THE Church of England is only now beginning to shake off its legacy of hostility to foreigners and ethnic minorities, the Iranian-born woman chosen to be the first Bishop of Loughborough has said.
She is Canon Guli Francis-Dehqani, Curate Training Officer and Adviser for Women’s Ministry in the diocese of Peterborough. Her appointment to the newly created suffragan see, in the diocese of Leicester, was announced on Tuesday.
The bishopric has been set up partly to lead mission and engagement with ethnic-minority communities across the diocese, which is one of the most diverse in the Church (News, 17 February).
Canon Francis-Dehqani was born in Iran, where her father, the late Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, was the first Iranian Anglican bishop, and the first President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East.
After a failed assassination attempt in 1979, when armed men broke into his house and shot and wounded his wife, Margaret, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti temporarily left Iran. While he was elsewhere in the Middle East, he learnt that, first, his secretary had been shot and seriously injured, and then that his son, Bahram, had been ambushed and killed in Tehran.
The couple sought refuge in Britain, bringing their three daughters, including Canon Francis-Dehqani, then a teenager, with them.
diocese of leicesterCalling for change: Canon Guli Francis-Dehqani, announced as the first Bishop of LoughboroughShe praised the vision and leadership of her new diocesan, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, in recognising the Church’s lack of diversity, but said that the C of E as a whole had been far too slow to act.
“In a sense, the Church has been talking about it for 20 to 30 years, and we haven’t really seen the changes that we should have done,” she said on Tuesday. “We are still living with the legacy of the 1950s and ’60s when we got it badly wrong and we did not offer a welcome to immigrants.”
It was not good enough simply to hope, or even to pray, for change, Canon Francis-Dehqani said: instead, it was high time that the C of E began to take some risks and do “things that might make us feel quite uncomfortable” to increase ethnic-minority representation and ensure that non-white Christians felt welcome in parishes.
Once consecrated, Canon Francis-Dehqani will bring the number of ethnic-minority bishops in the Church up from three to four. When the Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt Revd Karowei Dorgu, was consecrated in March, he became the first person from an ethnic minority to join the College of Bishops since 2002, when the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid was appointed.
While this was clearly progress, it was not enough, Canon Francis-Dehqani said. “We need to continue to focus on the grass-roots level of encouraging more vocations from our congregations and communities where there are more people from the BME [black and minority ethnic] community. In the end, you cannot just make a few changes in the Bishops and hope that will do it.”
It was imperative that the Church of England looked like modern England, she argued. At the last census, in 2011, 15 per cent of people in Britain, or one in seven, reported that they were from an ethnic minority.
While in Leicester there were more than 100 churches having a majority from an ethnic minority, just three of them were Anglican, Bishop Snow told the General Synod earlier this year. “If we truly want to be inclusive of all who live in our parishes, then we have to heed the cultural changes and challenges within our cities,” he concluded.
Canon Francis-Dehqani’s experience of coming to the UK as an immigrant, and struggling to fit, will help her to minister to ethnic-minority groups in the diocese of Leicester, she suggested. “I have a sense of what it is to be on the margins, and the work it takes to find a sense of belonging.
“My particular experience and background gives me quite an unusual and unique understanding of issues that arise out of bringing different cultures together.”
Canon Francis-Dehqani, who is 51, worked as a religion producer for the BBC before training for the ministry from 1995 to 1998. After a curacy in the diocese of Southwark, she worked as a music-college and school chaplain for two years.
After a career break to raise her three children (now aged 12, 12, and 17), Canon Francis-Dehqani took up her current appointment in the diocese of Peterborough in 2011.
A Synod member since 2012, she is married to Canon Lee Francis-Dehqani, the Team Rector of Oakham, and is to be consecrated in November.
Her interests include Persian culture and cooking, music, contemporary fiction, and walking the family dog.
Correction: We initially reported that Bishop Dorgu was the first ethnic-minority bishop since the consecration of the Archbishop of York in 1996. This was incorrect, as we had overlooked the Suffragan Bishop in Europe. We apologise for the error.