IT IS a “blasphemy” against Christ to tolerate racism and discrimination against the Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller communities in the UK, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, has told the General Synod. He was speaking on Saturday morning, before the Synod made a commitment to combating racism in “all its manifestations”.
His motion committing the Church and its leaders to combating racism towards travelling communities, to ministering to them, and to lobbying local authorities for more land to be made available for them was carried almost unanimously by the Synod. Only one member out of 266 on the floor voted against the motion as amended by Simon Margrave (Coventry).
Mr Margrave had proposed that the motion also ask the Lords Spiritual to bring the issues to the attention of the Government, and coordinate plans for “Traveller stopping points” across England. His amendment was carried after it was agreed that the words “to prevent crime and disorder” be removed from it to avoid stereotyping.
Introducing his motion, Bishop Cottrell said that it was a “happy and useful coincidence” it was also the feast of Polycarp, one of the early Christian martyrs, was burnt at the stake in 155 after refusing to commit blasphemy.
“How do we blaspheme Christ today?” he asked. 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 said.
The Bishop 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,” he said.
The number of authorised sites had decreased in recent years. “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.
During the debate, Canon Jane Charman (Salisbury) spoke of discrimination and prejudice against the Roma community as being “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.
Canon Charman — from a diocese with a large Traveller population and with priest from the community — said that making space for gypsies was often presented as a complicated and intractable problem. What was lacking was not the means, but the will.
In a maiden speech in support of the motion, Canon Simon Fisher (Liverpool) recounted two conversations from the preceding week. In the first, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, 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. Chaplaincy, he said, should not just be a “pastoral sticking-plaster”.
Before the debate, the Synod heard a short presentation by three speakers, including Janie Codona, a member of the Gypsy community, who spoke about the “many forms” of discrimination which she had experienced. A common affliction was having rubbish dumped on land on which her family were trying to make a home.
“We experience discrimination every day. We don’t judge, or demand apologies, or say ‘Do not treat us that way.’ But, as time went on, I realised that, if we did not stand up as a community, it would never end.”
She had brought up her children and grandchildren 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.”
Her speech, and fellow members of the community who were in the gallery, were welcomed with applause by the Synod.
The Synod also heard from a professor of Romani Studies at Greenwich University, Thomas Acton, who said that the many and diverse ethnic subgroups and cultural fusions of the Roma community were “part of the gospel, the great revival, the growth of community”. He wanted to build bridges between Gypsy Christian communities and mainstream churches.
The chair of the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, the Revd Martin Burrell, called on the Bishops to seek out and appoint clergy to serve in the Roma community. “They will be on the front line of building peace.”