Yesterday, I was elected Vice President of the faith workers’ Branch of the Community trade union. I became a socialist before I became a Christian and maybe that’s why I ended up a Methodist, with its radical heritage of activism for social and political change and its links with the Trade Union Movement. I now serve in the South Warwickshire Circuit, a tranquil place in the heart of England but also the seedbed of the Trade Union movement in the 19th century.
He left school at the age of nine to become a crow-scarer and then a plough-boy, but was committed to self-education and spent all his spare money on books. He eventually became a Local Preacher in the Primitive Methodist Circuit. In the end, he proved too radical and outspoken for the local Methodists, a prophet without honour among those who had trained him in public-speaking.
Arch is best known as the founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, but before that he was well-known in the area for agitating for social change in access to education and improvements to housing. He was invited to address a gathering of workers in the village pub in Wellesbourne (now the centre of the newly created South Warwickshire Methodist Circuit) on a cold evening in February 1872. Expecting no more than thirty people to attend, the organisers were overwhelmed with a crowd of more than 2000 and Arch was forced to address them from under a tree. Within a few short years of that evening, the union had a membership of 80,000 and Arch travelled the length and breadth of the country, demanding a minimum wage and improved tied housing for workers’ families. Arch was eventually elected a Liberal Member of Parliament, one of the first working class MPs in the Commons.
When Methodists talk about what it is that makes us special or unique as Christians, we often point to our work for social justice. We are rightly proud of folk like Joseph Arch and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, of Thomas Stephenson and the National Children’s Homes, of Donald Soper and his relentless argumentation in the public square. But there is more than a hint of nostalgia in our talk of social justice heroes. Methodists love their prophets … as long as they are dead!
When I tell people that I am a member of the Community trade union, they are surprised, if not shocked. ‘Why would an ordained person need a union?’ they often ask. It’s because, whilst we are called, we are also workers, with many of the same issues as anyone else. Workplace stress, difficult working conditions, issues of personal safety, affect ministers and church workers too, sometimes more so as we deal with some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community, sometimes alone, sometimes late at night. Sadly, bullying and harassment are as prevalent in the church as they are in the office, school or factory floor. As an openly-gay minister who has faced direct and indirect discrimination at the hands of the Church, I know all too well that sense of deep vulnerability faced by those who potentially face the loss of income, faith community and home if things go wrong.
I was previously a member of the Unite Union’s faithworkers’ branch. I was so proud to be a member of the same union (the T&G) where my father had been a Shop Steward as a van driver. It was with a heavy heart that I felt I had to resign, partly because of the increasingly hardline utterances of the General Secretary, Len McCluskey, and also because of some of the activities of the Branch.
But unions are not just there for when things go pear-shaped. They are an important expression of solidarity and connectedness as well a source of support, advice and guidance. Unions like Community have been at the forefront of the battle against antisemitism in our politics, as well as campaigning against homelessness and for better mental health in the workplace and beyond. Community supports its members through a benevolence fund and backs them through discounts and educational opportunities for them and their children. It even has a grant scheme for members to engage in community development projects. After my previous experiences, I was so utterly delighted to find a union whose concerns were the same ones that shaped my day-to-day ministry. Having the backing of the union certainly adds grist to my mill!
I am incredibly proud that I get to serve in the Circuit where Joseph Arch was born and raised and where the early trade union movement began. I am also disappointed that the modern Methodist Church does not formally recognise any trade union for its workers and will continue to campaign to change that. Joseph Arch was vilified and attacked by farmers and landowners and his character called into question, often by fellow Christians, especially clergy. He reminds us, if we need reminding, that respectability is not a Christian virtue, and that radicalism is!
At a time of deep uncertainty and economic meltdown, solidarity and support is essential, and I believe that the Community faithworkers’ Branch offers that. For me, it is another expression of 'connexion' which lies at the heart of the Wesleyan vision. I want to encourage all my friends and colleagues in ministry and church work to check it out, and feel free to email or DM me for a chat!