Bringing bias to the surface

by
05 July 2019

Training is being used to help those who appoint clergy to question their biases. Rebecca Paveley examines whether it is making a difference

Graham Lacdao

Deacons ordained by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, on Saturday, in St Paul’s Cathedral

Deacons ordained by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, on Saturday, in St Paul’s Cathedral

TRAINING that helps people to uncover and confront their biases and assumptions about others sounds pretty uncomfortable.

While it can be challenging, however, it is designed to be both positive and unthreatening. What is unveiled can be enlightening for the people on the course, the Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Martin Gorick, says. He has led on the introduction of unconscious-bias training in the diocese of Oxford.

“It started from the point of saying everybody has unconscious bias,” he says. “We all tend to be biased to people who look like us, or have similar backgrounds or experiences.

“It also looked at what our trigger points are for when our biases and assumptions come into play, and how we could, and should, appropriately challenge colleagues around the table when we felt their biases were on show and could be unfairly affecting judgement, especially in appointments.

“The training was very unthreatening, as it started in this way, and it aimed to make us all more aware of our biases. It’s not just about race, sexuality, or gender, but social background, accents, and education, too. We all judge one other on all these things, and we can be quite unaware that we are doing that.

Birmingham dioceseThe Revd Colleen Shekerie was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart. She serves at Old Church, Smethwick.

“Training in unconscious bias helps to surface these assumptions, and has helped us become more aware of when they are influencing our judgements in an unexamined way.”

All members of the Diocesan Director of Ordinand’s team, and all vocations advisers, have undertaken the training, as have senior staff.

Such training was long overdue, Archdeacon Gorick says. “I was made aware of the issue some time ago, during a discussion on a title post for an ordinand of African heritage. Among the assumptions being made around the table was that this person would be more comfortable in a deprived urban parish with a multi-ethnic population.

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“But had we discussed it with the person themselves? No, we hadn’t, and they ended up going somewhere quite different for their curacy, and valued that chance.”

Oxford diocese has moved a step further, and now carries out “blind recruitment”. The name and gender of a candidate are stripped from application forms. Although it is early days, the diocese believes that more black and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates are beginning to come through. They are also encouraged to know that the diocese is rolling out unconscious-bias training, Archdeacon Gorick says.

The Archdeacon of Berkshire, the Ven. Olivia Graham, took part in the training for senior staff. “It was really helpful to have things brought into my awareness; to have it pointed out how much we judge others based on visual and auditory information,” she says. “It was the first step in bringing to light things that are hidden in the darkness, and bringing about a culture change.”

Oxford dioceseThe Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, ordained the Revd Hannah Akibo-Betts priest in Eton College Chapel, on 22 June. She is an NSM in Bletchley

She hopes that the training will have an impact. The numbers of female ordinands and clergy in the diocese have been lower in recent years, and there are “not nearly enough” BAME clergy. “We simply aren’t as diverse as we ought to be.”

The low numbers of BAME clergy is mirrored in London. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, an early advocate of the training, undertook it herself, outside the Church. But London diocese is now implementing it, starting with senior staff and PCCs of parishes that fall into vacancy, before they begin the appointment process.

She says that the training is about “encouraging people to make conscious choices to enable the diocese to reflect the population we are serving”. Some areas — she cites Edmonton — are beginning to see an increase in women appointed to positions, which could be attributed to the training.

All job advertisements in the diocese are also now run past the Dean of BAME Affairs and the Dean of Women’s Ministry, to ensure that they are worded in a way that does not put off women or BAME candidates. And, as Bishop Mullally prepares to reset the strategy for 2020 onwards, revisiting recruitment of women and BAME clergy to senior positions will be a focus.

The entry gates must be widened, she says. “But are we ready for a Church that looks different?”

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