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Racism and the Church of England

by
10 July 2020

The Church is not fit for purpose for black clergy, says A.D.A France-Williams in his new book. Read an extract, below

ALAMY/iStock

“The Church is sinking. Those in the bottom decks will drown first”

“The Church is sinking. Those in the bottom decks will drown first”

ON SUNDAY 4 October 2015, I was invited, as part of the St Paul’s Cathedral Black History Month, to be the preacher at evensong. This being my first time preaching in such a grand setting, I went in a few days earlier in civvies, and was slightly intimidated by the marching of the vergers and their team criss-crossing about their tasks with efficiency and speed. I plucked up courage to stand in the way of one such juggernaut, who, I was delighted to discover, was flesh and blood, and willing to accommodate my request.

I wanted to stand in the pulpit and get a feel for such a platform, and try a few of the evolving lines from my sermon. They removed the red cord barrier and escorted me up the staircase. They showed me the button for the microphone, where I could leave my sermon, where my glass of water could go, and so on, and then they left me, marched back down the steps, and reapplied the barrier.

Luckily, I rarely get vertigo — I was pretty high off the ground and felt a mile away from the congregation. As I familiarised myself, I happened to look up to the roof or canopy above the pulpit. My sense of intimidation grew and my sense of self shrank with what I read above me. There was a beautiful inscription which said: “For God and for Empire.”

For some, that would no doubt be a source of pride, a high honour. To me, it was code for supremacy and shame; a reminder of my slave ancestors’ being brutalised and traumatised by the buccaneering adventure-seekers who deposited enslaved Africans in the Caribbean to make sugar in order to satisfy the European sweet tooth, among other motives.

I took a sharp intake of breath, then felt suddenly destabilised. I was caught in a type of tractor beam, pulling me back into an unfinished past. I long for the day when the empire’s ongoing effects no longer advantage one group while disenfranchising others. To love oneself as a black person in the UK is an act of resistance to the pressures and powers that are actively bearing down to disassemble whatever sense of identity one can muster.

 

I AM now a black minister in the white Church of England; I have been since 2010. A family-tree approach to life from a white world-view placed me out on a branch far from the trunk. Unlike the greetings slang I used in my youth, a number of my clergy colleagues of colour and I do not feel “safe” and “respected”, and it is definitely not “easy”. It is more like we are “sick”.

Sick and tired of sitting on the coach as passengers, kept quiet as passive observers, munching pop-corn as if we are children, while we are driven to God knows where, by God knows who. I and others have been watching this movie on repeat, and our cries of “Are we nearly there yet?” fall on deaf ears.

What if the white elite were to privilege the leadership of those who are suffering on the vessel? What if we asked: who are the “unseen guests” in the Church of England? Do they sit at our tables, shuffle into our pews, attend our social events? Can we seek to make visible the invisible? Who are the “silent listeners” to our conversations, in our committees, on our cricket pitches, in our private members’ clubs, our church fêtes, in our school assemblies, or our synods, filling the kettles in our kitchens, cleaning our church halls, taking money from us in the coffee shops where we regularly have our meetings?

The church has a decision to make as to which path it will take. The path of power, privilege, and prestige — the way of the Crown, which is the way of the predator. Or the path of pain, people, and paying the price — the way of the Cross. We people of colour who are clergy in the Church of England have been recruited, our photos were taken before we embarked, we waved, and once we were out of view of those on the shore, we were ushered downstairs below deck and into the dark. This boat, the Church of England, is not fit for purpose.

It cannot accommodate the black and brown passengers it already has, yet it continues to beckon for more, and we gleefully climb aboard, unaware of the fact that this boat is taking on water and many of us will not survive the trip. We will leave, we will suffer mentally, we will cower in corners. Our confidence will be destroyed, we will blaze with anger only for cool white Western rationalism to drown us in cold, calculated, critique and censure. I know that, because I have seen these patterns, I have heard these stories, I have lived this life.

A constant refrain coming from all quarters of the Church is that it is in decline. This is usually expressed in falling numbers. As priests, we have to submit our numbers to HQ, outlining how many are attending our services; and that number is going down, on the whole, across the board. Can I offer another way to consider this?

It is not that the Church is in decline; it is not only that the numbers are going down; it is the Church of England itself that is sinking. Even those shiny churches on the upper, upper deck with the better views and the built-in swimming pools are in danger. The middle deck is the Church of England as is, and the lower down in the decks you go, the darker and the poorer the passenger becomes. The Church is sinking, but those in the bottom decks will drown first. Our bodies will haunt the waters of the Church of England.

 

IF THE ship is damaged, if there are two approaches to ministry, which will endure, the cross or the crown? Should we continue to call for more black and brown leaders to join the ranks and be ushered into the lower decks? It is my firm conviction that the dioceses of the Church of England need to take stock of how seaworthy their vessels are for transporting black and brown clergy.

When you work as a priest you are licensed by a diocese. There are 42 dioceses in the Church of England, regions overseen and led by a diocesan bishop. The cathedrals are often the port and portal into giving you your ticket and tools. Inside the church buildings is where you receive the blessing and benefits you need to effectively journey on board the diocesan ship, which promises to usher you and others to safe harbour. You are commissioned to collect passengers and crew and survive the storms, steered by a great captain, the bishop.

But the cost of passage is greater than the price tag reveals. As a person of colour, you strangely begin to feel the cold, as winter begins its work on you. You hurry up the gangplank, shivering and scanning for others like you. As you board, you smile as you see your friends, the white priests, waving at you. They are wearing thick coats, woollens, and gloves. You’re in a T-shirt and shorts, but no one at this point seems to notice the disparity. At this point you are unaware that you will be ushered below deck where there are no emergency exits or lifeboats.

Once on board, you are further required to fill in some more paperwork on your application before you can take a job on the ship. The last question on the form reads as follows: “Are you a member of any political party or institution which espouses racist values or ideals?”

As a person of colour, it is meant to reassure you that the ship you are boarding is safe and all the passengers and crew have been vetted. It is a stark question that, one imagines, is seeking to call out and denounce participation in anti-black and -brown dehumanising political parties, and membership of groups with dangerous ideologies. I assume that someone worked hard to ensure that that question was there, and I am grateful that it is acknowledged. But I’m aware of the irony. The organisation that is asking if I am part of an organisation that espouses racist values or ideals is itself institutionally racist.

 

PICTURE a sailing ship with all those heroes, elders, and ancestors who have been part of this movement for positive change. See the pride and the purpose glinting in our eyes. The waves are high, but our hope is higher. We have incredible energy, and we people of colour work tirelessly in order to save the Church of England, for the sake of the nation and beyond to restore its vision and mission for today’s world. To those in the Cross and Crown Club the enjoining of the people of colour goes unheeded.

Our values, our vision, our voices are lost, mingled with those on the seabed. This has been a documentation of a brave battle for acknowledged personhood, and a desired equal partnership to better society. It is a lament, a posthumous record of the starvation and the smothering of hope over many decades. The ship has actually already sunk, and the people of colour in the Church of England are dead to the system and we know it not. We are the ghosts. We can haunt the system, but we have demonstrated we cannot heal the system, or even hurt the system. It was not designed with us in mind.

 

This is an edited extract from Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England by A. D. A. France-Williams, published by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99).

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