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We have felt unwelcome for too long, say BAME speakers

05 November 2019

Graham Lacdao/St Paul’s Cathedral’

We need to talk about race (from left to right) Guvna B, Chine McDonald, Canon Rosemarie Mallett, Ben Lindsay

We need to talk about race (from left to right) Guvna B, Chine McDonald, Canon Rosemarie Mallett, Ben Lindsay

AFTER 40 years of conversations about race in the Church of England, people are still experiencing bias and racism, an audience at St Paul’s Cathedral heard last week.

Speaking on Tuesday of last week as part of a panel convened under the heading “We need to talk about race” — the title of a new book by Ben Lindsay (Features, 12 July) — Canon Rosemarie Mallett, the Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Angell Town, and public-policy adviser for the diocese of Southwark, suggested that this conversation had, in fact, been decades in the making.

She highlighted the Seeds of Hope report of 1991 and the last report to the General Synod in 2011 entitled Unfinished Business (Comment, 6 July 2011). Decades had passed between the appointment of black bishops (News, 22 December 2016; Letters, 10 February 2017). “Many people still feel battered and bruised by a system that has sometimes displayed good intentions but lacked intentionality.”

It was “so hard to listen to stories of people who are currently experiencing bias and racism in their encounters in the Church,” she said. “Honestly, it can be hard to work through with them the next steps that they can take, because each step will mean navigating through some person who may not be integrally involved but who feels that, by calling out racism, all are being labelled and therefore nothing should be done.”

Canon Mallett, who, three days later, was announced as the next Archdeacon of Croydon, began by exploring the diversity of her experiences as a life-long Anglican within the C of E.

The same Church that had excluded her mother — part of the Windrush generation — had given her hope as a teenager, and had helped her to discern her calling to ministry.

“And yet it was the same Church which saw me face serious and searing racialised challenges from fellow students while in training for ordination; the same Church which could say that there were no black theologians that were available to come and train us.”

Her own experience on the senior leadership team in her diocese was “not replicated in sufficient numbers across the Church of England”.

She told the audience: “I know too many people formerly and currently who feel marginalised by the continuing homogeneity of the Church of England. . . Many feel they have been excluded or extruded.

“Some complain about having been brought in and then hung out to dry. Some feel ignored or left behind, or plain left out. And that’s not even to record the number of racialised micro-aggressions that come with just being black in this society and in the place where you least expect it, the Church.”

She warned: “Without support from the leaders at the top, change will not happen.”

Mr Lindsay, a pastor of Emmanuel Church, in New Cross, a white-majority New Frontiers church, spoke of his sense that the conversation around racism was “happening outside of the Church”. A lack of solidarity in response to the suffering of black people had “grieved me, concerned me, led me to lament and ask God ‘why?’”

“It’s not good enough for people to say ‘I am not racist,’” he said. “I need you to say ‘I am anti-racist, and that is going to come out in my words and actions.’”

A black woman in his own congregation had told him that, too often, minority groups had “shied away from expressing the reality of their experiences because they do not want to come across as victims. . . They tire of defending themselves to majority groups who accuse them of self-indulgent navel-gazing, and question whether their views, experiences, or struggles are real.”

The rapper Guvna B (Interview, 15 June 2018) led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace”, before he described a trip to Ghana, the country of his parents’ birth, where he had learned the story of John Newton’s involvement in the slave trade. It was a “bit weird” that he had never heard this story in a church, he suggested, “because the Bible doesn’t do that. The Bible doesn’t conveniently forget or fail to mention one’s history.”

The Bible had “made sure” that we knew that Paul was once an enemy of the Church, that David was a murderer, and that Peter had turned his back on Jesus.

“Is it my aim to vilify John Newton? No,” he said. “Am I saying God can’t use the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ to bless people and give hope to the hopeless? No. I’m saying the Church needs to know its history, so it can know where it wants to go next.”

Chine McDonald, media, PR and content lead at Christian Aid, described her gratitude that earlier generations of Igbo people in Nigeria had converted to Christianity, “because for all the faults of western Christianity I believe that, in its essence, Christianity is about a truth that transcends cultures, that crosses barriers, that tells the most beautiful story of hope.”

But, in her own experience, “this truth has been contorted into all sorts of messages that keep some people with all the power and others without.”

While she had never been called “the N word”, or heard it preached that black people were inferior, “I have been made to feel like I don’t belong.”

“White supremacy comes not only in the Klansman’s white cape but the subtle words that seem to betray the idea that white is right,” she said. “White supremacy can come not in literal chains and shackles but the narrow definition of what and who is beautiful. White supremacy can come in the form of monochrome leadership, theology and practice: a cookie cutter of chino-wearing whiteness.”

The white-majority Church had asked black people “not to play the race card”, while doing “a very good job at highlighting our difference in ways that make us uncomfortable”.

Describing her efforts to “conform to whiteness”, she spoke of the theologian Ekemini Uwan’s description of “the psyche of the colonised mind always at war at itself”. She finished by singing the song “Imela” in Igbo, “which talks of gratitude to God the great and might creator of the world”.

In a conversation on class and race, she described her “angst” about whether she was “an acceptable face of blackness”, having studied at Cambridge and grown up in the Home Counties, producing the assumption that “I’m not really going to shake anything up too much”. Yet, there was also a need to recognise “that there is a black middle class”.

Among the questions asked by the audience was why black people should stay in white-majority churches. One man spoke of his wife’s “exhaustion”. Ms McDonald agreed that a lot of black people were leaving. “No one should stay in a church that makes them feel anxious,” she said. But she also urged people to tell their church why they were leaving.

Canon Mallett described how she had left one church after two years because the vicar still did not know her name. But, in the next church, the white vicar had not only remembered her but supported her call to ministry.

“The reason I stay is because, as I say to my daughter, there are no places or spaces where I should not be. It may be a challenge, it may be a battle, but I am going to make this place a space that others can come and be welcomed into.”

Signs of progress were identified. Canon Mallett pointed to the imminent consecration of Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin as Bishop of Dover (News, 5 July); and Mr Lindsay identified “a desire and a spiritual move of God where people are asking the question in a way I have not experienced”. Canon Mallett hoped that, in 20 or 30 years, the conversations happening around race would be “celebratory”.

Ms McDonald advised leaders to listen to the experiences of black people in their churches (“don’t try to fix it; don’t try to be defensive; just listen”) to be an “ally”, and to think about “practicalities”, including the visibility of diversity at the front of churches, and whether the stories told in sermons were inclusive of all those present.

“Embrace the messiness and the awkwardness and the pain that comes with some of these conversations,” she advised. “Recognising that there aren’t easy fixes. Some of this is trying to undo centuries of oppression and division. We have come a long way, but there is some way to go. Be comfortable in the discomfort.”

Canon Mallett agreed, saying to white listeners: “You are not going to be comfortable; but remember that the person that you are different from has long been uncomfortable.”

The panel was chaired by the Canon Pastor at St Paul’s, Canon Tricia Hillas, who last week was announced as the next Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the second Black And Ethnic Minority priest to be appointed to the position.

Watch the entire event here:

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