BNP MEMBERSHIP: BNP support ‘incompatible’ with ordained ministry

by
12 February 2009

Critical support: Canon Alma Servant warned that bans could backfire

Critical support: Canon Alma Servant warned that bans could backfire

THE SYNOD has asked the House of Bishops for a policy banning clergy, ordinands, and lay office-holders who represent or speak for the Church from being members of the British National Party and similar organ­isations.

On Tuesday afternoon, Vasantha Gnanadoss (Southwark) introduced her motion, which had received the support of 167 Synod members. She said that it asked the House of Bishops to formulate a policy, com­par­able to the policy of the Associ­ation of Chief Police Officers, which would not allow clergy, ordin­ands, and lay officials to be members of organisations that contradicted the duty to promote race equality.

She said that the UK Border Agency also had a similar policy. A spokesman for the agency had said that it asked anyone carrying out duties on its behalf to sign a declara­tion that he or she was not a member of the BNP, the National Front, or Combat 18.

She said that Sir Ian Blair, the former chief commissioner of the Metro­politan Police, who was pres­ent in the Synod chamber, believed that the policy had changed the public’s perception of the police and had led to more black and minority-ethnic officers in the police forces.

“Does Synod want the Church to have a similar policy?” she asked. “The Church has a gospel duty to promote race equality,” just as the police had a statutory duty to pro­mote race equality. Synod had twice before voted that supporting organ­isa­tions such as the BNP was in­compatible with Christian disciple­ship. “If supporting organisations like the BNP is inconsistent with Chris­tian discipleship, it seems ob­vious that clergy and others who speak for the Church should not be members.”

She said that carrying this motion would make it “more difficult for the BNP or similar organisations to exploit the claim that there are An­glican clergy or church representa­tives who support them”.

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She said that the objection that the clergy could not be disciplined for membership of such parties be­cause the parties were lawful ignored the fact that what was lawful political activity for clergy “cannot depend entirely on what the law deems lawful”. If that were the case, the clergy could find themselves “joining forces with tyranny and oppression”.

If clergy were members of the BNP, they were “failing to frame and fashion” their lives according to the doctrine of Christ, and that was a disciplinary matter.

Canon Simon Bessant (Sheffield) said that the motion was not about voting habits, but about membership of the BNP, and the public percep­tion of where the Church of England stood on the issue. No parish priest could stand alongside Asian or black priests if he or she held the BNP’s views on voluntary repatriation of non-white immigrants: they were theologically and professionally in­compatible. He urged the Synod to pass the motion and take a stand.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that the Ministry Division had done much to strengthen screening for racist atti­tudes — there was no laxity in this area of church life. Directors of ordinands had to demonstrate that these issues had been discussed, and training in diversity was also part of training for bishops’ advisers. It was hard to see how someone could find a way through selection procedures without a major capacity to deceive. He had considerable sympathy with the spirit of the motion. Everyone needed training in this area.

Jonathan Redden (Sheffield) de­plored all the BNP’s policies, tone, atmosphere, and actions, but found the motion flawed and misleading. The situation of the police was not comparable: they were not allowed to be members of any political party. Some were members, but a blind eye was cast over it. There was also the “Derek Hatton” effect: the former Liverpool Councillor who said he was not a member of Militant, but a supporter. Mr Redden warned the Synod about hair-splitting, and urged a strong message deploring the BNP. The words were wrong, and better ones were needed.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, said that the Church of God should not need to remind any of its members of the consequences of associating with those whose policies sowed racial hatred. The World Council of Churches had condemned racism as a sin, and so it remained.

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The diocese of Blackburn had received strong support for its stand against organised racism at council elections: the local paper’s headline had been the single word “Shame­less”. Blackburn had set the pace for the Church of England’s rejection of such policies. The mo­tion was timely. In difficult econ­omic times, people were tempted to look for solutions among the ex­treme political parties. Synod was called to go further: to underline the standard of decency and “proclaim that no religion of the incarnation can sustain racist policies”. It was not possible to be a racist and speak in the name of Jesus.

Canon Alma Servant (Man­chester) spoke as a priest in a black- majority church. Clergy in white, black, or mixed churches should tackle the sin of racism in their preaching and gospel ministry. There was racism in the Church of England. But bishops could tackle it through pastoral channels, and indi­vidual conversations and warning. Experience on a university campus of trying to ban religious groups preying on students showed that they went underground or others moved in to take their place.

Bishops would be greatly helped if everyone in the Church tried hard at election time to tackle racist parties, by using their votes for other parties, however lukewarm they felt about them. Do more to enforce what is al­ready there, she urged: be more pro-active.

Bishops would be greatly helped if everyone in the Church tried hard at election time to tackle racist parties, by using their votes for other parties, however lukewarm they felt about them. Do more to enforce what is al­ready there, she urged: be more pro-active.

