Faith in the Factories

In 1940s and 50s, the French 'worker priest' movement took priests out of churches and into the ranks of the working class – their experience is a reminder of religion's radical possibilities.

Worker-priest Tony Williamson, photographed at 26 years old in 1960. He sits behind the wheel of an industrial tractor in the car factory in Cowley, Oxford where he was working. Credit: Hugh Williamson.

The journalist Dawn Foster, who died this year at the age of 34, wrote movingly about a turning point in her life. While reporting on the 2017 Grenfell fire, a woman grabbed a religious pendant she was wearing and asked if she would pray for her missing friend. ‘I was sorely out of practice,’ Dawn wrote, ‘but not remotely in a position to say no.’ And it was in the shadow of Grenfell, that blackened column symbolising the damage wrought by today’s feral capitalism, that she met people grounded by religion—an encounter that led to a renewal of her Catholic faith, the support of a faith community, and ‘a framework to focus on and a regularity in an otherwise chaotic life.’

Misreading Karl Marx’s description of religion as ‘the opium of the masses’, ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’, and ‘the heart of a heartless world’, some on the left continue to imagine that religious practices, institutions, and beliefs distract the working class from their revolutionary destiny and shore up the bourgeoisie: religion is reactionary, and faith foolish. But this ignores how religious leaders have often sparked change.

The Quakers played a key role in slavery’s abolition. Priests steeped in liberation theology helped overthrow Nicaragua’s pro-American regime in 1979 (the four priests in the Sandinista government were stripped of their priesthood by the Vatican). And it was William Temple, an Anglican priest, who first coined the term ‘welfare state’ in his 1928 book Christianity and the State, calling it ‘the organ of community’ which acts in solidarity with the interests of the people, as opposed to the German ‘power-state’ then wielding power over its communities.

Radical change can, and has, come from religious groups and religious people. But it feels like the left has become defined by secularism, the right by religiosity—a polarisation especially stark in the American context, where, as Bill Press describes in How the Republicans stole Christmas, religious conservatives hijacked the Republican party, ‘declared a monopoly on religion’, and moved politics onto the terrain of morality and culture we inhabit today.

The worker priest ‘experiment’, then, is one occasion when faith and left politics came together in a unique front against the ills of capitalism. And as we enter a post-capitalist era, perhaps we should reflect on how open the Left is to people with religious convictions, and about where faith and politics might connect to forge the coalitions needed to build change now.

The Roots of the Experiment

What, then, is a worker priest? What was the worker priest ‘experiment’? And what is the legacy of the worker priests today?

Worker priests can be defined as those who have ‘chosen to be wage-workers in industry as an expression of their faith’, according to John Rowe, a British worker priest. One tributary of their story rises out of the demands of working people, and the impact of their demands on church institutions.

In the late nineteenth century, workers abandoned church pews for union hall benches, seeking rewards in this life over promises of reward in the next. Trade union membership exploded—the number of card-carrying members in Britain rising from 674,000 in 1887 to nearly two million by 1905; similar, dramatic, increases occurred in France, Germany, and elsewhere. This came with an uptick in union militancy—the 1888 matchgirls’ strike and the London dock strike the following year marking the new unionism that brought unskilled workers into the movement.

In response to such developments, as well as growing antagonism between bosses and workers across the industrialised world, Pope Leo XIII issued the Rerum Novarum in 1891, an open letter that accepted the right to decent work, safe working conditions, a living wage, and workers’ right to unionise—but reaffirmed the sanctity of private property, and remained critical of socialist collectivism or, indeed, any transformative change.

But the rallying cry came with La France, pays de mission? by Henri Godin and Yvan Daniel. In their landmark 1943 report, commissioned by Archbishop of Paris Cardinal Suhard, the authors compare the French situation to Saint Paul meeting the cults of Corinth, with ‘the new things—the radio, the cinema, the newspapers’ that proliferate in the cities ‘bringing a pagan spirit that is slowly eating away the soul of France.’ Godin and Daniel cite the Paris suburb of Clichy as a place where church authority has waned: ‘No Christian life here, no Christian culture either, indeed no culture of any kind.’

Behind this moral panic lay the ever-present threat of Marxism, as Clichy was part of the ‘Red Belt’ around Paris, those industrial suburbs which, from the 1920s, consistently returned communist local governments. Home to the French Communist Party’s (PCF) Lenin School from 1925, which trained party militants, Clichy also boasts one of the finest examples of socialist municipal architecture, the Maison du Peuple, built from 1935 to 1939, which contains a hall for music and theatre productions (so much for no culture!).

To rechristianise France, Godin and Daniel called for missionary priests who, by creating ‘genuine life communities’, would steer the masses back to Christ. The mission would operate outside the parish system—as parish priests were often perceived as bourgeois—and seek to overcome communism’s appeal. ‘Only a mystique can stand against a mystique,’ they wrote. ‘Against a dynamic vision only a more dynamic can succeed.’

Cardinal Suhard supported the report’s findings. A seminary, the Mission de France, was set up to train a new generation of priests, and by the late forties, dozens were working full-time jobs in factories across France and Belgium, working in teams (équipes) to win back a ‘pagan proletariat’, acting as the ‘leaven’ in the proletarian ‘mass of dough’.

