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Comment: Can the Church’s culture change?

by
11 June 2020

White clerics should not remain silent about structural racism, says Rob Wickham

PA

Protesters outside the US embassy in London, on Sunday

Protesters outside the US embassy in London, on Sunday

THE impact of the murder of George Floyd, the attitudes of Amy Cooper, the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on people of colour, and the consequences of a decade of austerity in areas of deprivation are now in the public spotlight.

This week, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel during an extraordinary discussion on race, during a webinar organised by Power the Fight, a charity that empowers communities to end youth violence. The panel was asked how white-majority/white-led churches should respond to the impact that Covid-19 has had on ethnic minorities. Since then, I have, like many across our country, asked myself how we should respond.

We could remain silent and see this as someone else’s problem (the black-majority Churches’, possibly). We could put our heads in the sand, as the implications of the events of the past few weeks are too horrendous to bear. We may worry that we might say something wrong, and prefer a cushion of silence. But to remain silent is to collude with the structural racism that has been (again) revealed. It is only right for white clergy to speak out, especially if we are amplifying the voices of those personally affected, using our privilege to enable the stories of others to be told.

 

LISTENING is a helpful tool, so that another’s experience can be heard. But I wonder whether our use of structures prevents us from fully listening. In the diocese of London, admittedly, our structures do not reflect the diversity of London. Internal conversations will not bring change. In this diocese, too, we resource and allow the resourcing of ministry in areas of greater wealth.

Churches in wealthy areas can afford more staff members, and attendance and giving are higher. Synodical representation subsequently mutes the poor and, by association, silences people of colour. As a white, middle-class, privately educated clergyman, like many in the diocese, I must see that I am part of the problem. But I also have convening power and strategic options. I, and others like me, could enable a culture change, if there was a desire to do so.

Our statistics show that 1.7 per cent of the population attend our churches, and yet eight per cent of the population are Christian. We have an audacious vision to be a Church for all Londoners, but do we have a desire to work beyond our comfort zones? Do we have a desire for partnership — where we are not in charge?

This is, ultimately, a question of power. Genuine partnership is difficult, and requires a collaboration, not a domination, model. Covid-19 has brought out an extraordinary and compassionate ministry in areas of deprivation, but how will this be turned into a challenge to the unjust structures that caused this imbalance in the first place? How will a collective Christian prophetic voice be heard?

Whose story is told in our educational institutions? A specific challenge that we face is the decolonisation of the curriculum, and to speak openly about white supremacy and the reality of the slave trade. Some may say that the clergy are ill-equipped for this work of challenging unjust structures, given their formal training. To what extent do theological colleges exacerbate the issue by teaching a European theology, and not giving voice to the theology of the global majority? If the training is not comprehensive, how can we expect the Church to hold society to account and challenge unjust structures, and name and tackle structural racism?

The culture of the Church includes an emphasis on church growth. This agenda is important, as we pray that all Londoners might have an encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ; and we believe that bigger churches can make a bigger difference (to quote the diocese of Liverpool).

But this is not the full picture. Why do we pray for church growth? Is it for our own vanity? To make us feel successful and important? The question could be: how do we increase our seriousness in being good news to the poor, bringing freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour? What is our highlighted equivalent of challenging injustice, as this is more than celebrating compassionate ministry? How do we prioritise the poor in London? This is hard and politically motivated.

I am reminded of the quote by the Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor, they call me a Communist.”

 

WHEN I was much younger, I became aware of Faith in the City. This was a pivotal moment, a spotlight on the injustices of the city, after many years of economically driven political policies, when cities burnt following unrest and riot.

A commission set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the day produced this report, which spoke of injustice and gave hope to the inner city that the poor might teach the wider Church how to be Church better. The report highlighted Urban Priority Areas, and gave birth to the Church Urban Fund: a national response to a national crisis. There was action and money, not just rhetoric.

What has happened to our priority for the poorest in the Church and society? Could we argue that we have lost a recognition that the stories and experience of people of colour can shape the mission of the diocese? Why has this been downgraded?

Therefore, given the times that we are living in, what formal mechanisms do we need so that we can respond to the anger in England, given the gross inequalities and the fact that Pentecost pushed the Church outwards, to speak all languages, that the Spirit might bring hope in all contexts?

For me, discipleship is key. A disciple is a lifelong learner, rooted in Jesus Christ, who discerns wisely from whom to learn, and from whose interpretations of the scriptures and church history to learn. Lifelong learners will also confess their own sin in upholding unjust structures through unconscious and sometimes conscious bias.

 

I KNOW that I have Anglican blood on my hands, and I need to understand this better. Any change in culture, to help our churches become more inclusive and to look more like London, needs to begins with acknowledging our personal sin in upholding what is viewed as “normal”, without due regard for contextual safeguarding.

As Henri Nouwen reminds us, we must exercise a power that demonstrates powerlessness and humility, because Jesus loves us, and we love Jesus above anything else. It is Jesus who should be glorified, not us, our tradition, or our Western mind-set. This is difficult, as it requires personal and corporate reflection and change.

London needs a Church that is confident enough to name the unjust structures in our society and challenge them. But we can challenge only when we have listened to the voices of others, with traction on the ground to demonstrate this, and a readiness to exercise power differently.

Dr Elizabeth Henry challenged the white-majority Church in this week’s webinar, stating that this reformed power-dynamic was not possible, as “we” were too wedded to power and privilege. I wonder: was she right?

 

The Rt Revd Rob Wickham is the Area Bishop of Edmonton, in the diocese of London.

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