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Michaelmas Ordinations: is the drive to increase clergy diversity working?

04 October 2019

There is a drive to recruit from black and minority ethnic communities. How is clergy diversity doing, asks Pat Ashworth?

The Revd Grace Thomas with (left to right) her brother-in-law Huw, father-in-law, and husband Gareth Thomas

The Revd Grace Thomas with (left to right) her brother-in-law Huw, father-in-law, and husband Gareth Thomas

WHEN the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, appointed three new archdeacons in 2013, it made the national news. One, the Ven. Mina Smallman (Archdeacon of Southend), was a black woman; another, the Ven. John Perambulath (Archdeacon of Barking), an Asian man.

In an impassioned speech to the General Synod in 2015 (Synod, 17 July 2015), Bishop Cottrell deplored the fact that these appointments should be news at all: “The statistics tell us we are going backwards, not because we are racist, but because we have just not faced up and taken affirmative action.”

Taking such action to encourage more vocations to the priesthood from people with a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background is the province of, among others, the National Minority Ethnic Vocations Officer, Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed. Accurate figures are hard to establish, she says, because they depend on clergy to self-identify, but the percentage of stipendiary clergy of BAME heritage is “improving” from the 1.9-per-cent level in 2016.

“Numbers aren’t rising to the extent that we would all hope they would be at this stage, but we accept that challenge. The situation didn’t arise overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight. The problem is rooted in culture and an old institution turning or changing course: these large tankers take a long time to move.”

The solution, she says, is “people of BAME heritage trusting the process: knowing they are welcome, and that what they bring to the table is valued and not denigrated in any way. It’s incumbents identifying or being open to identifying people of BAME heritage as potential leaders, whether that be ordained or not, and thinking about what a leader looks like.

“If that looks like you, you’re not going to look for anyone who isn’t like you,” she suggests, noting that success depends on recruiting many more mentors, “lay and ordained people passionate about seeing confident and dynamic people take up the challenge for this journey”.

Unconscious bias is being firmly addressed, she reports, with training programmes for senior staff, clergy, and others involved in appointments and selection. The diocese of London is one where that process begins in a parish at the very start of an interregnum. “It’s a root-and-branch commitment and intention that then generates the flow. They’re not just talking the talk.”

A majority of clergy with a BAME heritage are first-generation, she notes, not born and raised in the UK, and generally moving here from an Anglican region elsewhere in the world. Work is being done on engagement with BAME Anglicans who are based here, and went to school or university here. “We want to encourage these to consider what ordained vocation might be for them. We’re hoping that the mentoring, and the expansion of the conference for people from BAME backgrounds considering a vocation, will create more opportunities.”

The diocese of Manchester is a pioneer in this field: it was the first, five years ago, to have a black cathedral dean, and now, with a concerted effort all round, it has reached a point where more than 20 per cent of the current cohort of ordinands are from BAME backgrounds. They include Pakistani and Indian Asian, Black African, Black Caribbean, and Persian, some born in Britain, and some overseas. “For some of our younger candidates, those steeped in Anglicanism, part of their calling is to be the face that says a young black man can be a priest in the Church of England,” the Director of Vocations, Canon Nick Smeeton, says.

“We’ve worked really hard to get out into the various communities and demonstrate to them that we’re serious about this. It’s about the first few candidates in communities: once you’ve got them through, it becomes easier.” He acknowledges help from the Ministry Division in areas such as improving language proficiency, and praises the training incumbents for their support and creativity.

“We don’t try to turn people into us,” he emphasises. “There’s a temptation to think we’ll turn the candidates into white middle-class people and then send them. . . That’s wrong . . . and we’d lose all the exciting ideas and perspectives. And the other thing is going to be preparing parishes, in due course, for the fact that we haven’t done that.

“This is someone who is going to come with fresh perspectives, and with a different life history, who may not be what the parish is used to. Their ministry is going to be all the richer for that.”


THE Revd Sachin Awale was priested this year at Petertide, and is serving his title as an OLM in Whalley Range and Moss Side, Manchester. Born and brought up in India, and with an Anglican background, he came to Britain in 2003 and settled in Altrincham. Now 45, he first felt a call when he was studying for his A levels, but, even with the encouragement of his church, he did not feel ready — or, indeed, good enough: “I have always felt that there is nothing in me as good as in my grandfather,” he says.

That feeling persisted for years, and, despite encouragement from his incumbent and others, he delayed his decision. Now, however, he is thriving as a priest. “The challenge is still there,” he says with honesty. “Some people still find that clergy coming from a non-white background are not acceptable to them, but these challenges come for a reason. It’s part of the journey.

The Revd Sachin Awale pictured, with his family, at his ordination

“Moss Side is a largely black and Asian area, and Whalley Edge more white and middle-class. My congregation is good, and my ministry has been accepted [in both].”

He sometimes feels troubled and disheartened, but now questions only why he waited so long. “I’ve learned a lot about my calling,” he says. “It’s a privilege and honour to be in this place. When I was trying to run away and not take what was being asked of me, God had a plan in place, and it happened. He made sure of all the right people and the right places. I love the job.”

The Revd Grace Thomas was also priested this year, and is serving her title in these same parishes alongside Mr Awele. She is half-Indian, and it is an advantage, she says, not to look like “people’s mental stereotype of a priest”. The ring in her nose and some piercings have led to many good conversations, and the inevitable question: “Are you really a vicar?”

Like her colleague, she feels that she is “exactly where I want to be, and where God has called me. I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities.” A former family support worker, and married to a cleric, she lives in his parish in Salford, and commutes into the city by bus after ditching the car in the interests of well-being and the environment. The daily journey, she says, is also a source of challenging and wonderful conversations.

