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General Synod: Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller communities

01 March 2019

Synod pledges to fight prejudice and racism against these communities

Geoff Crawford

Janie Codona, a member of the gypsy community, speaks in the Synod on Saturday

Janie Codona, a member of the gypsy community, speaks in the Synod on Saturday

THREE speakers on the Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller communities gave a presentation to the General Synod on Saturday, before it debated and carried a motion aimed at combating racism against these communities, some of whose members were present in the gallery and applauded by the Synod.

Janie Codona, a member of the Gypsy community, spoke about the “many forms” of discrimination which she had experienced. A common affliction was the dumping of rubbish on their land. “We experience it every day. We don’t judge, or demand apologies, or say ‘Do not treat us that way.’ As time went on, I realised that if we did not stand up as a community, it would never end.”

She had brought her children and grandchildren up to challenge discrimination, so that, one day, she said, it might end. More gypsies and Travellers were being educated, but the community was still being marginalised. “I am proud to be a Gypsy, and to share my experiences with you, because if it can make a difference, and a change can come about, then I have done a good job today.”

Professor Thomas Acton, a professor of Romani Studies at Greenwich University, spoke about the diversity of Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller life. The Roma language was about 1000 years old, he said, and the community had many ethnic subgroups and cultural fusions. “This enormous diversity is part of the gospel, the great revival, the growth of community.” He wanted to build bridges between Gypsy Christian communities and mainstream churches.

The Revd Martin Burrell, who chairs the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, had worked with the roaming Roma community for nine years in Luton, but there were only two chaplains in the UK, he said. “In appointing chaplains, we follow the Gospel mandate to bring the love of God to all communities.” He called on the Bishops to seek out and appoint clergy to serve in these ministries. “They will be on the front line of building peace.”

Introducing his motion — calling on the Church and its leaders to help to combat racism in these communities, and to minister to them — the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that it was a “happy and useful coincidence” that the debate was taking place on the feast of St Polycarp, one of the first Christian martyrs, burnt at the stake in155 after refusing to blaspheme. Bishop Cottrell asked: “How do we blaspheme Christ today?”

He suggested that it was by a denial of common humanity, whether Gypsy, Jew, Greek, slave or free, Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh, or Arsenal fans. “This is why all forms of racism are so evil. They are not just a denial of our common humanity: they are an affront on God.” Racism against Roma, gypsy, and Traveller communities was still common, and — “tragically and perversely” — often tolerated. He quoted recent reports from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, universities, and police which found that gypsy and traveller children and professionals who had declared their ethnicity had faced discrimination. “This must change, and this motion is a small way of beginning to make this change.”

The number of authorised sites had decreased in recent years, he said. “We have an unsustainable and unjust situation, where people are evicted from unauthorised encampments without any alternative sites’ being made available.” He urged the Synod not to let “ignorance, fear, or uninvestigated bias” prevent its tackling this racism.

In a maiden speech, Canon Simon Fisher (Liverpool) recounted two conversations from the preceding week. In the first, the Bishop of Liverpool, had asked: “Do we have many of these people in our diocese?” No one present could give him an answer. Canon Fisher had also spoken with a man in his parish, Patrick, who was himself a Gypsy, something that Canon Fisher had not encountered before. A culture of translation was needed to understand how other communities worked, Canon Fisher argued, and chaplaincy should not just be a “pastoral sticking-plaster”. He supported the motion.

People might not think of the diocese of Salisbury as ethnically diverse, Canon Jane Charman (Salisbury) said, but it had a large Traveller population, and was one of two dioceses to have a chaplain to this community. A priest from the community had also been ordained in the diocese. She spoke of discrimination and prejudice against the Roma community as “the last acceptable part of racism”. This had allowed the media to demonise travellers, she said.

The community well understood the “terrifying trajectory” of racism, having experienced it brutally during the Holocaust, especially on the “Night of the Gypsies” at Auschwitz. Making space for gypsies was often presented as a complicated and intractable problem, she said: what was lacking was not the means, but the will to deal with it.

