PART of the legacy of colonialism is that the Church can continue to uphold oppressive narratives and practices, which alienate and marginalise people who would otherwise be a gift to its ministry.
My research has made me sensitive to the ways in which this can happen. Ten years ago, I left the capital of the Bahamas, Nassau, to begin studies at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. These culminated in exploring the church and indigenous cultures of my native context for a doctoral thesis.
At the same time, I was a parish priest in a Black Country urban priority area. It is no easy calling. The demands of parish ministry, particularly on estates, continually challenge norms of doctrine, liturgy, political structures, and governance. It remains a liminal space from which newness can come. Having this in mind, I would offer three points for reflection.
THE strapline of the Church of England website — “A Christian presence in every community” — testifies to the pervasive reach that the Church has across the country. As the national Church, it remains symbolically and politically significant — through its buildings, occasional Offices, the civic and ecclesiastical powers bestowed on its clergy, and simply through its historical legacies in most communities.
But a church “in” the community is not necessarily a church “of” or “for” the community. Often, political and historical symbolism may obscure a chasm between the church’s functioning and the community’s experiences. One of the great lessons from British missionary expansion into the non-Western world is that, though the Anglican Church became central to setting up colonial governance, it failed to engage with the indigenous cultures and populations and their often radically different concerns.
In the British West Indies, plantation societies were structured hierarchically on racial and cultural lines. At the top of this pyramid was a minority élite — the white planter class (belonging to the Established Church). At the bottom were the majority West African slaves and their descendants, forced to adopt the world-view, assumptions, and cultural values of the élite at the expense of their own indigenous ones.
Could something similar be happening in the Church of England? In the past decade, there have been many social and cultural shifts. Communities must contend with increased poverty and homelessness, and demographic shifts in culture, ethnicity, and even religion. Health services can seem to be at breaking-point, and an increased awareness of a crisis in mental and emotional well-being suggests that the social fabric is under duress.
The Church of England’s General Synod is not ignorant of these realities. Its reports and discussions speak powerfully to a wide range of issues, from global poverty, the environment and climate change, and race and ethnicity, to sexuality, migration, poverty, welfare, and financial inclusion. But how will these discussions be translated into action in communities?
Or, to put it another way, how can the parish church speak for, and out of, the experiences of all the parishioners, not just the faithful who have resort to the building or the parish priest? This requires a constant and intentional reimagining of church in the local context, and a willingness to give priority to the realities on the ground.
THE General Synod must be applauded for its serious engagement with intense and politically charged issues. Gender, race and ethnicity, and sexuality are a few of these; and undergirding their discussion is an acknowledgement of blind spots in these areas. The recent appointment of women bishops and of black and minority-ethnic (BAME) clergy to senior positions suggests intentionality and some sense of repentance of previous neglect.
Training on unconscious bias is being rolled out in many dioceses, and highlights the existence of bias and blind spots in both individuals and systems. The question for the Church of England is: how deep do these intentional practices go?
Taking BAME representation as an example: it is wonderful when efforts are made to train such priests for senior leadership. But what efforts and resources go into fostering vocations among BAME young people, and are such resources enough?
Are diocesan structures prepared to make allowance for, and include, the differences in culture and experience which BAME people bring to ministry? How are theological colleges resourced to represent this among the academic and pastoral staff?
Furthermore, how much, if at all, are the experiences of BAME per-sons reflected in ministerial training? I am fortunate to work at a theological institution that has made BAME representation central to its academic staff, student population, and theological programme, with its offer of a Black Theology forum. But is this the norm? Confronting bias and blind spots is crucial if the Church of England is to flourish at this time.
MAKING connections with on-the-ground realities and being attentive to bias is ultimately about challenging the status quo. The picture I have painted is that the Church of England still has tremendous power and prestige in this land, but this power must be further understood and developed.
To do this, I want to draw from the prophetic tradition in scripture, which challenges static religion, or the status quo, by denouncing kings or religious leaders for their idolatrous or unjust practices. We need only call to mind John the Baptist and his challenge to Herod in Matthew 14.
But the challenge of the prophet functions in another way. Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, refers to the first as “prophetic criticism”. He calls the other function “prophetic energising”. This second kind of power penetrates the despair of God’s people, awakens their hopes, enters suffering and the tomb, and it resurrects. We see this clearly in Jesus’s ministry, as he declares before the multitude, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12.32-33).
Can the Church of England mourn with the afflicted in society? Can it stand with the voiceless? Will it dwell with the marginalised, the displaced, the homeless, and the despised? Will its liturgy, its governance, its mission, and its ministry have this kind of effective kenotic power — power that empties itself out?
I am humbled by the dedication of the many men and women who serve the Church in communities in this land. I am also aware of the difficulties that the national Church faces. If it is to be continually renewed, however, it must, first, make connections with local contexts; second, seek out and address bias and blind spots; and, third, challenge the status quo.
The Revd Dr Carlton Turner is a tutor at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, specialising in contextual theology.