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It’s Christmas, and England’s Priests Have Had Enough

On a blustery December morning, the Rev. Nicky Skipworth is leading her congregation in prayer. But the word of God is not being delivered from the pulpit of the parish church in Harworth, a village outside Doncaster, England. It costs the church 200 pounds, or $255, to heat a midweek service. To save funds, it has been moved to the local sports center.

Ms. Skipworth is grateful to her hosts: Some parts of the church are nearly a thousand years old, and it can get bitterly cold in the winter. But when the Church of England has £10.3 billion in the bank, she wonders why the local community is shouldering the burden. “Instead of pulling people out of the river,” she told me, “what if we could go upstream and find out why they’re falling in?”

In Britain today, many people are falling into the river. Poverty is widespread, wages are low and public services are in disarray. But amid this vast social suffering, Britons are fighting back. Strike action, taken by workers from all walks of life, is at levels not seen since Margaret Thatcher was in power. Dispelled for decades, labor unrest is well and truly back. And it’s reached somewhere surprising: the Church of England.

Not long ago, the idea of clergy members joining a trade union was close to inconceivable. The Church of England, after all, was known as “the Tory Party at prayer.” When faith workers set up a union branch in the 1990s, it was viewed with suspicion.Theclergy generally thought it either politically inappropriate or theologically incompatible with one’s employment by God. Weren’t trade unions for workers with blue collars, not clerical collars?

A lot has changed since then. Now part of Unite, one of Britain’s largest unions, the faith workers branch — predominantly priests but also rabbis and humanist celebrants — is fast approaching 2,000 clerical members, or around 10 percent of the clergy in active ministry. The numbers, in themselves, may not sound like much. But these members have joined from a nontraditional sector without any recruitment push from the union, in a remarkably organic process. The branch runs a help line and supports clergy members in disputes; in June, it submitted its first ever formal pay claim.

Technically, clergy members aren’t employees but ecclesiastical officeholders, which means they receive a stipend rather than a salary. The national minimum stipend is currently £26,794, or $34,118 — putting the clergy, according to Sharon Graham, the head of Unite, among “the working poor.” Not everyone receives the minimum. Yet while each of the country’s 42 dioceses — a collection of parishes looked after by a bishop — that make up the Church of England are free to set their own stipend, pay is rarely generous. Averaging not much above the minimum, the paychecks have failed to keep pace with rising energy and food prices.

Along with a stipend, clergy members are provided with rent-free church housing. In a country where access to decent housing is scarce, this is a major benefit. But while vicarages might conjure up images of quaint cottages nestled away in a pastoral idyll, church housing is often old, damp, drafty and expensive to heat, with renovations carried out at the mercy of the diocese. “People will say, ‘What a lovely big house,’” Ms. Skipworth told me. “But try affording it.”

If clergy members are struggling, then their parishioners are too. Thirteen years of Conservative-led austerity, which have cut public services to the bone, have been compounded by a cost-of-living crisis. The effects are legion: 14.4 million people in poverty, homelessness at record levels and pervasive depression. In this scarified landscape, vicars now find themselves acting more like social workers, helping parishioners with debts, fuel and housing.

Across the country, churches are running food delivery services, pay-what-you-can cafes, community shops and assistance programs. Food banks, which in a decade have become a normal feature of British society, rely heavily on churches as hosts, as well as for donations and volunteers. Some churches have opened “warm spaces” — heated rooms for those in need of warmth — and others provide “snuggle boxes,” where donated slippers, blankets, hot water bottles and dressing gowns are redistributed among the community.

For faith workers, responsible both spiritually and practically for their congregants, this work takes a big toll. It’s also impossible to escape. “Everybody knows where I live,” Ms. Skipworth said. “The doorbell can go at any time, and I’ll have no idea who’s there. It could be somebody wanting a baptism, somebody in need of help or just somebody who saw the word ‘vicarage’ on the gate.”

Redundancies, church closings and the merging of parishes have also led to heavier workloads. Especially at this time of year, the demands — running a full liturgical calendar, on top of everything else — can be grueling. “Sometimes it seems that the church is greedy for our time and our energies,” the Rev. James Pitkin, a priest in Hampshire, told me, “but then doesn’t acknowledge the cost.”

Despite these difficulties, there can be a reluctance among the clergy to talk about their own troubles. Ministry is often seen as a calling rather than a vocation, let alone just a job, and the concept of service underwrites the work. The expectation to embrace a life of sacrifice can make it hard for faith workers to voice demands for themselves. And for some clergy members, being treated poorly isn’t a bad thing — instead, it allows them to better follow in the example of Jesus.

In seeing suffering as a condition to organize against rather than a demonstration of one’s own godliness, unionizing clergy members like Ms. Skipworth and Mr. Pitkin, both of whom are active members of the Unite branch, are breaking with tradition. But they are also drawing on a longstanding relationship between Christianity and British trade unionism. Initially, this was a relationship of hostility — the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of six farm laborers exiled to Australia in 1834 for forming a trade union whose story is foundational to the British trade union movement, were betrayed by their local vicar.

Over time, however, that hostility gave way to something more symbiotic. Christian socialism and Methodism contributed practical and ideological resources to trade unionism, offering meeting places and models of organization as well as the egalitarian notion that men and women are created in the image of God. In this way, the trade union movement’s motto that “an injury to one is an injury to all” can be read as a translation of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.”

Today, the effort to unionize has created a space for clergy members to see themselves as workers, giving them a way to resist injustice and inequality. “There are those that say, ‘Don’t talk about politics or religion,’” Ms. Skipworth said. “That’s what those in power want to instill in people to stop them challenging the status quo.”

Polly Smythe (@pollysmythe) is the labor correspondent at Novara Media and a freelance journalist.

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