Moving his amendment, Simon Margrave (Coventry) said that the Church was only a Church when it existed to serve others. He welcomed the move to help those who experience racism. He knew “only too well” the damage that Travellers could commit, but also the harm and hurt caused to these communities. His amendment, he said, sought not to replicate the work of local government, but to assist it.

Bishop Cottrell responded that, while he understood that the amendment was supposed to be supportive of the general motion, the phrase “prevent crime and disorder” fed into the prejudices that Travellers already experienced, and was therefore against the spirit of the motion. He asked Mr Margrave to “amend his amendment”.

Mr Margrave agreed to this change: to remove “prevent crime and disorder”.

Canon James Allison (Leeds) said that the history of Roma people was centred on legislation made about them rather than with them. He told the story of a Traveller family who could not claim benefits, because they feared the authorities. The conversation should extend to supporting Roma children in education, he said, and the Church should use its influence in this sector.

Canon David Banting (Chelmsford) said that Archbishop Temple had drawn his attention to the phrase “in my father’s house, there are many rooms,” and that this could be translated to stopping-places. The debate fed into Thursday’s debate about homelessness, he said, in that both were about providing places for people to live. Canon Banting said that he had been delighted to hear of a Christian revival among Roma and Gypsy people. He said that stopping-points were a good and important move, and that the Church should use its land for this.

The amendment, as amended, was carried.

Jay Greene (Winchester) told a story about meeting a distressed woman in Salisbury. Ms Greene said that she had also been part of a church which put on a service at a Traveller encampment. Opportunities to serve these communities were there for all members of the Church, if only one looked for them.

Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford), who came from a rural area, had experienced a Traveller community using her church’s car park, and could not find any advice about what to do. Church services had been affected while the community were there, and it had stopped people visiting the graves of their relatives. Ms Durlacher spoke of a rise in petty crime, which, she said, had happened when a traveller community had been in the area, and the “mess” left behind.

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) said that, as a GP, it was always welcome to visit people in different settings, including a Travelling community. The rigidity of the NHS made it difficult for people who did not want to live in the ways that the NHS advised. There was an opportunity for the system to engage with the Travelling community rather than let it fall through the gaps.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, commended the motion, drawing particular attention to the move to create a chaplain to Traveller, Gypsy, and Roma communities. His diocese among “nomad” communities, and it was better to think of these chaplains as “among” rather than “to”. Their work should be extended nationwide. He also spoke of the dangers to Roma people worldwide, particularly relating to trafficking.

Peter Adams (St Albans) praised the work of the panel. He had experienced every prejudice and stereotype that this motion sought to challenge, he said, and a well-intentioned PCC would need outside help in tackling hate.

Bishop Cottrell thanked Synod members for a “powerful and moving” debate. He agreed that there could not be legislation about people without them, and that chaplaincies should be among people, not to them. He said that Ms Durlacher and her husband had worked to keep the outside tap on, to help the Travelling community at her church, against opposition from her peers.

The motion was carried by 265 to 1.

That this Synod, mindful of the Church of England’s commitment to combat racism in all its manifestations:

a) call upon the Church’s leadership, including the Lords Spiritual, other bishops, senior staff, the Mission and Public Affairs Division and others, to speak out publicly against racism and hate crime directed against Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Roma, and urge the media to stop denigrating and victimising these communities;
b) request every diocese to appoint a chaplain to Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, to provide pastoral care, harness the potential for church growth among these communities and help combat racism in the Church and wider communities;
c) request the Mission and Public Affairs Council, in its forthcoming work on housing, to evaluate the importance of provision of sites for Gypsies and Travellers in wider housing policy, and recommend Church bodies to play their part in lobbying for and enabling land to be made available for such sites; and
d) request the Lords Spiritual and staff of the National Church Institutions to meet with representatives from Her Majesty’s Government and Loyal Opposition, as well as leaders from Local Government, including the Local Government Association, to co-ordinate and collaborate on shared plans to make Traveller stopping points available across England, to develop community cohesion.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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