“SONS Arise”, a service of celebration and reflection to enable black men to remember and honour their enslaved ancestors, is to be held at Holy Trinity, Birchfield, in Birmingham diocese, on Sunday.
Last week, the Vicar, Canon Eve Pitts, spoke of her conviction that the past must be faced if a community is to thrive. “One of the problems with my culture — and there are many good things — is that most of us, if we are honest, are afraid to look back.”
Born in Jamaica, Canon Pitts came to Nottingham at the age of six, trained at the Queen’s Foundation in 1988, and was among the first black women to be ordained priest in the Church of England, in 1994. As a young parishioner, she remembers people being “surprised that I was so intelligent. . . I sincerely hope those days are gone.”
“I began to realise that [the problem] was partly a sense of shame at not knowing where we actually belong, especially for those who do not know our actual history. So it became clear to me that if we were going to make any meaningful steps forward, then, as a people, as part of an Afro-Caribbean background, we are going to have to face that past.”
Other communities publicly remember their histories, she says, from the recent commemoration of the Battle of the Somme to those for the victims of the Holocaust. “So we should remember the transatlantic slave trade. How dare we forget [our ancestors]?” Unless the past is confronted, she says, she fears that “it will continue to undermine our own understanding of who God has meant us to be. . . No matter how successful we are — and some of us are very successful — there will be something that is missing there. There will be a wall. We will not be able to fly without a clear understanding of who we are, warts and all, and of the slave trade.”
People queued to enter the first “Arise” event, which was held in October last year. It was followed by a special event for women in February. “Sons Arise” is dedicated to black men, who have had a “rough time”, Canon Pitts says.
“It is not easy for black manhood. It has been undermined. They have been thrown in prison. The mental-health system is chock-a-block with black males. Any society that wants to thrive has to take better care of its men, and that does not just mean white men. They have been bruised and battered and beaten up and undermined, and I think it is time they find a space where it is just for them. I, as a black woman, can say ‘It’s OK to stop and acknowledge not only the past, and what it has done to you’, [but] to ask what it continues to do, and where they can be taken seriously.”
The shooting of black people in the United States reverberates here, she says. “Until we start treating all God’s children as equals, then we will have trouble.”
The latest statistics show that 3.4 per cent of stipendiary clergy, and 2.2 per cent of “senior staff”, are from black and minority-ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Last year, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, admitted that, when it came to addressing the lack of representation in leadership, “we haven’t got any better at it, and we’ve been talking about it for 30 years.”
The Church has “not made as much progress as I would like,” Canon Pitts says. “I am really quite concerned as to whether the Church of England takes it seriously. . . If [it] is serious about growth, it has to stop the nonsense of overlooking gifted black people.” The Church needs to find a way of identifying talented black people, and “making sure that they are put on a path to promotion”.
Last week, a spokesperson for the Church confirmed that two programmes had been run for BME clergy “who had been nominated by bishops as people who might be considered for future senior office”.
Canon Pitts points out that the history of Britain, and of the Church of England, is bound up with her own history. “The Church of England cannot turn away from this history. [It] has to claim this, because many churches, many buildings [were] built by money from my slave ancestors. You cannot walk away from [my history] any more than I can walk away from yours, and I want you to remember that. I think this will be a great journey for the Church of England.”
Canon Pitts says that she has never regretted being in the Church of England. But she believes that it needs “a kick up the backside”, with “lively services” and “people who are really serious about what they preach”.
She says she is rubbing her hands together with glee about Sunday’s service — “a day when, whether one or 100, the [men] will begin a journey of freedom. We know that unless all of us are free, none of us are free.”