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Azariah France-Williams: a C of E health warning

10 July 2020

The author’s new book is a plea to end the marginalisation of black clergy. Interview by Huw Spanner

Tim Cole

A.D.A France-Williams

A.D.A France-Williams

THE Revd A. D. A. (Azariah) France-Williams describes his new book, Ghost Ship: Institutional racism and the Church of England, as “an insider account” of the Church’s relationship with its “black and brown” clergy. He himself has been ordained for ten years, “serving the communities, doing all the rites of passage, living the life of a parish priest”. Writing the book, he says, was “a journey of discovery”, as he found out how many others had had the same experience as him of being “not seen, not heard”.

He encountered more than 100 individuals, many of whom did not want to be identified. “There are some who have been suffering and speaking out, some who have been suffering and shouting, and some who have just been suffering in silence.”

The book is remarkable for the range of styles and tones which it employs. It opens with a parable, and then mixes in first-person narrative, social history, satire, biblical exegesis (Samson and the Gerasene demoniac make appearances), responses to surveys, and short interviews (of pioneers such as Canon Eve Pitts and Bishop Rose Hudson-Wilkin), as well as poems by the author’s alter ego, BraveSlave.

There is anger and sadness, but also humour. An extraordinary menagerie of animals roams the pages, including “a braying, bucking donkey”, an elephant (white, of course), serpents, lambs, wolves (also white) — and the great lion, Aslan, restless in the darkness. “Over the years, there have been appeals to the Church based on an academic or an activist approach,” Fr France-Williams explains, “but I wanted to take an artist’s approach. I wanted to honour the way I’m wired, and to write a book that I’d enjoy reading.”

None the less, the book is deeply serious. Its title is allusive. At times, it invokes the memory of black lives lost at sea, whether deliberately, thrown overboard in the transatlantic slave trade, or through negligence, on an overloaded ferry that foundered between the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis in 1970. At times, there is a suggestion that the Church of England is, itself, a sinking ship, with its black and brown clergy locked below deck.

The message of the book, the author says, “is not about bringing more black and brown clergy into the system, it’s about changing the system so that those who are already there, as well as others who may want to join in the future, have a place that is healthy, where they can flourish as individuals and as ministers within the sense of calling that they have.

“If you’re a black or brown person thinking about [the ministry], I’m asking you to stop, look, and listen: stop and assess what has been happening; look around and observe our churches, the make-up of their committees and governing bodies; and listen to those who have gone ahead of you. So many feel a sense of calling, but it needs a health warning, like a cigarette packet!
“And, if you are white, I want you to think about the confession that we say week by week, which [refers to] ‘thought, word, and deed’. There’s been so many words said, but the deeds haven’t followed, and I think that is because the thoughts haven’t been straightened out. Until we get the thoughts sorted, the words will be empty, and the deeds won’t follow.”

ALTHOUGH the book occasionally uses the term “BAME”, its focus is exclusively on “black and brown” clergy, and primarily the former. (There is no mention of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, for example.) None the less, the points it makes have wider application.

“I’m referring to one sector of the Church that feels it has been left out of the room and out of the conversation,” Fr France-Williams says, “but there are others who also have been knocking on the door. If you’re from the LGBTQI community, for example, or you have a disability, there seems to be a template in place, and, if you don’t fit that template, you don’t fit within the Church. That’s what I want to challenge.”

Is the racism that he observes in the Church — to quote the confession again — a matter more of negligence, weakness, or deliberate fault? “So many folks aren’t willing to do the hard thinking and the hard reflection,” he says. “One of the problems is that, if you don’t feel something yourself, it often doesn’t seem to be real. Also, I think, there are some who see the Church of England not as a local expression of a global Church, but as something [that exists] primarily to promote national identity — an identity which is Anglo-Saxon.”

When the Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod in February that the Anglican Church was “still deeply institutionally racist”, there was applause from some quarters, Fr France-Williams recalls, but there were also “a lot of stones thrown, and people saying that the Church is fine as it is, and people need to accommodate themselves to the Church rather than wanting the Church to change to accommodate them”.

The book quotes the “diversity coach” Robin DiAngelo, to the effect that white people see racism only as “the extremely ugly stuff: obvious name-calling, racial slurs, and lynchings and beatings”. Has this, perhaps, made people reluctant to recognise it in the Church? Fr France-Williams suggests that, in Britain, racism “has been more a withdrawal of resource or relationship, a stepping away from, an isolation”.

He refers to the Church of England’s former National Adviser on Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns, Dr Elizabeth Henry. “She’ll say to some people she’s training, ‘Does racism exist in the UK?’ and everyone will say: ‘Yes.’ ‘Who here is a racist?’ The room will fall quiet. Maybe in their minds people [have an image of] goose-stepping white supremacists.”

Might it be helpful to find a term less associated with violence? Fr France-Williams suggests the phrase “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness”, used in the recent report on the Windrush scandal, which, he says, “tells of a determined desire not to look at something, not to learn about something. Perhaps people could begin with that.”

THERE is an anecdote in the book about an email that he and others wrote to the bishop who presided over an ordination to the priesthood which they had attended. Two of the three candidates had been black, and yet the only other people visible in the service who were not white were the two young women who carried the candles in the procession. The bishop replied that he found the email “difficult reading”. It took him a while, he said, “to disentangle the important points you wanted to raise from the rather combative tone in which they were expressed, and the emotional response that it created”.

Ghost Ship, too, can be confrontational. In a critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s book Reimagining Britain, Fr France-Williams exclaims: “I declare that black and brown people have been abused by their mother-church, and their father has given them a stone instead of bread.”

Is he concerned that white readers will react, like that bishop, by being defensive? His response to the question shows a preacher’s fondness for alliteration and threes. “I think we need to hold on to our anger, because anger is an energy which can drive through change. We also need a sense of agency, so that we’re able to set our own terms and conditions for how we can flourish — and, actually, everybody can flourish. And we need to be able to set our own agenda.

“Over the years, all of those three have been stripped away, time and time again. The Church has said: ‘Thank you very much. We’ll take [your agenda] away and we’ll think about it, we’ll pray about it, and we’ll get back to you.’ And it’s stripped out that sense of energy, saying: ‘Let’s not be emotional about this. Let’s just sit down and have a reasoned conversation.’”

Is he hoping that Ghost Ship will make waves, or create only some ripples? “People will make of it what they will,” he says, philosophically. “Whatever [my] intentions were, they’ll be taken and shaped, I’m sure.”

He admits in the book that a number of his white friends “are racism atheists, or agnostics”. He believes that at present there is a heightened awareness, however, as a result of both the impact of the coronavirus and the killing of George Floyd in the United States, of factors that work against the flourishing of people of colour and that threaten their sense of common humanity and dignity.

“I hope to reach people’s heads through their hearts,” he says. “My hope is that they will hear the stories, they will connect with the characters I portray, and there can be some shared identification of the points at which all of us, for different reasons, feel a sense of marginalisation.”

His expectations of the Church of England itself are not high. Originally, the book concluded with recommendations, but it struck him that this “felt like a bit of a fanfare” at the close of a piece of music that was mostly “slow and reflective”. Instead, it now ends on a note of “muted hope”, with a kind of daydream of what the Church might have been like if it had steered a different course 30-odd years ago.

It is, he agrees, an “indeterminate ending”, designed to take the reader on the same emotional journey as people of colour have been on in the Church of England, to give them the same sense of “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if . . . ? But no.”

Read an extract from
Ghost Ship here

Listen to A. D. A France-Williams read from Ghost Ship on the Church Times Podcast

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