Friday 1 September 2023

Book Review: Confounding the Mighty, edited by Luke Larner

Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, Social Class and Solidarity, edited by Luke Larner (London: SCM Press, 2023)

Class’, as I presently understand it, is a social category primarily addressing the human person’s economic standing, both perceived and actual, within given communities and cultures even as that standing necessarily intersects with other identifiers such as ‘race’, ethnicity, sex, gender, and religion. Other factors also contribute to class: family, housing, education, healthcare, leisure pursuits, and geographical location, for example, all coincide to shape a person within a community and how that person embodies that community’s attending, often stereotyped, culture – and vice versa, with the community and its resources determining the available options and thus choices its constituents can make. This unveils a mutually reinforcing dynamic at play within class. While people are ascribed value according to whichever class they ‘belong’ to, the value they are ascribed as part of a particular community determines both the level and the quality of socio-economic attention they and their community receive from government, local authorities, and other institutions. People regarded as being of a ‘higher’ (and therefore ‘better’) class have access to resources denied to the majority of the people said to occupy the classes beneath them; resources which, however nobly utilised, nonetheless maintain the status quo when deployed. Thus class is hierarchical, almost inevitably ideological, and irreducibly complex.

Even my most casual, least observant reader will have noticed that, apart from including the requisite bibliographical details, I am yet to mention the book purportedly under scrutiny – namely, Confounding the Mighty: Stories of Church, Social Class and Solidarity. Using a review as a guise to smuggle one’s own thoughts on any given topic through customs is undoubtedly poor form, but there is, I hope, an acceptable reason to humour me. In recent months, I have begun to realise more clinically, more cynically, how my class (according to my understanding) has shaped me and my dealings with other people. On the basis of my education and household income, I am (lower?) middle class. But I claim (white) working-class, even ‘underclass’, heritage and keenly feel the dissonance between then and now, not least because I cannot discern whether, according to sociological classifications, I am truly (lower?) middle class or actually part of the so-called precariat. Self-employment, working-class roots, and daily involvement in traditionally higher-class environments (academia; the Church of England) make for a cocktail with a lingering, not entirely pleasant, aftertaste. As one of the contributors to Confounding the Mighty, Ruth Harley, puts it, ‘ “I speak ‘middle-class’ . . . but it is not, and never will be, my mother tongue”’ (p. 23).

I will admit to some disappointment when I saw that none of the essayists in Confounding the Mighty claims anything other than a working-class background. When I first set eyes on the title, I had presumed, self-righteously had hoped, that while the book would be worthy, all the chapters were likely to have been written by people from the middle (or higher) classes, church ministers or charity workers with pasts in public schools and Oxbridge, ecclesiastical pioneers (a loaded word) carefully selected to machete their way through cables and wiring to penetrate Britain’s concrete jungles. Thankfully, I was wrong. The contributors are wary of imposing ‘outside’ missiological strategies on communities that best know themselves; some are Oxbridge educated, though not through birthright; and still others look fondly – a tad nostalgically, perhaps – on their formative years in (shall we say?) traditional (white?) working-class communities. Confounding the Mighty is most definitely a worthy book, not because it is a repository of good, practicable ideas or a trove of sharp analysis (though it is both of these in places), but because its content rings true and has good and true things to say.

And what is its content? Anthony Reddie’s foreword quickly passes into two chapters by the editor, the first a largely autobiographical prelude, the second a call to counter the ‘feckless [i.e., ineffective, useless] faith’ he first mentions in the prelude. Charting his life experiences to date, Luke Larner recognises a need ‘to learn how to build solidarity and join others in organizing for justice’ (p. xix); indeed, he argues that ‘the struggle for solidarity and justice is at the heart of the mission of God’ (p. xx, emphasis original), and failure to acknowledge ‘this drive towards solidarity and justice’ regarding class issues amounts to ‘feckless faith’ (p. xx). Larner’s prelude successfully sets the tone for the rest of the book. His chapter on ‘feckless faith’ explores the conceptuality underlying class distinctions and why these distinctions are pernicious for everybody, including the people who recline atop the class pyramid. Channelling the Magnificat (and especially Luke 1:52), Larner envisions a society in which ‘the casting down of some and the lifting up of others allows for the possibility of meeting in the middle’ (p. 11). Yes, absolutely; but in a publication so mindful of unjust social stratifications, I read this as expressing not simply a desire for equality but almost – almost! – as a call to middle-class existence. I am sure my reading is wrong here; I hope my reading is wrong here.