The Experiment Ends

However, over time, reports filtered back to the Vatican of priest-communist agitation. Several priests joined the communist-led CGT union (Confédération Générale du Travail) and took part in the strikes of 1947 and 1950. Two worker priests were arrested at a protest against the visit of the NATO commander General Ridgway in May 1952, earning them the headline ‘Priests in the Pokey’. And in April 1953, the communist daily L’Humanité published an attack by a group of worker priests on the director of the Christian trade union, the CFTC (Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens), whom they accused of collaborating with employers.

As a result of these events, the Vatican called French cardinals to Rome and ordered an end to contact between priests and industry, and by the end of ’53 the Mission de France seminary had closed. In January 1954, a public statement by French bishops demanded that manual work be limited and trade union and political work cease. The case of the worker priests then exploded into a cause célèbre, with articles in major international newspapers denouncing the Vatican’s decision to end the experiment of the ‘priests in working-class blue’.

This dramatic end has led the worker priest ‘experiment’ to be seen as both a myth and a moment, but the story’s real kernel is the priests’ engagement with workers, and how the legacy of the movement lives on. I speak to Hugh Williamson, whose father, Tony Williamson, an Anglican priest, joined Cowley car plant in Oxford in 1958 and worked as a forklift truck driver there for nearly thirty years.

I ask him how the workers reacted when they discovered his father was a priest. ‘They thought he was a failure,’ he tells me. ‘People just wondered what on earth he was doing there—what have you done wrong in order to have to take a factory job?’

It’s no surprise they were shocked, as Hugh’s father had enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing, attending private school and then graduating from Trinity College Oxford. Yet he threw himself into his industrial vocation. As well as working an eight-hour shift at the car factory, Tony was a trade union activist, local councillor, and father—also taking a church service every Wednesday at 6.30am with his work overalls under his cassock.

‘My dad used to say that if he was preaching in the church or if he was on the factory floor or in the union office—that was serving the same purpose,’ Hugh tells me. ‘It was the same idea of serving people, helping people as much as he could.’

What is interesting is that as their engagement with workers deepened over time, worker priests of all faiths began to understand their vocation through a spirit of ‘presence’, ‘being with’ (d’être avec), or ‘witness’, than one of conquest. The idea of a mission to convert the pagan proletariat began to take second place to sharing all the aspects of proletarian existence. Methodist worker priest Jack Burton, who worked as a bus driver in Norwich for many years, set down his feelings in his 1976 book Transport of Delight: ‘To my immense disappointment I have not persuaded one person regularly to attend divine service. But I have discovered what I long suspected—that it doesn’t matter very much.’

Worker Priests Today

That same spirit still exists today in different forms. Pierre Bourdieu’s book The Weight of the World bore witness to the problems workers face in today’s neoliberal economy. The films of the Dardenne brothers, set in post-industrial Belgium, force the viewer to be present to the lives of workers, young people, immigrants, and petty criminals struggling to get by. Yet one failing of the worker priest movement was always the lack of women in its ranks, something that has definitely changed for the better.

Maria Jans-Wenstrup.

Maria Jans-Wenstrup, 57, is a former nun who works in a fulfilment centre in Oberhausen, Germany, packing parcels in eight-hour shifts Monday to Friday and every other Saturday. She enjoys the job, but packing heavy boxes ‘takes me to the edge of my physical strength,’ she says, as the technology often doesn’t work and ‘the pressure to do more and more is constantly hovering over everything’.

Though Maria has a permanent contract, 75 percent of the workforce are temporary, something the company uses to push performance. Most of her co-workers are Muslims from the Middle East or Africa, and her faith unites rather than separates them. One day, on hearing two colleagues speaking a language she couldn’t recognise, she asked them what it was. One of them smiled and said: ‘That’s Aramaic—the language of Jesus!’

Maria describes herself as a ‘worker-sister’ rather than a worker priest, and she helps her co-workers by explaining company information to them, helping them with forms, and explaining their pay slips. I ask her what would improve conditions at the fulfilment centre. If more workers were given permanent contracts, she says, then the company wouldn’t be able to use them like ‘pawns’. On ‘crossing over’ to manual work, she tells me that over time she’s developed a lot of respect for people who struggle to make a living, and feels she could take what she has learnt back to the religious world on the ‘other side’.

Anne-Marieke Koot.

Anne-Marieke Koot, 58, studied theology and worked as a chaplain for over 12 years: in industry, in a prison, and in a nursing home. Since 2002, she’s been a cleaner in Utrecht in the Netherlands. She finds the work rewarding, as many people are lonely and happy to have someone to talk to. But she sometimes has to clean three houses a day, her knees often ache, and she can’t work like she used to.

I ask Anne-Marieke why it is important for her to connect spirituality and work in this way. It means ‘being with those who are most vulnerable,’ she tells me. ‘Those that are unseen, at the bottom. And then not be there to offer help, but to really stand next to them, to share life. There, at the bottom, that’s where it starts.’

Just as Dawn Foster was able to share the distress of a Grenfell resident, so the worker priests were able to share the burdens of industrial work then, and precarious work today. Because the practice of faith relies not on location, knowledge, or power—but on the harnessing, and surrendering, of intent.