Last week the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce published its report ‘From Lament to Action’ proposing a suite of changes to begin bringing about a change of culture in the life of the Church of England. A draft version of the report came to the Archbishops’ Council, so we knew the main proposals it would include. It is well produced, and offers a sense of urgent call to action, but not all have welcomed its approach, including minority ethnic members of the Church of England. The sense of urgency was reinforced by a Panorama programme last Monday, featuring members of the group who produced the report.
Calvin Robinson contests the assumption that the Church is ‘institutionally racist’:
The BBC’s latest Panorama was called ‘Is the Church racist?’. But the entire programme was produced around the assumption that the question had already been answered: yes, it is. This, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury shares this assumption and has stated as much on public record at General Synod.
The problem is, the Church doesn’t really operate as a single institution. Each diocese has an incredible amount of autonomy. Bishops have responsibility for their diocese and the priests within them. So a few awful experiences shared by individuals throughout the documentary does not make the Church a racist institution.
The Church is made up of flawed individuals. We’re all fallen, after all. The issue the Church faces, however, isn’t institutional racism – it’s institutional incompetence. For instance, its complaints procedure isn’t just bad for issues of race, it’s bad in general. Any priest with experience of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) – or any experience with safeguarding concerns – will attest to how outdated and cumbersome the process is. In the Church, you’re presumed guilty until proven innocent, often with no idea who has filed a complaint about you. There is plenty of work to be done on improving things within the Church for all people, not just for ethnic minorities.
I think that part of the issue here is that the language of ‘institutional racism’ was coined by the so-called McPherson report, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, on the culture of the Metropolitan Police—and the language has been reached for in part because of its shock value. But there are three major differences between a church and a police force. First, as Robinson points out, the C of E is not a single organisation. Secondly, churches have both members and leadership, and that leadership is divided into local and national. When people use the language of ‘institutional racism’, many people hear the accusation that members of local congregations are racist. Thirdly, the church has a theological foundation, quite distinct from its institutional identity, and the way that theological convictions are expressed in the institutional organisation can be complex; the police has no such foundation. To say that the church is ‘institutionally racist’ could be heard as implying its basic theology needs to change—and indeed that is what some people believe.
But Robinson also criticises the approach of the programme and the report for being out of touch with reality:
The truth is that the Church is already representative when it comes to the recruitment of ordinands: 7.8 per cent of ordinands beginning training for Holy Orders in 2019 were from ethnic-minority backgrounds. Bearing in mind that around 14 per cent of Britons are ethnic minorities and seven per cent of them are Asian and therefore largely Muslim and Hindu, the numbers in the Church line up very well with the general population. But apparently that’s not good enough for the CofE, which now wants to reach an unrealistic target of 30 per cent ethnic-minority ordinands. This is virtue-signalling of the highest order.
As for the leadership of the Church, there are indeed fewer ethnic-minority bishops. Of course, you have to reach a certain age before becoming a bishop, and if we look at what the social demographics of the UK were like 40 years ago, I think we would find the current numbers are quite reflective.
In any case, quotas are patronising and silly. Where does the Church expect to get these additional numbers from unless they plan on recruiting Muslims to become ordained priests? The Church could certainly do with working harder to convert more people. It would benefit from sharing the gospel more with other communities. There are relationships to nurture there, but that’s an argument for mission and evangelism, not recruitment.
‘From Lament to Action’ notes on p 12 that ‘At the time of writing (March 2021) the number of UKME/GMH bishops can together be counted on one hand (5 out of 111)’, but it doesn’t say what that ought to be. From the figures above, for there to be good representation, we might be hoping to see 8 or 9, a handful and a half.
Robinson is also concerned about method, and that was also the concern on reading the draft report of Joseph Diwakar. Joseph is of Indian heritage, and with the retirement of John Sentamu as the Archbishop of York, and turnover on the Archbishops’ Council, is currently its only UKME member. I quote his comments with permission:
My concerns about the approach of the report cover five areas:
1. Positive discrimination
Are the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council really satisfied that positive affirmative action is really the answer to the racism problem? Racism is an affliction of heart, mind and attitude. Positive discrimination only alters numbers and balance sheets. Moreover I fear that positive discrimination:
- Lets us off the hook. Quotas remove the incentive to interrogate our own prejudices, which are the real problem. There is a risk that by reserving (for instance) two seats on the AC for BAME people, we allow ourselves to think that we have solved racism and not worry about how we appoint to the remaining however many seats.
- Demeans the people of colour appointed. It makes an appointee, however gifted she is, into nothing more than her colour. It says to her “whatever your experience or expertise in x, y, z, we have primarily appointed you because we need a brown body on this committee. Otherwise, we might have chosen someone else.” I think this is something that is difficult for people who have never been thus reduced to a single characteristic to grasp.
