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Comment: The roots of racism in the Church are deep and thick

10 June 2020

Catherine Nancekievill has seen the challenges from within the Ministry Division

WHEN Augustine Tanner-Ihm, a final-year ordinand, tweeted the rejection letter he received from a diocese, my heart plummeted. They had written: “The demographic of the parish is monochrome white working class, where you might feel uncomfortable.”

The racism was blatant; but, to pile on the injustice, Augustine had been one of the Ministry Division’s great advocates for BAME vocations. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Augustine at the Synod as he advocated for the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme (CEMES).

Later, he came to a vocations conference for diocesan staff, and told his story. Augustine helped me to advertise the Church of England as a safe place for BAME people. Reading his rejection was a punch to the stomach.

But I wasn’t surprised.

I heard many stories of racism and bias while I worked in the Ministry Division. People did not want to speak out publicly or raise a grievance. There is no formal appeals procedure for a BAP result [Bishops’ Advisory Panel on who can go forward for ordination training], no independent ombudsman for appointments. You can complain — but, first, there is a risk that you will be labelled as a trouble-maker.

Then there is the sheer quantity of racism that is to be endured. How do you complain about a thousand tiny cuts? If the lid is prised open and BAME people start to talk about what they have endured, the Church of England won’t be looking at a few isolated cases.


THE two commonest stories I heard were about the discernment of vocations to the ordained ministry, and about panels to appoint clergy in parishes.

Many clergy appointments fall outside the scope of Part 5 of the Equality Act 2010. Although appointing panels are advised to proceed “as if” the Act did apply, the applicant still cannot take the panel to an employment tribunal; so the “as if” has no teeth.

There is also no mandatory training for panel members. Does the average PCC member even know what unconscious bias is? Let’s be clear, the common, paternalistic “I don’t think you’ll fit in here” — usually expressed to each other on the panel as: “I don’t think X will fit in here” — might be well meant, but it is racism. We have sanitised this into “unconscious bias”, because white people like me cannot bear to be called racist; racists are evil, and we are not evil.

If, as a BAME priest, you get to an appointment panel for your first incumbency post, you have probably already endured quite a lot of this. Contrary to what many people think, the Ministry Division does not select ordinands. Candidates appear before a Bishops’ Advisory Panel, who send their recommendation to the diocesan bishop.

There are good, prayerful, experienced clergy and lay people who work very hard on BAPs. Nevertheless, many have also worked for years without any training on diversity or unconscious bias. Surely there should be mandatory training for people in this crucial post? Do bishops even meet with their BAP advisers regularly?

Because BAP advisers give their time freely and are appointed by bishops, the Ministry Division has found the situation hard to change. There is no independent appeals process.

That’s if the would-be priest ever gets that far. The problems of unconscious bias and unaccountability are even more acute at parish level. The candidate’s incumbent needs to put him or her forward to the diocesan director of ordinands (DDO). The DDO needs to put him or her forward to the bishop and the BAP. When there is no correcting mechanism, and the candidate’s whole life and person is being scrutinised at each stage, anything could be said.


WHY are these problems so difficult to fix? I met so many good people in the Church who wanted change. I wonder, then, if this runs far deeper than we like to admit.

I was gardening this weekend, and trying to put some new plants in a shady border, but I kept digging holes only to find massive tree roots in the way. I kept having to plant around the tree roots.

Working on BAME vocations was just like this. We worked hard to try to fix some of the problems, but there were massive structural issues that we had to constantly navigate. A racist incident is not perpetrated by the institution: it is perpetrated by and on individuals.

Racism is, however, perpetrated by the institution in its failure to change structures and processes that perpetuate it. And because racism in this form is structural, it is impossible to be fixed by any one or two people. It means taking out the entire tree by its roots.

What roots are we struggling to work around as we try to change? First, the structure of the C of E allows free, unsupervised decision-making by many people: churchwardens, priests, bishops, PCCs, etc. All have more freedom than any counterparts in a secular organisation.

Furthermore, because power is so dispersed across the Church in a complex legal web, it is difficult to change anything substantially or quickly. For change to happen, it involves multiple holders of the different bits of authority working together.

But racism does not require working together for change. It uses a discrete power we have over another. Moreover, this discrete power that many hold is also discreetly held without accountability.

Second, there is the language of love. We are called to love each other. If you love, you want the best for another person. It’s a short jump from wanting the best, to telling, to making the best thing happen. Before you know it, you’re writing that letter to Augustine to tell him he wouldn’t be comfortable in this parish.

I suspect that we have adopted our filial relationship with God as our model of how we relate to each other. At the top of our earthly hierarchy of father- and mother-figures are the bishops. We have operationalised our obedience to God within the episcopal parts of canon law. This insists that we place bishops into the burdensome position where we want them to make perfect decisions for the good of all.

If we also modelled our relationships on Jesus as friend, we might have a more balanced way of loving each other etched into our culture and our rule books.

Finally, we have not got to grips with the work of the Church’s being done by both the paid and unpaid. We are the body of Christ, the “pilgrim people of God”; so paid, stipendiary or not, we are all focused around the worship of the triune God and the blessing of the poor through our loving service.

Pay is really about whether we have asked someone to work in a way such that they cannot support themselves and their families. Christians are never really volunteers, even if they are not paid. Yet there is nervousness around asking too much of people if they are not remunerated for the work. We need to remember that we are not asking for volunteers, we are sharing the work and the decisions of the body of Christ.

The Church has always exercised a teaching and disciplinary function. If insisting on training and accountability means that we have fewer workers, then the alternative must be to look at the workload and how it is divided up, rather than to close our eyes to the damage a lack of education and discipline causes.


ONE possible answer to these criticisms I have thrown at the structures is to centralise radically the Church. I could be suspected of building an argument to pull more power to Church House.

This is not the answer, though. Many companies are built this way, and they don’t last much more than a century, because it moves agency away from those at the front line. We need to give freedom to the people who are best placed to know how to witness to Christ in the place where they are. Tools and skills are needed so that the front line can exercise that freedom justly, effectively, and sustainably.

Tools and skills require learning, and learning requires correction. We can all think of times when we have said or done the wrong thing, our unconscious bias bubbling up into something we say before we realise; our own racism hovering in the recesses of our social imaginary.

To learn to make things better, we need someone to tell us when we have made things worse. Safe and robust feedback loops at all levels in the Church of England, for learning and for discipline, will beat centralisation in the long run.


COVID-19 has thrown us into a situation where no one knows what the future holds. We look forward. and there is just a big gaping hole where our assumptions used to be. Given this, it isn’t surprising that people want to fill this hole with a future that is fairer.

If the Church of England wants to build a more just society, it needs to do more than hold a debate on #BlackLivesMatter at the Synod. it must begin by unearthing its deeply buried structures. Either that or, like the statue of Edward Colston, we might find people start pulling the tree down.


Catherine Nancekievill worked for the Archbishops’ Council from 2015 until January 2020, mainly as Head of Discipleship and Vocation. She is currently studying theology in Cambridge.

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