‘Are the blinkers still on?’

by
11 November 2016

The Church of England wants to increase the number of black and minority ethnic ordinands. Huw Spanner finds out what areas need to be addressed

Jack Boskett

Douglas

Douglas

THE effort by the Church of England to increase the number of ordinands by a half, announced in September, is aimed in particular at recruiting black and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates, as well as women and younger candidates.

While a 2014 survey suggested that possibly seven per cent of Anglican churchgoers in this country were non-white (compared with about 15 per cent of the wider population), in 2015 only 3.4 per cent of the clergy were non-white, and only one bishop — the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu.

New statistics on ordained vocations, released in September (News, 23 September), show that the proportion of recommended candidates last year who identified themselves as BAME fell below two per cent (although, in recent years, it has fluctuated between four and five per cent, and the general trend is upwards).

It is not as if it hasn’t been brought to the Church’s attention, the national adviser for the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), Dr Elizabeth Henry, says. Ever since the committee was set up by the General Synod in 1987 — “A commission was asked for, and refused,” she says — it has been plying the Church with reports and recommendations, and there have been “endless” debates. Next year, the CMEAC will be 30 years old, but, given the lack of progress, Dr Henry says, “it will not be a cause for celebration.”

 

THE experience of existing ethnic-minority clergy may shed some light on the issue. The Revd Wayne Hamilton, an NS Assistant Curate at St John the Evangelist and St Peter, Ladywood, in Birmingham, is one of only two British-born black priests in the diocese. “The challenge is that parish priests and DDOs are the gatekeepers,” he says. “And, if the gate is not open, obviously black and minority ethnics aren’t welcome to go through it. People ask, ‘Why don’t they want to come forward?’ but it’s more that the gatekeepers are not allowing it to happen.”

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Mr Hamilton believes that “unconscious bias” is to blame for this. He cites his own example: “I’m 51 now, and I’ve managed a care home for the past 20-odd years. I wanted to do more in the Church, but I didn’t know what I could do.

“I asked my Vicar, and he said: ‘I think the priesthood could be your calling.’ So, he put me forward, but, later, I found out that he told the DDO I had ‘a problem with authority’. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Was that because . . . ?’ That’s the way unconscious bias works.

“While there is always a risk in accepting someone for the ministry”, the Vicar of Emmanuel Church, Forest Gate, who chairs the Anglican Minority Ethnic Network (AMEN), the Revd Dr Chigor Chike, says,“I get the impression that the Church can be reluctant to take that risk where minority-ethnic people are concerned. Perhaps they’re not sure that your culture would not be a hindrance, would not affect your congregation adversely.”

The Revd Sarah Siddique Gill, an immigrant from Pakistan who is now the community minister of Woodhouse Close Church, Bishop Auckland, accepts that “there is always a sense of nervousness in relating to someone who is not part of your cultural history.” But, she recalls: “Once, I was in a group of younger clergy, and we were supposed to be sharing our childhood stories. Not even one of them said ‘hello’ to me, or took the initiative to involve me in the conversation. I tried a few times, and then I gave up, and just sat there for 30 minutes, listening. I thought to myself: ‘Is it simply insensitivity, or lack of understanding? Is the Church still wearing blinkers, or is it racist?’”

Cultural differences can present problems, however, not least a lack of mutual understanding. The Revd Fung Lau, who began her first curacy in July, at St James the Less, Pimlico, in central London, had an English tutor every week for four years to bring her language skills up to standard. “My English is not that good,” she admits, “and I don’t fully understand white culture, though I try hard to integrate into the community. When I preach, it’s hard for me to relate to all my listeners, and I don’t know what illustrations to use, because I only know lots of Chinese stories.”

 

IF THERE is reluctance among people from ethnic minorities to enter Anglican orders, one obvious factor is the lack of exemplars. “I have friends who are Baptist or Pentecostal ministers, and they did ask me, ‘Why the Church of England?’”, Mr Hamilton says. “I didn’t really have a good answer, because there were no role models for me in this Church. It was just that this is where God had called me.”

The Revd Nejib Boumenjel, an Assistant Curate at St George’s, Newtown, in Birmingham, moved to the UK from Tunisia in 1999, and worked for many years as an evangelist with Birmingham City Mission. “My Vicar and his successor encouraged me to explore ordination, but some of my British colleagues at the Mission said they couldn’t picture me as a priest in the English Church, which did put me off a little. When I went to theological college, in 2012, I was the only person there from the Middle East, and I thought maybe they had been right.”

