*** DEBUG END ***

Is the Church of England racist?

03 July 2020

Chine McDonald examines whether acknowledging failings is spurring real change

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks at the General Synod in February. Sitting behind him are Dr Elizabeth Henry and the Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks at the General Synod in February. Sitting behind him are Dr Elizabeth Henry and the Revd Andrew Mough...

IN MAY, after seven years in post, Dr Elizabeth Henry left her position as National Adviser for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns. Dr Henry has the kind of wisdom coupled with fearlessness which I and other anti-racism activists hope that we will one day grow into. She commands respect, and speaks with a passionate conviction that is infectious.

Speaking truth to power is a term that she tells me she doesn’t like, but it describes exactly what she does well. Yet, in her parting words on the last day of her position in the Church of England, she wrote of leaving with mixed feelings.

She had had the “great honour of journeying with sisters and brothers who devote their exceptional gifts to the betterment of the life of the Church and wider society”. In her years as national adviser to the Church’s Committee for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), she had some great moments. She tells me of her pride at attending the installation of the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, at Canterbury Cathedral in November, and the “Windrush at 70” national service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, in June 2018.

But, on her departure from her position in the Church, Dr Henry also felt “frustrated and troubled”, she said.

“I believe there is a willingness in principle, but not in practice, to tackle racism, increase representation, and genuinely work to achieve a greater sense of belonging for UK minority-ethnic people in Church and society; and thus, sadly, progress is painfully slow.”

If anyone were capable of making a radical difference when it came to the Church of England’s race problem, Dr Henry — a former chief executive of Race on the Agenda (ROTA) — would have been the one. But, while there were some notable successes in her time, the Church of England is far behind other national institutions when it comes to representation and practice on racial equality.


THIS is not a comfortable place to be in at this particular moment in history. In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in May, businesses, organisations, and institutions across sectors and around the world have been required to re-examine racial injustice and white supremacy within their midst, after the worldwide protests sparked by the tragedy.

This will not be the first time that the Church of England has found itself examining its track record on race. It has been 14 years since the General Synod voted to issue an apology for the Church’s part in sustaining the transatlantic slave trade. This month, new analysis of a database held by University College London found that nearly 100 clergymen benefited from the trade in which black people were sold as property and treated in the most barbaric of ways (News, 26 June).

That the Church was involved in racist practices in the past is no surprise. Many of the nation’s great institutions were, and the sins of colonialism propagated by Britain over centuries mean that its history has been intertwined with these injustices over centuries.

The issue, however, is why, today, the Church remains steeped in white supremacy. By white supremacy, I mean the pervasive yet often subconscious idea that whiteness is better, or best, which finds its way into every parish in the country through monochrome church leadership: the complicated intertwining of Christianity with Englishness that echoes through our colonialist past until today.


AS THE Revd Azariah France-Williams — an Anglican priest — writes in his new book Ghost Ship: Institutional racism and the Church of England: “Unless the status attributed to being white is examined, the white historic Church will continue to both consciously and unconsciously limit the voice, action, and influence of her non-white members. . . Critical whiteness studies are a tool to prise open the sealed can of white male dominance expressed in Synod, theological colleges, and churches.”

It is, perhaps, this deep and pervasive underlying issue of white supremacy which has led to the paralysis in which the Church finds itself. Nevertheless, church officials know that something needs to be done about the issue of race. It seems that the issue of whether the Church has a race problem is not up for debate.

At the General Synod in February, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the Church was “still deeply institutionally racist”, and that he was “ashamed” of its history. Synod members backed a motion to apologise for the Church’s racism since the arrival of the Windrush generation, and voted to “stamp out conscious or unconscious” racism in its midst (News, 14 February; General Synod Digest, 21 February).

PAThe former National Adviser for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns, Dr Elizabeth Henry

There have, of course, been many apologies about the Church’s record in the past: its complicity with slavery and empire, and prejudices against the Windrush generation. There have been many senior Church of England officials who have identified the appalling track record that the Church has when it comes to racial justice. But the apologies are always accompanied by a feeling of déjà vu. We have been here before. So what happens now?

