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Mission, Anguish, and Defiance, by David Isiorho

11 December 2020

It has to be asked, says John Perumbalath

THAT the Church of England is institutionally racist is not a new revelation, but what we do with this our self-understanding is still a question. David Isiorho, who has been in ordained ministry in the C of E for three decades, invites us to some serious soul-searching as we navigate a way forward.

This book is mainly autobiographical, reflecting on how the author has explored his ministry as a black priest in the C of E, and partly research-based, with the input from clergy and bishops who participated in the interviews. Many of those interviewed join the author in telling a consistent but painful story of many black clergy in the Church that they love.

The introductory and concluding chapters abound with distinctions and categories that we need to reflect on further. In the introduction, a distinction is made between the concept of racism, which is about structural inequalities, and racialism, which is about white privilege. This reader would have loved to see this distinction carried forward through the book and reflect on the relationship between the two.

The author rightly points to the limitations of church efforts for black inclusion. Taking John Wilkinson’s Church in Black and White as an example, he establishes how we have developed a stereotype and common depiction and portrayal of Black spirituality and practices. Anyone who is aware of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism would know what the issue is here.

Reflecting on the voices of the bishops who participated in the research, the author suggests that, while many of them seem to understand what the problem is, they are unable to see the nature of transformation that we need. They become part of a structure that tries to preserve the assumed identity of the organisation. Even the black leaders are enticed to identify with white privilege than work for inclusion in a structurally racist institution.

A Eurocentric view of the Church and its dependence on global capitalism are among the broader issues raised in the book. The author finds some parallels between the experience of black people and the white working-class people in the Church. He suggests that Englishness is a white middle-class construct, and that the C of E is a signifier of Englishness as much as it is of theism.

This heartfelt personal narrative, supported by careful research, will enlighten and challenge those who have ears to hear, even if they do not agree with all the arguments made or conclusions drawn.


The Rt Revd Dr John Perumbalath is the Area Bishop of Bradwell, in the diocese of Chelmsford.


Mission, Anguish, and Defiance: A personal experience of black clergy deployment in the Church of England
David Isiorho
Wipf & Stock £16
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

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