There are few people in the modern Church, more especially in its hierarchical structures, who are in any sense solidary with the social realities of the earliest Christian communities. Theology expends immense energy attempting to grasp the thinking, motives, and drives of the Early Church so as to re-dynamise its present institutional arrangements. While there is an academic awareness of the poverty and social alienation of the earliest Christians, there is no desire to let these realities nourish and inform today’s Church.
Growing up in a housing estate in Kilmarnock; a town dubbed the worst place to live in Scotland, the church – be it Catholic or Protestant – was held to be a little posh. It was felt that the churchgoer was a better calibre of person, the kind of person who didn’t use foul language and who bought their clothes from Marks and Spencer as opposed to a sports shop. Churchy folk were proper. Language and values alienated the vast majority of working class people from the life of the Church. As a convert to the Christian faith I entered into an alien world that often showed open contempt for the genuine goodness and morality of poor, working class people, and which placed as much emphasis on instructing me how to drop the rustic, unsophisticated r, so as to say “Lo’d” rather than “Lord,” as it did on teaching me Christian values.
At some point in the story of the Christian community the Church became the preserve of the well-to-do, the polite, and the fashionable, and was forever lost to the poor, the outcasts, and the simple working people who were the earliest Christians. Up to this point in history the Christian faith was the laughing stock of the wealthy and privileged, it was the comical cult of a criminal provincial holy man, and better suited to fishermen and the lowest class of prostitutes. Since this coming of age of the Church the lower echelons of society have been welcomed, yet always encouraged to adopt the graces of their social betters, sing a few hymns, and stay away from the real Church.
Wealthy, polite, and well-heeled people too need the salvific help of the Gospel – probably much more than the poor – and no one will deny this, but their assumption of the helm has impoverished the Church. It has transformed the Church into a parody of Christianity where radical and self-sacrificial love has been usurped by nice clinical charity, and where the real prophetic call for justice and human dignity has been replaced by comfortable words.