Many people recognise that there has been a great deal of talk, but that now is the time to move beyond talking and towards doing. As the Archbishops’ Council’s director of cathedrals and church buildings, Becky Clark, said in a statement in response to the Black Lives Matter movement: “We acknowledge that dialogue alone is not sufficient, and must have real outcomes” (News, 19 June).

So, too, must the Church bring about actions that move progress forward on the issue of racial justice. But why does the Church seem to still be in the dialogue rather than the doing phase?

There are few institutions that have as many affiliated bodies dedicated to racial justice and representation as the Church of England; and yet the Church’s progress remains painfully slow. The CMEAC has been working tirelessly for 30 years, attempting to increase representation of black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) Anglicans at all levels within the Church. Meanwhile, the Anglican Minority-Ethnic Network (AMEN) was set up in 2016 to look at similar issues of diversity and representation within the Church of England, with a particular focus on senior leadership. Although this group “has the blessing of CMEAC”, it is not formally part of it, nor of the Church of England.


FEW people are able to answer the question why — despite much activity in the area of diversity within the Church — visible steps towards better representation remain few and far between. As Dr Henry identified, perhaps it is a matter of “willingness in principle but not in practice” within the Church and its senior leadership.

When the esteemed academic Professor Gus John resigned from CMEAC after Archbishop Welby’s support of Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s public criticism in The Times of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, before the last General Election, he identified one of the possible reasons that the advisory body had been ineffective over the decades.

In his resignation letter, he wrote: “A major impediment to CMEAC’s capacity to effect change is an insistence at leadership levels within the Church on business as usual and on pouring the balm of Gilead on people’s pain and suffering on account of racism, rather than embracing responsibility for rooting it out from deep within the encrusted culture and structures of the Church.”

In a damning indictment of the Church’s track record on the issue of racism, he continued: “Maybe some kind soul might counsel Justin Welby that those who occupy houses clad with stained glass should perhaps be a trifle more careful when they join others in throwing stones.”

Despite the existence of bodies such as CMEAC and AMEN, the Church recognises that its track record on diversity and inclusion is woeful. Since the retirement of the former Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, last month, there is now not a single BAME diocesan bishop in the Church of England. There is only a handful of suffragan or area bishops: the Bishop of Bradwell, Dr John Perumbalath; the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin; the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid; the Bishop of Loughborough, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani; and the Bishop of Woolwich, Dr Karowei Dorgu. There are no diocesan secretaries and principals of Anglican theological colleges from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds.


IN THE wake of Mr Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, senior Church of England clergy made bold public statements online and in social media in support of those on the front line of the battle for racial justice.

Dr Sanjee Perera, who has just completed a research study of the ways in which the Church of England navigates race, posted a message on Twitter: “In the last couple of months, I’ve heard more from the Church of England on racism than I have in the last decade. This might be a naïve optimism, but I’m so encouraged to hear Justin Welby speak out against white supremacy.”

Whether Mr Floyd’s death proves to have been a kairos moment for the Church remains to be seen. But, in the mean time, there are those watching and waiting to see what comes next. The Revd Dr Chike Chigor, who chairs AMEN, told me: “I think it’s wonderful that people have spoken up. The question is, what are they going to do about it? This is the time for concrete action. I would prefer them to do something before they say something. Let’s see actions before we hear more words.”

It was time, he said, for the Church of England to put its money where its mouth was; the time for dialogue had passed, and the time for real action was now. In his analysis, the Church of England is lagging behind on issues of race and diversity in comparison with secular organisations because of a misplaced belief that there exists within the Church a heightened sense of morality: there is this mistaken idea that the Church will do the right thing.

Clearly, there are other non-church institutions that are far ahead on this issue. Dr Chigor believes that the Church has been protected from legal requirements that force institutions to implement anti-discriminatory practices. “The Church has been given space by government to make its own decisions. This is one of the reasons why we have been falling behind.”