Ruth Harley tackles the attitudes that depict working-class communities as places of need and dearth and thus as something to escape from, primarily by pursuing a good education. But this narrative champions individualism and neglects the good within these communities, including and especially the good God’s grace and abundance brings. Harley queries the logic of social mobility, for this ‘rests on an assumption of scarcity and competition’, whereas the solidarity she favours ‘rests on an assumption of collaboration’ (p. 34). She sees Pauline ecclesiology as a model for true solidarity, for ‘Paul’s emphasis on mutuality and interdependence within a diverse body [acts] as a strong corrective to individualism’ (p. 32). Much of Harley’s chapter engages with the ideas and feelings generated by social dislocation, and it was not too difficult for me to connect her observations to my own educational background. But whereas for Harley, education was spread as the tarmac on freedom’s road, a way to ‘get out’, leaving home and going to university was less aspirational for me. It was just something to do.

In his chapter, Rajiv Sidhu discusses caste, class, and colour within a Church of England context. The Church of England admits its need to work on racial justice, but ‘much of this focuses upon what could be crudely described as colour-lines: “Black Versus White”’ (p. 39), where ‘Black’ incorporates anyone who is ‘other’ (here, in presumably a racialised sense). ‘But what of the differences within the labels?’ (p. 39); does the Church of England recognise, for example, the ‘interplay between Brahmanism and fascism in India and Indian politics’ (p. 40) and how this affects Indian diaspora communities in Britain? No; for Sidhu, in the Church of England, ‘culture and identity are brushed into broader criteria that are unable to engage with differences’ (pp. 40–41): Hello, BAME; greetings, UKME; how’s it goin’, POC? I found Sidhu’s chapter to be enormously helpful in its analysis, but his conclusion less so. He writes, ‘When the church truly learns to see Christ present in all people and active in all the world, then it will find the light of Christ through whatever darkness it encounters’ (p. 45). Quite so; I agree. But is that all that can be said?

Katherine Long’s essay looks at the Church of England and working-class vocations. As I did with Ruth Harley’s chapter, I felt some resonance here, for I have been through the Church of England’s discernment process. Long summarises her master’s dissertation, which looked into how people from working-class communities experience the discernment process. The results are, frankly, shocking: assumptions and prejudices abound, all held and perpetuated by bishops and members of theological education institutes. ‘Most of the experiences and prejudice,’ Long comments, ‘were unconscious and were from a deeply ingrained attitude and expectation of who they [presumably the aforementioned bishops and institutes; Long does not clarify who ‘they’ are] would expect to be training as a vicar’ (p. 64). I need not comment further on this chapter: its observations speak for itself, and if I had the power to do so, I would require everyone involved in the Church of England’s discernment and selection process – and, indeed, anyone involved in the equivalents of other Christian denominations – to accept Long’s research, which is truly eye-opening, capable of both empowering working-class (as well as less-socially confident) people, and shaming the authorities.

Selina Stone considers how leadership functions in Pentecostal churches, which are predominantly working class and Black. There are lessons to be learnt from the Black Pentecostal experience, Stone advises, for the emphasis in training leaders falls not so much on a candidate’s educational ability or management skills, but on character and spirituality and the Holy Spirit’s anointing. Ministerial training, at least in the English experience, remains ensnared in the webs spun by the capitalism and racism of the Atlantic slave trade, and ‘learning from the leadership of “the least of these”, exemplified in this case by early Pentecostals’ (p. 71), can help the Church of England and other denominations to eschew its classism. After all, Stone muses, ‘who could have imagined that a group of working-class black people praying to encounter the Spirit would ignite a spiritual movement that would continue to reverberate around the world today, and that the son of ex-slaves [William Seymour; p. 76] would be its leader?’ (p. 79). Stone’s is a particularly elegant contribution to Confounding the Mighty.

