MY LIFE has been very privileged. I did not think this in my early years. I did not realise for quite some while. Now that I am in a very privileged position, I easily forget it, unless I consciously remind myself, or events do that for me.
In my growing-up, the British Empire still existed. All the world maps were coloured with lots of pink, designating the countries of that empire. I was unaware of the movement taking place that was leading to the independence of many of these nations and the emergence of the, then, British Commonwealth. Subconsciously, the way I was taught history, geography, literature all imbued me with a quiet sense of superiority. The way I heard people talk about other nations, and about the growing number of black and Asian immigrants, made me somehow deep inside believe that they were slightly inferior.
I grew up in suburban London. I never really saw, let alone met, a black or Asian person.
When I went to grammar school, I had some notion that I was being privileged to attend such a school. There, quietly, I met my first Jewish peers, and subtly discovered a quiet anti-Semitism (although I never knew it was that). Still the way I was taught subtly imbued a further sense of privilege. In my mind, however, privilege belonged to the aristocracy, those who held power, those in Parliament, and the Royal Family.
I now started regularly meeting black and Asian people; they drove the buses that took me to school; the conductors checked my bus pass. I saw some sweeping the streets. I heard that some cleaned people’s houses (now the families who could afford that — they were privileged). There was casual language used of blacks, Asians, Chinese, Jews that slowly I realised was not really casual, but derogatory and degrading. But one of my best friends was Jewish.
My parents raised me with love and care. They always sought the best for me. They taught me morals, ethics, courtesy, and kindness. I could not have had better parents. My grandparents were equally wonderful. They were caught up in the same subtle culture.
Then, as a teenager, I came to a living faith in Jesus Christ. It was, for me, a clear and dramatic conversion experience. It was this that turned my life upside down. I started to discover that God really had made all people equal; that Jesus Christ had died for all humankind. I started hearing about Christians all over the world. I read about exciting church growth in the very places that were “inferior”. Yes, the story was often told in a way that suggested that “we” had improved “them”, through missionary work and other means. Church history was not free from a sense of white and Western superiority. But the whole edifice was being undermined in my head and my heart.
BUT it was really only after university (another privileged part of my life) and while living in a poorer part of Nottingham that I really began to meet people from varying backgrounds. One aspect was as simple as the love of being in a local pub, where Afro-Caribbean men played dominoes with such fun and vigour. Sometimes, it is the small and ordinary that helps us to see differently.
By the time I started training for Anglican ministry in the privileged world of Oxford, I had developed a deep concern about racial equality. I hugely valued studying alongside a “Cape Coloured” South African still living with apartheid. I was deeply shaped in my understanding and thinking by a Ugandan pastor. He is still a good friend.
When I decided to do research on Rastafari, the college had to check that it was all right with the authorities and find me an outside supervisor, as Oxford University could offer no one. So I became involved with the then Evangelical Race Relations Group, later Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice. The Brixton riots and Lord Scarman’s report that followed made me ask deep structural questions alongside those around my own personal thoughts. This led to a curacy in multi-racial Wandsworth. I wrote a research paper on racism in Sunday-school materials, which led to some changes at least in Scripture Union’s materials.
I joined the Scripture Union staff, and we moved as a family to Forest Gate, in east London. Many people asked Rosemary and me about our children’s education. This made me angry. It implied that being in a school alongside a majority of people from various ethnic backgrounds, with numerous languages and diverse faiths, was somehow endangering our children’s life chances rather than, as we saw it, being a rich and healthy opportunity. I used to challenge people back, asking them what supplementary education they would put in place for their children to help them to learn about other faiths and cultures.
I had the enormous privilege of being asked by some of the “black majority” churches in south London to help them to develop their work with children and young people. I experienced being the only “white” person on events. They taught me so much as they told me about the history of themselves and their families. They explained the rejection that they had received not only from the society that had invited them to come, but also from the churches that they had expected to welcome them with love. My heart was often broken.
I then served as a Team Rector in Walthamstow. We had people whose family backgrounds originated in at least 34 nations (we counted one day). I worked with leaders of other faiths to develop an interfaith forum and project. I sought to promote the gifts of all people, especially aware of wanting to encourage people from all backgrounds. I had long realised that there were ties between race and class when it comes to discrimination. I was Area Dean of Waltham Forest; so I worked across the borough, seeking greater justice for all.
Then, to my shock, I was invited to be a bishop. So, I moved to the very different world of Romsey and Hampshire as Bishop of Southampton. Our youngest daughter, who had never known anything other than a multicultural society, was so taken aback by the entirely white population of Romsey that she asked Rosemary, “Mum, why is there no culture in Romsey?” as she walked past the renowned amateur theatre in the small town that was, not wrongly, proud of its cultural vitality.
I could say more of interfaith work in Southampton and Hampshire, and again in Nottingham. I think of the nearly 40 years engaging with the Churches in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Lesotho — and of all that they have taught me about God, God’s world, and the pursuit of justice for the poorest. The situation of the Batwa opened my eyes further to the reality that in all cultures and nations there is a human tendency to pick out a minority and act in a discriminatory way against it. How easy it is to blame the other for the ills of our own. The Rwandan genocide and Burundi’s long civil strife have done the same. There has been the long engagement in issues relating to asylum-seekers and refugees here in the UK.
I am now in an incredibly privileged position. Much to my surprise, I have now been in a place I saw as only “for others” while I was growing up, and still saw it that way through my early adulthood. I have a position of authority and “power” that I never envisaged would happen.
YET, here is the rub in the current situation after the horrific murder of George Floyd: I have never been able to eradicate entirely in my mind those thoughts and feelings of a gentle and quiet superiority imbued in me through those early years — and more insidiously — still reinforced in subtle ways even through my adult years. This includes the quiet assertion that we in the UK are not as bad as “they” in the US are when it comes to this matter of racism.
I hate it when these thoughts emerge. I rail against them. I walk away from them. I tell myself that they are lies about fellow human beings. I bring them to the Cross of Jesus, because it is the only place I know where total forgiveness and renewal can be found. I know this is so deep that it is impossible to eradicate in pure human strength. I absolutely love this multicultural world. The wonders of diversity are fantastic. I owe so much to my black and Asian colleagues and friends over the years. I am wholly committed to creating a better, more just society, nation, and world.
But unless I, and all who have experienced this same quiet privilege, recognise it, own up to it, repent of it, and commit ourselves to change, then this current fresh awakening of the reality of racism and the need for change that is both structural and personal will pass as those that have come before have passed. It is time for justice. It is still, for me, found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Rt Revd Paul Butler is the Bishop of Durham.