledge the deep-seated taboo of “mixing”. We’ve spent centuries avoiding being mixed up with “those people”. Churches have done this too. Mixing is theologically tied to scriptural texts about purity…not mixing old wine skins with new, not becoming impure. If we consider issues of class, purity, honor and shame, we’ll be better able to extend a welcome to anyone.
I’m hoping we’ll become, not classless churches, but world-class, all-class churches. A place where we bring people together to network for God’s kingdom and our corporate empowerment. That would be a dream church to me!
---The Rev. Rebecca Ragland
* these observations are drawn from various resources but most informed by Nancy Isenberg’s book WHITE TRASH The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Viking Press, 2016.