Traditionally, stereotypically, English (British?; I cannot say) society has been divided into working-, middle-, and upper-class people, but its ever-changing shape means newer labels are available to categorise people. Enter the precariat: dwellers of a gig-working world, holders of zero-hour contracts, people who lunge from one sort of work to another to pay the bills; the precariat is too diversified to be classified a community. There is also the salariat, people who earn a salary through performing ‘bullshit jobs’ (David Graeber) with similarly little chance of career progression and satisfaction. In this context, Sally Mann suggests Christian churches can become ‘“contrast communities” embodying hope to those caught in the worst repercussions of the changing class landscape in Britain today’ (p. 85). Christian churches and communities have ‘the wealth of scriptural visions of shalom . . .  to reimagine economic justice’ (p. 94). Churches are not just about Sunday worship; they are communities which can ‘articulate the struggles and hopes for identity and meaning and offer opportunities to work for justice at the local level – whether by providing volunteering opportunities or through setting up social enterprises and charities that model other ways to value and define work’ (p. 95). Mann takes the ‘local level’ seriously; this is where God’s Holy Spirit is noticeably at work, and she describes some of her own (Baptist) church community’s initiatives as examples. I also note a comment, almost an aside, perhaps: ‘Some churches have moved to multi-service patterns to allow for more variation in work patterns and other commitments, but usually there is the assumption that “membership” is characterized by being reliably present and available to participate in the programmes, which are an addition to a person’s “regular” life’ (pp. 93–94). So many things that happen in a local church are done by the same regularly attending people precisely because these are people whose commitments allow them to do things at the designated times. But if both precariat and salariat are to be included within the life of a local church, then change must happen, and the implications of what Mann has pinpointed here are potentially huge. Assuming by ‘multi-service’ Mann means something like ‘many church services at different times, on different days, to accommodate different people’, then not only could this mean holding daily services, but it could also mark the end of publicising home or small groups as the main way, or a significant way, of doing discipleship, because there is every chance that a significant proportion of a church’s membership is unable to participate in such groups due to irregular work commitments. Moreover, holding extra services, or ‘setting up social enterprises or charities’, requires additional hands – an opportunity, perhaps, for more people from a variety of backgrounds to become, in Church of England terms, licensed lay ministers? Or would this be simply another ‘programme’? The value of Mann’s chapter lies in the questions it prompts.

Victoria Turner finds inspiration for today’s church in the founding and development of the Iona Community, which arose from a mission initially to working-class people in Govan. While crafting her account of the Iona Community, Turner scores some very palpable hits about the need for mission actually to transform the social structures within which and under which working-class people live; this requires political action and true solidarity rather than charity and sympathy. She concludes, ‘If we are only protesting for, and not protesting with the working classes, if we are only doing to and not organizing with the working classes, we are slipping back into paternalistic patterns’ (p. 111, emphasis original). I accept this; but surely protesting with and organising with presuppose and retain elements of distinction between the helpers and the helped, thus maintaining, albeit in diminished form, the paternalistic patterns Turner decries. This makes me wonder how far empathetic action (or activist empathy) actually can or does equate to true solidarity.

