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Why are bishops so pale?

29 January 2016

The senior clergy are failing to include the diversity and gifts of ethnic-minority priests, argues Vasantha Gnanadoss

CONCERNS are repeatedly expressed about the lack of racial diversity in the senior leadership of the Church of England. This is seen by many as evidence of institutional racism. The solution often suggested is more training and mentoring of black and Asian clergy. But only a change in the racism that influences appointment decisions can correct the situation.

Whether the racism be unconscious or not, institutional or not, its root cause is that white leaders prefer to appoint white colleagues, choosing to maintain a cultural comfort zone rather than open the windows to the fresh air of diversity. The House of Bishops needs to take urgent action to break out of this closed network.

The House of Lords debate last February on the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill was instructive. The effect of this Bill has been to get women bishops into the Lords immediately, bypassing the normal seniority criterion. In their promotion of the Bill, the Bishops were giving a high priority to redressing unequal treatment of women clergy.

In contrast, unequal treatment of black and Asian clergy has been allowed to continue. Reports, committees, and task groups have been ineffective for 30 years. Yet, as Lord Blair wrote in this newspaper, “where there is a will, a way will be found” (Letters, 20 March 2015).

It has often been pointed out that, unlike the issue of women priests and bishops, or gay clergy, there is no conceivable theological reason for black and Asian clergy not to hold leadership positions. In contrast to the Church of England, black-majority and Asian-majority Churches attract large numbers, and are blessed with strong leadership.


THE front page of The Guardian on Boxing Day followed a familiar line, assuming that the solution lay in more training and mentoring for black and Asian clergy. It reported a new talent pool, set up to increase black and Asian representation among bishops, deans, and archdeacons.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, was quoted, repeating in effect what the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, told the General Synod as long ago as 2000. “It is, in my view, undeniable that there is racism within the system, because gifted people have not found their way into senior leadership,” Bishop Langstaff said.

The talent pool is not a new idea. About 30 black and Asian clergy were selected for special training a few years ago. One of them has told me that the training was good, but that nothing has happened as a result.

The main issue is appointments in the near term. There are black and Asian clergy ready now for senior appointments. Even if the talent pool has benefits for the future, in the present it perpetuates the false narrative of white superiority by implying that black and Asian clergy in general need special training and mentoring before being suitable for senior appointment.


NOW is the time for the House of Bishops to acknowledge that discrimination against black and Asian clergy has been implied by the much higher priority accorded to equality for women clergy.

The House of Bishops should make a high-profile statement — equivalent to what it has said about women in House of Lords debates, This should affirm a commitment to the flourishing of black and Asian clergy as part of the Church of England’s life; confirm that it is not the intention to leave black and Asian clergy to wither on the vine; acknowledge that black and Asian bishops would enrich the life of the Church and the nation; and express disappointment if a number of experienced and qualified black and Asian priests do not move directly into diocesan bishoprics.

I suggest that action now be taken in the following ways:

The House of Bishops take a shared responsibility for appointing three suffragan bishops from among the black and Asian clergy within the next 12 months. Since diocesan bishops have full control over appointments of suffragan bishops, no help is required from anywhere else to achieve this. The job description of the Archbishops’ Secretary for Appointments be amended to include a requirement that every Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) be provided with several names of black and Asian clergy who are ready now for appointment as diocesan bishops.

A bishop with a proven track record of appointing black and Asian clergy to senior posts could be invited to address every CNC meeting on the benefits that such appointments bring. Each diocese compile an information pack with details of each of its black and Asian clergy, and make it available to other dioceses to assist appointments.


THE House of Bishops has had no new black or Asian member since Dr Sentamu became Bishop of Birmingham in 2002, and there has been no new black or Asian suffragan since the Rt Revd David Hamid, also in 2002. All but three of the 42 other diocesans and all but one of the 73 other suffragans have changed at least once since 2002 — all of them white appointments.

Meanwhile, the number of black and Asian clergy has been on a rising curve. The figure of 2.8 per cent quoted by The Guardian was a published estimate for 2010. Church House has stopped publishing statistics on clergy ethnic diversity, despite many questions’ having been asked in the General Synod, but the true figure could be five per cent or more by now.

The statistics for suffragans show clearly how senior white people appoint other white people to join them in the senior network. Only if this behaviour changes is there any hope that the diversity of church leadership can match the diversity of the Church itself. Anyone who has questioned the behaviour has been ignored, isolated, or bullied as a result.

Having a black Archbishop of York has been a great plus; but the Church of England will fail to reach its potential until it is enriched by other black and Asian bishops.


Vasantha Gnanadoss was a member of the General Synod from 1990 to 2015.

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