- Makes racism worse. Far from improving perceptions of diversity, I fear preferential treatment breeds resentment. This undermines not only the appointees themselves (“they’re only here because we needed a minority”) but also all other people of colour in senior positions, who become tarnished with the perception that they owe their position to their skin colour. I have told people about how brazen e.g. General Synod members were in suggesting that I owed my position on AC only to my race. (One told me, “I’d be in your position if I had a protected characteristic”).
Much of this report is concerned with high level appointments to national and diocesan committees and posts. This benefits ambitious BAME people who are interested in national governance (spoken as one myself) but I don’t see that much of it helps the average BAME Anglican ‘in the pew’. The report is best on things like offering a national mentoring scheme, which I think—though still to do with leadership—will offer much broader value.
3. Theological integrity
I am concerned that this paper treats complex, contested questions as though they have been definitively answered.
A lot of the recommendations revolve around offering, or insisting on, ‘anti-racism training’ just at the point at which much of the public sector is leaving such training behind, saying it is flawed and ineffective.
Action 4 in the ‘Education’ priority wants to make compulsory a module on ‘Black Theology’ for ordinands, but ‘Black Theology’ is not the theology of Black Christians, it is a narrow and quite hotly contested school of theology. Anthony Reddie, himself the foundational author of ‘Black Theology’, has written at length about how Black Theology is not representative of Black Christians or Black majority churches.
The same could be said of the ‘Theology’ priority outlined at the bottom of the paper. It speaks of gathering evidence of “theological prejudice, European and white normative frameworks in our theological foundations,” and so assumes that fundamental prejudices and normative frameworks are there, when this hasn’t been discussed or agreed by the bishops of anybody else in the leadership of the church. I would want further work, and a much wider conversation, on all of these things before devising actions on anything like this scale.
4. Lack of analysis
I was disappointed to see a paper with such a long list of recommendations without much analysis or explanation of their rationale. Why, for instance, has a quota of 15% been recommended for some bodies and 30% for others, when the proportion of certain groups of Anglicans (e.g. House of Clergy) who are UKME might be well below this?
I am particularly sensitive to this since I am currently dealing with ordinands who are having to uproot their families due to dioceses cutting curacies. I am quite surprised to see the paper calling for the creation of 41 centrally funded diocesan ‘racial justice officers’ at 0.5 FTE each and three full-time positions in Church House for a ‘Racial Justice Unit’. The irony isn’t lost of me that this unit will thus have nearly double the resource, in terms of hours, of the new Independent Safeguarding Board. I haven’t seen any analysis or workings out which show precisely what value this expensive new level of management will add to the ‘average’ BAME Anglican in a parish.
From Lament to Action notes that, over 36 years, the Church has produced 25 reports—which were dramatically presented to Stephen Cottrell, current Archbishop of York, in the Panorama programme—but little change has resulted. But given Joseph’s critique above, it seems that there is every danger that this report will join them. It was, in fact, surprising to see 30 full pages of recommendations come back from the task force, when the initial terms of reference was that the task force mainly existed to convene and establish the Commission on race, rather than to return broad recommendations of their own. If the rush to action has offered us ill-considered recommendations, then this is likely to be report number 26 in the pile. Raising the stakes on its implementation will not help this, but will only make the issue more divisive.
Some have criticised the report for buying into the values of Critical Race Theory, even though that idea is not mentioned anywhere. I think the reasons for that are the use of terms like ‘black’ and ‘white’, which fail to do justice to the complexity of ethnic diversity, the focus on Black Theology as the key to the educational issues, and, despite the short section on theology at the beginning, the treatment of the issues primarily as one that will be solved by affirmative organisational action, rather than through better theological, pastoral and personal understanding.
The reality is that racism is endemic to human experience; it is not simply a black and white issue:
What I learned during my teenage years was this: Turkish people didn’t like Greek people; black Caribbean people didn’t like black African people; Northerners didn’t like Southerners; people from North London didn’t like people from South London; and, of course, in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song ‘National Brotherhood Week’, ‘everyone hates the Jews’.
What I am struggling to understand at the moment is why white people are getting all the blame for racism. One thing all of us estate kids had in common was that we were at the bottom of the heap. We were the kids who got kicked out of school (I was expelled three times); the kids who got pregnant in our teens (my sister did at 17); the kids who left school with nothing. The white kids on the estate were no more privileged than us BAME kids. They had no more or no less power. Money and social class have always been the key determinants of success, not ethnicity.