Confounding the Mighty’s penultimate chapter is another one tackling class and theological education. Eve Parker charges – and with good reason, too, judging by some of the experiences cited both here and in Katherine Long’s earlier essay – that theological education institutes fail to recognise the particular pressures, especially of family commitments and employment, working-class people experience, pressures which then impact on how well working-class learners are perceived to be managing their studies. Parker requires theology courses to incorporate class consciousness teaching and assesses how the aims and development of the Socialist Sunday School movement can instruct theological education institutes in this respect. ‘Just as the Socialist Sunday Schools came about as organized acts of resistance against the injustices of capitalist greed,’ she writes, ‘today theological education must become conscious of what it means to educate for formation during a cost-of-living crisis that is pushing millions more people into poverty, in a context of soaring levels of wealth inequality, child poverty, austerity and in a nation where the privileged political elites are choosing to bring about the collapse of the National Health Service and failing to adequately support schools, councils and basic services. There is no choice for the working class,’ she challenges, ‘but to educate, agitate and organize’ (p. 130).

The editor returns to provide a concluding chapter (Joerg Rieger provides a simple afterword) further addressing the need for solidarity and the Holy Spirit’s active presence. For Luke Larner, the Spirit ensures the Eucharist demonstrates the incarnate Son’s solidarity with humans, and ours with the world; the Spirit raises prophets to speak truth to power; and organised action, where people work together to change society for the better, is best portrayed as instances of the Spirit’s mission (missio Spiritus). While solidarity can be expressed in many ways, Larner particularly urges his readers to fight for fair wages, to join trade unions, and to develop cooperatives and ‘other democratized structures’ (p. 153). ‘My hope,’ he explains, ‘is that churches, Christian organizations and Christian people will allow the Spirit of God and the voices of the prophets to expand our imagination for what it possible, leading us into movements of greater solidarity with allies of all faiths and none in the class struggle’ (p. 154). Certainly this is a hope to cherish, if not actually to promote and implement.

The strengths of Confounding the Mighty are many, and I commend the book unreservedly, especially to church ministers, church workers, and anyone seeking to become one or the other. I should like to have seen chapters on how churches (could) address class and LGBTQIA+ matters, class and housing, class and health (including nutrition), class and ableism, and class and climate change; but it is quite possible to formulate a take on these by extrapolating from the discussions already included, or by reading Victoria Turner’s edited volume Young, Woke and Christian (SCM Press, 2022) as a accompaniment to this one. And while not each of its contributors is Anglican, Confounding the Mighty has a very ‘Church of England’ feel; but again, readers from the spectrum of denominations should be able to plant its seeds into the soil of their own traditions with just a little spadework.

There are, however, two further comments I wish to make, and both relate to more conventional doctrinal loci. First, I should like to ask how the authors conceive of sin. Of course, the whole book, in its pursuit of class justice, is about sin, confronting sin, and doing away with sin. But when sin qua sin is mentioned or implied, my overwhelming impression is that only structural, systemic sin is a problem for the authors. I am likely wrong here, but, putting it bluntly (and perhaps a little pietistically), I just cannot see how structural sin can be overcome without also addressing the individual sins each of us, no matter our class, commits daily, sins which often consolidate the harms class distinctions inflict on so many. By focussing on communities and the class dynamics shaping them, do the authors neglect the reality that communities are constituted by particular, fallen, sinful people who both uphold and are held down by structural sin?
My second comment is related but concerns the place of Christian eschatology in the fight for class justice. I note Confounding the Mighty does not include any chapters by theologians or activists who would claim middle- or even upper-class heritage. The book’s focus is undoubtedly on establishing class justice for working-class people. But this gives the book an agenda – an agenda I approve of, lest I be misunderstood – that makes a manifesto of its reflections and stories. This is no bad thing, of course, but Confounding the Mighty is too-strongly flavoured with politically left-tasting spices for my palate (again, lest misunderstanding take root and flourish, I do not consider myself to be on the political right; if anything, I am centre-left), and this raises my question about eschatology: What is the fight for class justice hoping to achieve, ultimately? Notwithstanding that the gospel message of Jesus Christ and New Testament teachings entail, I believe, caring and fighting for the rights of the defenceless, speaking truth to power, discerning where God’s Spirit is at work at the local level, and so on; notwithstanding these things, many of the chapters in this book ostensibly imagine the church striving for and even expecting an inevitable this-worldly utopia rather than anticipating and awaiting God’s eschatological kingdom (or ‘kin-dom’, as Ruth Harley prefers; pp. 26, 36n2). These ideals are principled and praiseworthy, to be sure; but perhaps they also suggest a sort of social progressivism that sin, both structural and personal, surely renders implausible. Even if current visions of class justice come to fruition, classism itself will surely mutate into a new form of injustice and have its time. Luke Larner perhaps appears to acknowledge something like this, because in his concluding chapter, he recognises that socially just practices, while ‘a means to achieve change’ (p. 155, emphasis original), are limited in what they can do, even though they do ‘win short-term justice gains for the working classes’ and ‘create spaces to build intersectional solidarity between the labouring classes’ to ‘win justice’ and ‘cultivate’ hope (p. 155). Is there a hint of resignation here? Regardless, Larner calls for ‘a revolution of solidarity and a shifting of the balance of power’ (p. 155), a call I fully appreciate and will fight for in my own, hopefully Spirit-infused and -enthused, way as part of my church community. ¡Viva la revoluci√≥n escatol√≥gica!


