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British industrial mission is a network of ordained and lay chaplains who provide ministry to people in paid employment. The role of industrial chaplains, who represent predominantly Christian denominations, is to establish an engagement between the church and the world of employment by forming relationships with local employers and visiting workplaces on a regular basis. Their purpose is not to try to convert employees but to establish a dialogue between employers, employees and the church and provide a religious presence in the workplace.
The history of industrial mission in Britain is strongly associated with the city of Sheffield, where the first industrial mission team was established in 1944. Bishop Leslie Hunter, Bishop of Sheffield, was concerned that the Church of England had been losing touch with people in the industrialised cities during the inter-war years, and sent the Revd. Ted Wickham into factories to engage with workers. This mission was well received by working people, and the Sheffield Industrial Mission was set up under Ted Wickham's direction. The purpose of Wickam’s role was to address the ‘problem’ of the progressive estrangement of the working classes from the church which had adversely affected church attendance since the industrial revolution, particularly in industrial cities like Sheffield. Wickham sought to build and sustain an engagement with the working population by visiting steelworks and other heavy industries. His style was participatory. He and his chaplains made regular factory visits engaging people in informal conversation and holding formal break-time discussions about issues of importance to them. The Sheffield model involved development of a theology and set of methods that provided a template which was followed by mission teams in other parts of the country.
In 1959 the Industrial Mission Association was formed with the intention of ensuring the ongoing development of industrial mission. At its height during the late 1970s it is estimated there were 115 full-time and 175 part-time clergy engaged in industrial chaplaincy in Britain and most industrial towns had some form of industrial mission activity. However, deindustrialization and in particular the loss of heavy industries such as mining and shipbuilding where industrial mission traditionally focussed its attention led in the 1980s to the development of a more issue-based approach that sought to give voice to the unemployed. Chaplains were also forced to look to other sites of economic activity such as shopping centres and airports as potential locations for their industrial missionary activities.
There are no precise figures available as to the number of industrial chaplains currently attached to workplaces in Britain because industrial mission teams operate on a local geographical basis and arrangements for workplace visiting are usually made by one or several chaplains who usually negotiate access by contacting a manager in a workplace they wish to visit. Industrial mission has traditionally resisted charging a fee to organisations for their services but scarcity of church funding has led to a decline in the number of industrial mission posts and this has prompted some teams to enter into financial agreements in exchange for their services.
Some indication of current levels of activity can be gained from the various industrial mission team websites (see External Links) which illustrate the continuation of their work in the UK, despite trends towards secularization and multiculturalism that can be seen as a threat to their relevance, since there is likely to be a decline in the proportion of the British workforce that associates with Christianity and a growth in the proportion who identify with other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.
The food and clothing superstore Asda has 160 part-time in-store chaplains in its stores across the UK.
Industrial mission is related to workplace chaplaincy which exists in countries such as the United States. See for example the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, Marketplace Ministries and the Australian Inter-Church Trade and Industry Mission.
- Bray, W. (2006) ‘Is God in the Shop?’ Christianity Magazine
- Smith. L. (2005) ‘Supermarket Chaplains Tend Their Flock Beside the Frozen Lamb’, Guardian, December 31st
- Erhander, L. (1991) Faith in the world of work: On the theology of work as lived by the French Worker Priests and British Industrial Mission. Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell International.
- Wickham, E.R. (1957) Church and People in an Industrial City. London: Lutterworth Press.