Justin Brett (Oxford) spoke to his amendment, which sought to sub­stitute a single statement: “that the Synod affirm that membership of any organisation whose constitution, aims, objectives or pronouncements contradict the promotion of race equality is incompatible with the Apostolic Christian faith”. The ori­gin­al motion contained no explicit condemnation of racism, and was a policy really needed? Either racism was an affront to God or it wasn’t.

The Archdeacon of Berkshire, the Ven. Dr Norman Russell, spoke to his amendment, which would substitute a motion requesting the House of Bishops to formulate and implement a policy “which makes it clear that racism has no place in the life of the Church”. There was no evidence that anyone licensed to regular ministry was a member of the BNP. Take a strong stand on racism, but to proscribe a legal political party was another matter.

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Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) said that racism and racists were not welcome; but he was concerned that this had not been made clear enough. The scope of the motion should be widened to encompass all the mem­bers of the Church of England. If members of the Church stepped over the line of decency and expressed racist opinion, “then we should shut down the hatch.”

Canon Susan Booys (Oxford) said that after organising a hustings event for the by-election in Henley-on-Thames in her church, she had been telephoned by a member of the BNP who said that he was a church member, that he supported his local church, and he wondered why he had not been asked to the meeting. She had told him that the BNP’s policies were inconsistent with statements of General Synod.

She said that she had found it hard to refuse him. “I would like to have a clear mandate from Synod for making that decision,” she said.

Robin Lunn (Worcester) said that there was a need “to be ab­solutely clear, without a sliver of equivoca­tion, that we oppose racial organisations”. A Roman Catholic friend of his had asked if the Synod intended to ban priests from being members of the Communist Party. What they were signalling, he wanted it to be made clear, was the Church’s opposition to those who rejected love for their fellow human beings.

The Archbishop of York said that, although he was very proud of the tribe into which he was born, the tribe into which he had been baptised was the tribe of Jesus Christ, which welcomed everybody without dis­tinction. He said that the motion called on the House of Bishops to formulate a policy, but that Mr Hind’s amendment offered some­thing better and higher than the policy adopted by the police, as was appropriate for the Church.

Catherine Wiltshire (St Ed­munds­bury & Ipswich) warned that the Church could look ridiculous. “We could be indicating we have no confidence in our clergy to make intelligent, informed decisions” about their allegiances.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was concerned that the proposed amendments diminished the neces­sary specificity of the motion. “I want to resist the weakening of the specificity. We have to name names and to talk about the specific organ­isations, not just racism in general,” he said.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford), how­ever, disagreed. He warned that political parties could change their names. “We need a policy that will cover racism that is not limited to one particular manifestation of this evil.” The policy needed “continuing relevance”.

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The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin (London) said that the amendment did not add anything to what had been said before. Racist views were held in the Church. The evidence for the racist “undertone” of the Church was that there were so few people from ethnic minorities in leadership roles. “You do not believe ethnic min­or­ities have anything to con­tribute to the Church.”

Archdeacon Russell’s amendment was put to the vote and lost.

Canon Simon Killwick (Man­chester) also insisted that clergy should be specifically mentioned. The police said that they had been more successful in recruiting people from ethnic minorities since they had adopted the ACPO policy. The under-representation of black and ethnic minorities in the Church was scandalous, he said.

Canon Anne Stevens (South­wark) was voting for Mr Hind’s amendment “because Readers and holders of a bishop’s licence are not exempt”. This would send out a clear signal, she said, and she welcomed the bishops’ giving a strong lead to the Church against discrimination of every sort in the country.

Mr Hind’s amendment was voted on and lost by 177 votes to 166, with 11 recorded abstentions.

Returning to the main motion, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, said that in drafting Section 8 (3) of the Clergy Discipline Measure there had been no intention to promote racism. Quite to the contrary, it had been drafted with the clerical opposi-

tion to apartheid in South Africa in mind.

The Revd Paul Collier (South­wark) said that the motion would create a very clear message about the incompatibility of racist views with clerical leadership. He said that the difficulty of enforcing the discipline should not be determinate of the Church’s policy.

The motion was carried un­amended by 322 votes to 13, with 20 abstentions. It read:

That this Synod, noting that in 2004 the Association of Chief Police Officers adopted a policy whereby “no member of the Police Service, whether police officers or police staff, may be a member of an organisation whose con­sti­tution, aims, objectives or pro­nouncements contradict the general duty to promote race equality” and “this specifically includes the British National Party”, request the House of Bishops to formulate and implement a comparable policy for the Church of England, to apply to clergy, ordinands, and such employed lay persons as have duties that require them to represent or speak on behalf of the Church.

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