  1. Thanks for a very thorough and thoughtful review! In answer to some of your questions - you mention some other areas which would have been interesting to cover - and I totally agree! While we point at issues like LGBTQ+ inclusion, housing, health and climate change, there simply wasn't the space to go into great detail on these. For my next piece of work I really want to do something on class struggle, de-colonial struggle, land and housing - it's an area I'm very passionate about, having been involved in housing justice and support for people who are homeless for over 10 years. For class and climate justice, while I briefly hint at this in the final chapter, Anu Ranawana's excellent recent book 'A Liberation for the Earth' is excellent. We had planned a chapter looking at gender and sexuality, and (at least) two contributors to the book are LGBTQ+, it's not something we were able get by the deadline due to family and work pressures on a proposed contributor. As to your two more detailed questions . 1 - Personal Sin. I like to think I'm something of an expert on this subject ;) I'm dissappointed this didn't come across more clearly, as there absolutely needs to be a balanced emphasis between personal and structural sin. From a Marxist perspective, I've been thinking about doing some work on the concept of 'Lumpenproletariat' and sin. I quote Cornel West in the conclusion (a quote I often use when preaching), who said "There's something about the sweet Jesus who helps me love my crooked neighbour with my own crooked heart"! As to the second question about Eschatology - it's a tricky one. I'm very critical of any theology which only promises "pie in the sky when you die" - I believe we should absolutely be struggling for justice and equality on earth, knowing that we probably won't see it for many generations. Maybe humans just aren't highly evolved enough yet? Maybe we'll kill the planet first, who knows. Coming again from an easter Orthodox perspective of Theosis - I hope for an ongoing sense of eschaton, by which all matter is lifted up towards God as an all-encompassing eucharist (See Sergei Bulgakov for hints of this). As to what comes next? If I'm honest, I have to much to do here and now to spend much time thinking about a future hope I have no control over! Probably makes me a bad priest/christian. But that's me.

    Thanks again for such an in-depth and thorough review, and for your kind and encouraging praise for the book's strengths. Do be in touch if it's of interest. Luke

    1. Thanks for your response, Luke. I'm planning on being at the book launch on 22 September, so maybe we'll meet there.

      I'm not particularly well versed in politics or political theology, so I had to look up 'lumpenproletariat'! On eschatology, I definitely saw the eschatology coming through here and there, especially in your final chapter, but I found it difficult to dissociate that from human action. I guess I'm very much influenced by Colin Gunton in this respect: Gunton really seemed to emphasise the 'in anticipation' aspects of eschatology so the good we do now 'anticipates' the age to come because of the risen Jesus. That doesn't sound too dissimilar to what you appeared to say in your last chapter, so perhaps it's more a matter of where the emphasis lies than in any substantial disagreement.

      Again, thanks for editing the book. It's a good 'un.