The Christian person and (paid) work
The Church’s Bermuda Triangle: the world of work
This is something I wrote that was published in the Church Times (London) in October 2020:
I have spent the last thirty years following the path of the worker-priest. Throughout these decades the perspective of the church on the ordinary business of selling one’s labour has interested me. What has been a puzzle, repeatedly, is how little is said about it. How can this dominant aspect of our lived lives somehow go so unattended?
A part answer is because most of those who do most of the talking in the life of the church are, by the nature of the role, insulated from aspects of the selling-one’s-labour experience. Priests, pastors and ministers are mostly sequestered from it. This is said to be a defining feature of their role, ‘set apart’ and ‘freed’ from the necessity of work so as to pursue their calling unhindered.
Yet such sequestration comes with drawbacks, one of which is their becoming increasingly distanced from a number of contingent realities that bear down on much of the laity. It is not that stipendiary clergy don’t work. Some work very hard and some overwork. It is more that their context removes them to a degree from the work experiences of those to whom they preach and minister.
For most people, work requires regimented attendance, a commute, the assignment of tasks and priorities by someone else, a pecking order, close supervision, the risk of redundancy or forced reassignment. And it may involve contributing to a ‘product’ we don’t much believe in or about which have unexpressed, troublesome scruples.
For these reasons and more, the Church is often poorly informed about ‘the world of work’ as experienced by those of its members who are of working age. The faithful go to church far more often than the church goes to the workplace.
For Christian people the questions that are thrown up by their working lives should find a home in church discourse and within church communities. Yet this is rare. More than this, they might reasonably expect the gospel to be preached in ways that fully engage with the realities within which they live at work.
Search the internet for this and you will find material and books, but few of them are helpful. Too much of the so-called ‘theologies of’ or ‘the spirituality of’ work is pretty sentimental, and sometimes patronising, for the large part written by those unacquainted with the demands, stresses, compromises and challenges of selling their labour in industrial, commercial, private and public settings.
Some examples would be funny were they not seriously said: this injunction, for example: ‘Employees are to work as though God were their boss’ (well, many of us have worked for bosses who seem at times to think they are God); and the ever-so slightly reassuring ‘Exploitation of workers by employers does not escape God's notice’ This is certain to act as an effective break on all workplace exploitation.
The situation appears to be that many of those who write or speak about Christian faith and paid work are not really qualified to do so, and the Christians that are qualified by their experience of being Christian people at work too often lack the voice, the encouragement, or the confidence to do so.
Now, if we were to try and remedy this astonishing silence of a generally talkative church, what might we say were the main issues?
One - the most obvious - is to do with the attitude and behaviour to be commended to Christians in their workplaces (honesty, reliability, conscientiousness, for example). In other words, be a good employee. You can’t fault that.
Others matters - less commonly (indeed hardly ever) raised from the pulpit - are to do with structural questions: how the human person is seen too often only as a means to profit and production; the expendability of persons; what kind of work – and working practices – best affirm the dignity of the human person; the routine moral challenges of obedience to corporate demands; the tricky question of ends and means; the legitimate role of unions.
There is little attention to structural and corporate sin and guilt. The manifestations of sin that crop up in the world of work are often heavily cloaked. For example, the claims of ‘expediency’, productivity and profit; the pressures (they are in fact idolatries) to always please bosses, shareholders, regulatory bodies; the burden placed on so many men and women throughout their working lives by excessive workloads, long hours and the drive to hit those ‘vital’ performance or profit targets.
Karl Marx may be out of fashion, but much of his analysis of the harm and injustices of the world of work (premised as so much of it is on maximising financial profit, privately owned) ring true, not least with some of the insights of the New Testament.
For the bulk of humanity, paid work is the principal shaper of their experience and whether it is a grim cycle of low paid work which never quite allows escape from debt, or some broadly tolerable activity providing some degree of creativity and routine, or one which provides rewards by way of status and pay and pension, it is for everyone at some time or other a form of bondage.
Many of us will work within these systems and organisations and at times wonder what to do, how to act, when faced with conflicts and what we regard as immoral trends or priorities or actions, fearful as many of us are about speaking out. It is unlikely that we might find help from the Church. Yet the talent and experience and thoughtfulness is there, in the pews.
Does Christianity have much to say about selling our labour (physical or intellectual)? It does, but seems to say not enough. Positive examples include Roman Catholic social teaching with its emphasis on the common good (see various encyclicals including Rerum novarum and Laborem exercens).
Chaplains ‘to’, not priests ‘within’ the workplace
Narrowing down the focus, the church has generally favoured the model of appointing stipendiary priests as chaplains to workplaces: the industrial chaplains fitted this model and more recently there have developed such chaplains to shopping centres. Even London’s Docklands now has a chaplain.
No doubt this model has some value, though it would be interesting to see some objective evaluation. It is though essentially pastoral, rarely prophetic and in too many ways is a ‘bolt on’ to the workplace and not a witness or ministry rooted within it.
Some exponents of this model are often heard to speak of their ministry to ‘senior executives’ and with little reference to those at the lower levels, except in a fuzzy pastoral sense. What does it mean - really mean - to ‘minister’ to, say, a clutch of international bank HQs in London’s Docklands, without any critical engagement with the structures of money making and lending, and the stark contrast between pay for those high up and those low down, or the ethics of lending and debt recovery? Is the church there to bless all these structures (implicitly or explicitly), or might it sometimes be called to smash them?
General exhortations and resources
Reflections on the themes
This essay by Thomas Erickson on ‘Work and Spirit’ is an interesting read but illustrates the easy focus on things like ‘balance’ and feeling good - hardly the key issues in approaching questions of faith and paid work.
Some fundamental claims
Laborem exercens makes these claims about selling our labour -
"The primary action of the Church in the world is the action of its members in their daily work" Leslie Newbigin
Well known Marxist commentator Dolly Parton: 9 to 5