The Vicar of St Andrew’s, Handsworth, in Birmingham, the Revd Douglas Machiridza, grew up in Zimbabwe and was comfortable with the idea of black priests and bishops. His experience of going forward for ordination in Britain was entirely positive: it was his “very white vicar”, he says, who identified his sense of vocation, and, he goes on, he was “encouraged at every stage of the process”.

He feels that he did encounter some issues regarding his ethnicity at theological college, however. “I went to Westcott House, in Cambridge, in 2008, and I think I was the only black ordinand there. The college was very supportive, but you could tell there were tensions. It was as if the younger ordinands had never encountered any black people before.”

He already had two degrees: in social work and philosophy. But, he felt, assumptions were made: “a sense of ‘Are you intelligent enough to do this?’”

In addition, he found that the training did not always relate to a non-white culture. “Sometimes, I would ask myself: ‘How do I fit into this? How can I preach this, if I have a very diverse congregation?’ The Principal was aware of this, and encouraged me to go to Yale for a term, which was fantastic. America is much more advanced in this respect, and it rebalanced my theological education.”

Miss Gill says that she was “fortunate” to study at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, which offers modules in Asian and Black theology, but adds: “It is difficult when the formation of ministry is based on a particular ecclesiological stance. For example, as a Pakistani, I came from a ‘Church of the poor’, but I was studying in an institution that considers itself ‘the Church for the poor’.”

Mrs Lau had a different problem, with the culture of learning. “Most of the tutors at my college were white, and, of course, their mindset was a bit different. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure what they wanted from me. The way my generation in Asia learns is different from the West: we accept what the teacher says; we don’t know how to make an argument.”

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A FINAL disincentive to coming forward for ordination may be the reaction of the public, in the pew and on the street, to clergy who do not fit the stereotype of the Anglican priest. “People always assume I’m a Muslim because I’m an Arab,” Mr Boumenjel says. “They are quite shocked and confused when they see my collar.”

Miss Gill reports the same reactions: “Some Pakistani people are amazed to see a woman in salwar kameez and dupatta also wearing a white man’s clergy collar. They look at me from head to toe. Some white people, too, are confused. They ask: ‘Are you sure you’re a priest?’ The cultural conditioning is so strong that it is a major shock to their system.”

Sometimes, such reactions have hurtful consequences. “Some people are challenged by the sight of a black clergyman,” Mr Hamilton says. “You have to work doubly hard to get over people’s initial uneasiness and win them over,” Mr Machiridza says. “If you take a funeral, the initial reaction as you come in the door is ‘Hmm!’ — and you feel it. I know colleagues who have had to leave nearby parishes because people wouldn’t take communion from them, and it really affected their ministry.”

 

SO, WHAT needs to change to encourage more people from ethnic minorities to come forward for ordination?

Mr Hamilton offers this advice to his fellow clergy: “If a minority-ethnic person comes to your Church and offers to serve in the kitchen, that’s just their way of being friendly, of saying ‘I’ll help out in any way I can.’ It’s not where they should end up. The unconscious bias is to think that that is their position. [Sometimes] that’s where the door shuts.”

Members of the Church of England, both the clergy and congregations, must not simply show “white cultural politeness” to ethnic-minority Christians, Miss Gill says. They must relate to them “with honest humility as equal partners in mission. It would be wonderful to have more clergy from the subcontinent, because they come with powerful testimonies and enormous enthusiasm.”

Mrs Lau says that many Chinese Christians “want to evangelise”, but, if the Church wants them to offer themselves for ordination, perhaps it should explain the requirements and the process in their language.

The black-majority churches outside the Church of England are much more open to the ministry of minority ethnic people, Dr Chike believes. “That’s why they are growing, because all that energy is going there. The Church of England needs to be prepared to take more risks. It needs to identify where ethnicity is a hindrance, and take active steps to remove the barrier that it is creating.”

Several dioceses are now investing specifically in training to deal with unconscious bias, and, last month, the Church of England appointed Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed as its first minority-ethnic vocations officer.

According to the brief for the new post, Ms Davidson-Gotobed, the founder of the annual Sam Sharpe lecture and a former racial-justice co-ordinator for the London Baptist Association, will be working to “increase the number and proportion of minority ethnic candidates for ordained ministry by working to address systematic problems, supporting and challenging diocesan colleagues, and delivering targeted initiatives that produce change.”

“I am thrilled to be part of this very important work within the Church of England,” she says.

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