“I’m always in my collar, and people come and sit next to me. I’ve had somebody who believed the world was created in six days asking me about creation: that was an early-morning wake-up call. I’ve always been chatty, and and I’ve been genuinely surprised, in a good way, about the positive impact that wearing my collar has had.”

Walking round Moss Side and spending time in the cafés has led to conversations with Muslims which range from the divinity of Jesus to the person of the Virgin Mary; and being “visibly Christian” is a good position to be in, she says.

With a husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law all ordained, she went into the ministry with her eyes open. She had not given a great deal of weight to being priested after her year as deacon, but, presiding the previous Sunday in one of the churches, she found herself “filled with this sense of gratitude, that this is something really special and I’d been called to do it. I hope the wonder of that will always stay with me.”


KATHREEN SHABAZ is in her second year of training for ordination in Manchester, and exemplifies what is burgeoning here. She comes from a poor Asian family with a nominal Roman Catholic background, and, as an unwanted girl, was experiencing a life of rejection. She became a nurse and a Christian, but when she tried to express herself in the fellowship in which she found herself, she was put down as a woman without authority.

Working in a nursing home, she encountered a visiting Anglican vicar — “a lovely woman” — and found a home and a vocation in the Church of England. “Here, there are no restrictions,” she says joyfully. “Whether you’re male, female, black, Asian, British, doesn’t matter. If your heart is right, no one will stop you. My dream is not just to be a Church of England vicar, but to change lives all over the world.”

The Revd Ericcson Mapfumo is serving his title at Potternewton with Little London after transferring from another parish in Leeds. He originates from Zimbabwe, describes himself as “an aspiring black theologian”, and feels a strong identity as an African Christian within the Church of England, where he sees his vocation and strong sense of social justice according well with its mission of “transforming unjust structures”.

Kathreen Shabaz, currently in her second year of training for ordination

It took a long time for people to accept him, he acknowledges, and to identify with who he was. “People have stereotypes of what you might be like if you come from an ethnic minority — a lack of competence in areas like preaching or reading, perhaps,” he suggests. But he is discovering a leadership style that is more mentoring in its nature. “I think talking one to one makes people realise you’re OK.”

That one-to-one aspect of pastoral care, “trying to bring people along”, is where he is discovering his strengths. He feels that a negative experience in his first parish has enabled him to grow as a person, and he rejoices at how his priesting this year has empowered him.

The Bishop’s Adviser on BAME Concerns in the diocese of Rochester, Canon Jeremy Blunden, has been working in this field for 20 years. He acknowledges the energy going into vocations at ground level, both nationally and in the dioceses, and the bold leadership of many of the bishops. But he remains frustrated that, despite reading “passage after passage in the Bible where all of us are presented as children of God and equal in the eyes of God”, the Church continues, in many ways, to mirror what happens in society.

That is tragic, he says, warning the gatekeepers that the Church will “fall in on itself” if it cannot offer opportunities at all levels for those with a vocation to the priesthood. “These things challenge the Establishment, and the Establishment has to respond positively to that. . . It could take just a handful of years if we applied ourselves. But if we don’t change our culture, the future is pretty bleak, and we could be having these same conversations in 25 years’ time.”

He recalls a directive to parish clergy from a former Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, that people who were requesting “We don’t want a black vicar,” or “We don’t want a woman priest,” when asking for a funeral or a wedding, should be directed elsewhere, with the message: “This is a team.”

He concludes: “I think a lot of the doors we push against are open. But we have to keep on pushing.”


Power of five at Trinity

FEWER than three per cent of students at Trinity College, Bristol, are from a BAME background. The five students in the present cohort have formed a support group designed not just to encourage each other and to embrace their ethnicity, but to widen their reading, prepare them for the realities of ordained ministry, and form a network that will extend beyond their training.

The initiative came from Mark Nam, who was born in the UK but brought up in Hong Kong. The group meets every couple of weeks for an hour over lunch. They express their frustrations at sometimes being misunderstood, and their hurt and disappointment when they encounter insensitivities. Sometimes, they tell each other “things that we don’t feel we can say in class, for fear of being misunderstood or taken out of context — sharing theological perspectives from a shame or honour culture, for instance”, Mr Nam says.

Mark Nam in the library at Trinity College, Bristol

It’s a place too, for academic stimulus. “A lot of our pre-reading is based on Western theologians with broadly Platonic and Aristotelian presuppositions,” he says, “emphasising the importance for members of equipping themselves with perspectives from other parts of the world.” Discussions arise from books by BAME authors, or newspaper articles, and these “enrich our theology, thinking, and practice”.

Since starting their training, the students have realised that, whether they like it or not, people’s perceptions of them will help to shape their future ministry. “We felt there was little support to help BAMEs reflect on this theologically, and so we factor our ethnicities into our discussions. . . I’ve never been more aware, myself, of my own Chinese heritage until I was studying at Trinity, and I’ve gone on a journey discovering what East Asians can bring to the Church, particularly in terms of reconciliation.”

Networking is always on the agenda: the five are very much aware of the demands and rigours of ministry to come, and hope that the relationships that they form in this group will carry on into their curacy and beyond. Four tutors responded to the group’s invitation to join a meeting, and the new Principal of Trinity, the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, has agreed to host a regional vocations conference for potential BAME candidates in 2020.

The group’s hope is that every theological college would naturally have such a support group, and that colleges will become more aware of what BAME students can contribute to the wider student body. The group would also like to see space in the syllabus for topics such as racism and other aspects of diversity. They hope for “a more robust network of BAME clergy that offers support to one another and encouragement to those entering full-time ministry”.

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