I was one of the last generations of Southern children for whom “Where do y’all go to Church?” will be a ubiquitous question. It was one of those questions that led to a quick size-up. Denomination and place-of-worship could tell volumes in Southern towns where Parishes, much like people, had reputations.
I imagine that the question “What do you do?” will have a bit more staying power. Where we work, and what we do has come to define (for better or worse) a number of our social interactions. Being clergy, I can tell you first hand that a different tack is almost always taken when I let it slip that I’m a priest. (The double takes are something to behold when folks ask me while I’m in street clothes. Young, tattooed man that I am.)
The Church can fight, and I think it should, the common assumption that what we do is the defining characteristic of our social interactions, but what we can’t yet seem to grasp is just how deeply the current culture of American labor is seeping into our congregations. We treat work, we treat labor as a neutral medium, as a simple fact of life, and we do so at our peril.
More and more I’m convinced that the single greatest variable in the seemingly inevitable march toward church decline is the way in which labor has changed radically in the last 50 years. I’m aware that this is just one hypothesis among many, probably too many. But the way in which we keep relegating what we’re experiencing to the realm of personal opinion, that its simply a matter of public distaste with the content of the 21st century church, continues to ignore the fact that it is quantifiably more difficult to attend church now than it has been since the end of WWI.
The data around individual hours worked isn’t that telling, but it isn’t that well studied either. As best as we can tell a working individual is now working about 5 hours more a week than they were in 1950, but that says almost nothing about Household hours spent working. Given that we have double the number of women in the workforce now than in 1950 it is safe to say that household work hours, while likely not double what they were 50 years ago, are significantly higher.
We’ve seen the previously sacrosanct status of the weekend erode, in legislation, yes, but more pervasively in practice. The workweek is the week you get on the schedule that is posted sometimes only hours before the next week starts. When I was in the Service Industry scheduling anything more than a week or two out was iffy. Making expensive, involved plans was pretty well unheard of, as any money you put down or plans you made could be forfeited by a manager’s refusal to sign off on your time off. Which you might not receive until days before the fact.
We are bombarded with messaging about how the American worker is faced with a drastically shifting workplace, and, at the same time, that the Church is in decline.
Yet we refuse to connect the two.
It’s easier, in many ways, to think that falling church attendance is a symptom of a cultural malaise, or a failure of messaging. That it is young people reacting against the capriciousness of Culture-War Christianity. That’s easy. We can try to change our theology, or the style and content of our worship. We can re-brand and rethink, re-imagine and revive, but if folks are too pressed by the demands of their work life to give up valuable time on Sunday morning then we’re not going to get anywhere. (Its also easier to collect poll data on opinion, rather than how time is actually spent.)
It is hard to care about the state of the American worker. It is hard to say that the Church is falling victim to the same pressures that workers everywhere are facing. We want so desperately to be above the fray, even as our forebears in the Oxford movement are calling to us and saying that we can’t be. If we want to be a priority, then we need to prioritize our people. Our working, struggling people who are constantly having to revisit their calendars and make the decision about whether or not they can afford to give a few invaluable hours to an organization that is asking them to give even more of the little time they have.
Its time to get serious about labor. The Culture Wars are winding down. We won. What we’re seeing in places like Alabama and Kentucky are its death throes. What if we took on a fight that would actually give life to people? A fight that would reach out across boundaries and say that the real war on families, and on Christian values comes from the unbridled greed that treats humans as resources to be exploited and discarded. That has no concern for developing whole, healthy families and community-driven people.
It seems to be working for the Pope. It worked for his namesake. It worked for the Tractarians. I see no reason it wouldn’t work for us.
Perhaps the biggest change that will need to take place is that when our people tell us they’re too tired, or too busy to attend regularly we need to believe them. We need to stop acting like we have a free pass from the “cares of the world,” and drop the chip on our shoulder that tells us that we should be a priority when other priorities like home and car ownership are being displaced because of an economy that no longer makes them sensible. We need to stop clinging to Sunday morning as our locus of our outreach and the measure of our success. Because as long as our people are given the choice between coming to church on Sunday morning and making money on a Saturday night we’ll always lose out on that choice.
The basic tenet of Liberation Theology is that we can’t separate a person’s material conditions from their spiritual well-being. St. James’ epistle seems to tell us the same thing. The Epistle that troubled so many of the protestant reformers may be the key to our next reformation. One that is necessary when a corruption of the famed Protestant Work-Ethic is undoing Protestantism as we know it. Care for the working person has been one of the finer parts of the Catholic Anglican tradition, and it may be the part that saves us.
Photo: The Christian Workers’ League took part in the May Day Parade, Edinburgh, c.1947 (George Wilkie archive) Accessed at:http://www.ionabooks.com/content/an-oral-history-of-the-iona-community/the-community-and-young-people/1-cwl-members-may-day-parade-c-1947-by-george-wilkie/