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Why the C of E is still monochrome

06 July 2011

Truly multicultural parishes are needed to encourage minority-ethnic growth, says John Root

I was talking to an American priest from inner-city Cincinnati. When asked about the Church of England’s response to the multiracial society, he described it as “wilful apathy”. That was in 1971. In the 40 years since, there have been positive devel­op­ments, but, overall, the phrase is still dauntingly appropriate.

Thus there is an air of disap­pointment in the report from the Church’s Com­mittee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), which the General Synod is to discuss. Tellingly entitled Unfinished Business: A pastoral and missional approach for the next decade, the report laments that, despite the welcome given to its previous reports, the Church has failed to translate “good intentions into real change”.

Since the Faith in the City report of 1985, we have seen the setting up of CMEAC, several reports, the appoint­ment of specialist officers in a num­ber of dioceses, and several initiatives to encourage minority-ethnic (ME) vocations. Unfinished Business rightly commends the vigorous commitment of CMEAC’s retiring officer, Sonia Barron, but acknowledges, none the less, that “the pace of change is very slow indeed.” It gets slower as we move from laity to clergy, and on to senior appointments.

In seeking to give teeth to past good intentions, the report adopts the slogan of “positive intentionality” — a call to implement initiatives that will bring real change. The report lays good foundations. Its theologically based vision of a Church that joyfully reflects the wide, transcultural range of God’s generosity gives it a far richer base than mere secular concerns with rights and correctness.

It identifies some of the particular gifts that ME members bring into the Church: deeper warmth of personal relationships, growing out of the greater closeness of family life; a stronger sense of compassion, emer-g­ing from the experience of suffering — the harshness of being rejected, transmuted into greater empathy with the marginalised.

When it comes to translating all this into the life of the Church of England, however, the report is less sure-footed. The concluding recom­mendations are piecemeal proposals for developing ME leaders in the Church, which are unlikely to lead to significant changes. The “Centres of Engagement” in an appendix are commendably honest, but rather disappointing.

Behind all this, the report carries on CMEAC’s long-standing focus on fostering ME vocations — it identifies “ethnic diversity in leadership” as the main challenge. But I question whether this ought to be the focus of its energies.

An analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Church’s involve­ment with different ME com­munities reveals a complex picture. The Church is, in fact, receiving reason­able numbers of ordinands (com­pared with lay membership) from Asian, mixed, and especially African backgrounds. It is failing catastrophically with those of Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, especially men, and especially people born in this country.

Such an analysis, based on specific ethnicity, needs correlating with an analysis based on social class. It is surely no coincidence that we are most successful with those ME groups most represented in middle-class occupations. By contrast, we fail dismally not just in the still pre­dominantly working-class Afro-Caribbean community, but in the much larger and equally neglected white working-class community.

Until the Church of England addresses much more seriously how it looks at people who do not share its cerebral and emotionally cool atti­tude to worship, common life, and com­munication, it will always struggle in effective ministry to large sections of both the ME and white populations.

CMEAC needs to recognise that its focus on developing ethnic diversity in leadership will always be frustrated until much more attention is given to the basic issue of ME membership of the Church. While there is a sub­stantial number of ME people attending C of E churches, the people who will provide future leadership — largely under-40s, with experience of Christian leadership — are still disturbingly few.

The lesson has still not been learned from the failure of the Simon of Cyrene Theological Institute in the 1990s — an access-to-ministry course that was set up at great expense, but with little understanding — that the target group (ME people who were serious prospects for ministry training) simply was not there.

More ME leaders will encourage ME membership, but, conversely, as long as there are comparatively few suitable ME members, we will struggle to produce ME leaders. The answer to this conundrum lies in the parishes. If all parishes with ME populations were to be vibrant ME congregations, with emerging ME leaders, the frustrations expressed in Unfinished Business would be solved. CMEAC ought to be turning its attention to how it can enable this to come about.

Alongside cross-cultural inten­tion­ality, we need to set “cross-cul­tural competence”. Forming truly multicultural parishes is not as easy as it might seem. For a church to become a home for people carrying different backgrounds and experi­ences, not least of racism, as well as very different assumptions about leadership, family, expressive­ness, morality, and even the super­natural, is a demanding task — which needs vision, motivation, and training.

The sorts of competence-enhanc­ing initiatives that CMEAC might be resourced to offer include:

• motivating young people of all backgrounds to be trained for multi­cultural ministry;
• mounting substantial courses to help ordinands and clergy develop the necessary competence;
• developing channels to share good practice;
• facilitating access to minority-language liturgical, pastoral, and evangelistic resources;
• provide a linking service for people seeking and places needing multi­cultural ministries.

The seedbed for growing ME leadership is in parishes that are competent at living as multicultural communities. I hope that CMEAC’s next director will be encouraged to focus on how they can be grown.

The Revd John Root retired recently as Vicar of St James’s, Alperton, Wembley.

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