And this is true in church communities as well, as illustrated by this moving reflection from an ethnically Indian pastor in Singapore:
“I don’t think our church is ready for an Indian senior pastor.” That was an unsolicited comment made to me one Sunday in church. I assumed that the person who was addressing me was thinking of what had been going on in the political world and decided to extrapolate it to our local church context. Whatever the reason, it certainly caught me off guard. I laughed it off, but afterwards I could not help feeling rather disturbed…
Growing up ethnically Singaporean, I had no reason to think that I did not belong – this is my country is it not? Yet at every stage of life, there have been occasions like the ones above. These were moments that made me feel as if I am not the same – moments that highlighted my difference and made me feel that as an other I was merely tolerated rather than embraced…
Strangely, when I lived in London for 10 years, I felt no such rejection. Perhaps it was because London was truly cosmopolitan, with no dominant race or ethnicity (you can hardly find an English person!). When we are all different, could it be that we all try harder? People were more sensitive to the diversity of backgrounds, cultures, races, languages and Christian traditions…
One Chinese New Year, surprise, surprise, I was rostered to do the preaching yet again (being the token non-Chinese pastor)! So, this time I took it upon myself to preach about race.
The Scripture text was from Ephesians 2 – with the angle of the sermon going along the lines that Christ has torn down every dividing wall in the church. Just as there should not be any Jew or Gentile, I remember my first draft concluded that we should be “race-blind” in church. We should all treat each other in the same way, as we are one in Christ.
However, upon further study, I wondered if that was really what the Bible was teaching? Are we all made to be same? That would not fit with my understanding of the Trinitarian God who made the world in all its beautiful diversity. I changed the conclusion.
It was not about feeling that you are no different from the crowd. It was about accepting that God has made each of us other – with different races and genders – different backgrounds, abilities and roles to play. The church is not a place to go greyscale, but the kingdom of God, even to eternity, was destined to be in brilliant colour. How this works out in practice… that I am still trying to discern.
I have previously noted the theological imperative behind the ethnic diversity of the people of God:
The central nature of ethnic diversity to the people of God is, finally, at the heart of the Book of Revelation. In Rev 7, the Israel of God, counted out as a disciplined army of priestly warriors, turns out to be ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’. This fourfold phrase combines the four-fold phrase that we noted from Gen 10.20 and 10.31 with the language in Ex 19.5 that Israel will be God’s ‘treasured possession out of every nation’. But in the new covenant in Jesus, instead of being ‘out of every nation’ in the sense of separated as a distinct ethnic group, we are now ‘out of every nation’ in the sense of being drawn from every ethnic group. Ethnic inclusion and diversity is the hallmark of God’s redeemed people in Jesus.
And you can see in the pages of the New Testament the way that this was lived out by the first followers of Jesus:
The diversity in these two lists (Acts 13 and Romans 16) appears, on the surface at least, to be effortless. It is true that Luke has a programmatic interest in ethnographic diversity, starting his account as he does with the list of Jews from all over the diaspora who witness the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and hear Peter’s sermon. But in Acts 13, he lists the diversity of leaders in a quite factual way, and makes nothing much of it; there is no explanatory comment. This is just the way things were.
Similarly for Paul, there doesn’t appear to be a ‘diversity agenda’ at work in his list in Romans 16—even if ‘unity in diversity’ is a key issue for Paul as McKnight suggests. But the list hasn’t been engineered; there has been no attempt at positive discrimination for inclusion of different social or ethnic groups. This is just a list of those in Rome whom Paul knows and whose ministry he values. And it turns out to be very diverse. There are some hints at more monochromatic groups; I wonder whether the grouping of five slave names in verse 14 suggests a ‘slave’ house church. But for Paul, the unity of this diversity is without question.
A friend of mine in another denomination, that includes mixed-raced congregations in several cities in the UK, made this observation about the options for the church in addressing the issue:
There are several conflicting approaches, and it is important to explain the problems with the first two and why the Christian approach is different:
a. Colour Blindness: act as if race is not a factor, and it won’t be. This is often seen to be the Christian approach, because it sounds like the most non-judgmental option. (A classic recent example was the range of responses to the Meghan/Oprah interview; this is also the approach of many of our brothers and sisters in the US.) But although well-intentioned, it suffers from naivete about how historic and structural forces shape individuals, families, churches and societies, and therefore fails to address them except at an interpersonal level
b. Secular Antiracism: white people are not just historically advantaged (white privilege), but irreducibly racist (white guilt), even if they deny they are (white fragility). This racism is the basis of the modern West (white supremacy), and it works it concert with numerous other forms of privilege based on sex, gender, sexuality, ability, colour, fertility and so forth (intersectionality), all of which need to be upended
c. One New Humanity [Eph 2.15]: only in Christ can we find the repentance and pursuit of justice missing from (a), and the forgiveness and pursuit of unity missing from (b). There is plenty of truth in both approaches, but ultimately they understate the problem (sin), miss the solution (Christ), miss the context where racial unity is ultimately found (the church), and consequently fall short of offering genuine hope for reconciliation and justice.
My worry is that the report From Lament to Action leans too much in the direction of option (b), and a diocesan report written in its wake that I read yesterday pushes even more in this direction. We need to move to option (c), not least because addressing our theological understanding of this issue hasn’t so much been tried and find wanting—it simply hasn’t yet been tried in large parts of the Church of England.