He believes that, besides learning from the examples of secular organisations, for progress to be made in the Church there needs to be a complete overhaul of the processes of vocation, training, and appointments.

Bishops are key to this, he believes. He suggests that bishops’ staff teams should have, at the bare minimum, one ethnic-minority member of staff. When it comes to appointments, interview panels should have at least one-ethnic minority member. Meanwhile, every diocese should ask itself whether it reflects the population.

All of this should form part of a wide-scale review of the Church’s institutional racism, which should make recommendations about the tangible steps that could be taken forward: “We should have the objective of more diversity, and then work backwards from that to see how we can achieve it.”

Dr Chigor refers to the 2014 report on racial discrimination in the NHS, Snowy White Peaks, which showed that BAME staff were under-represented at senior levels. he says that this is the type of work that would need to be carried out to assess the current picture within the Church of England, to devise a meaningful action plan.

The parallel is close: before the report, the NHS had also had various moments in its history when it had looked at race discrimination. Snowy White Peaks came ten years after the Race Equality Action Plan (2004), and found that not much had changed, despite good intentions.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesA largely monochrome General Synod applauds the outgoing Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, in February

Dr Chigor is confident that, when there is intent, change can happen quickly. He questions those who might give the Church’s complicated and bureaucratic nature as reason for its inaction on race. “Compare the Church’s lack of progress on racial diversity to the speed with which so many women were appointed to senior roles some years ago. This shows that the bishops can act when they really want to.”

According to Dr Chigor, Church of England colleges should also work harder to have staff teams that are more diverse. Theological education is one space in which making progress on racial justice, diversity, and inclusion will have effects that make a difference for generations to come.

Some theological colleges are attempting to move forward in this area. An ordination candidate in Manchester diocese who is training at Ridley Hall, Benjamin Brady, told me that the senior team at Ridley Hall had been eager to listen and learn from all BAME students, and were proactively looking at making racial awareness part of the next academic year’s curriculum, and for the years to come.

Mr Brady said that he had not experienced racism within his Church of England career to date, and had received support from senior clergy. He recognised, however, that there was a wider issue that needed to be addressed to root out the systemic racism within the Church’s structures. “First and foremost, BAME people need to be listened to,” he said. “I, like many others like me, have faced racism. That needs to be heard and tried to be understood. Once voices have spoken, and people have listened, then changes can start to be made.

“In formation for lay and ordained ministers, racial awareness must be priority, e.g. in courses, literature, and education, so that leaders of the Church are aware of different minorities and cultures, and seek to try and learn and have a great understanding of what people face due to these specific circumstances.”


THERE is still a long way to go. Augustine Tanner-Ihm, another ordination candidate, hit the headlines last month when — in the midst of public professions from Church of England officials about Black Lives Matter — he shared a curacy rejection letter that he had received (News, 12 June; 26 June). He was told: “We are not confident there is a sufficient ‘match’ between you and the particular requirements of that post. The demographic of the parish is monochrome white working class, where you might feel uncomfortable.”

While there may be various reasons that an individual might not get a curacy, the fact that a C of E official could include racial “match” as a reason for not giving someone a place in the year 2020 is extraordinary.

Mr Tanner-Ihm, who comes from Chicago, and has recently completed his studies at Cranmer Hall, Durham, said: “The majority of people in the Church of England are the ordinary people. That’s the Church. Where it becomes racism would be [in] the people in management who have mastered unconscious bias through the process [of selection]. This was not just a one-off for me.”

He believes that the Church is still an old boys’ network, in which those who are not “privately educated, cis-gender men” are at a disadvantage.

I ask him whether he believed that we were at a turning point, after Mr Floyd’s death and the seeming willingness of the Church to move forward on the issue of race. “I believe no one. based on their words, until they have actions to them,” he said. “Faith without deeds is irrelevant; so, therefore, actions have to precede words.”

He believes that, for the Church to make real progress, it will take not just will and intent, but money. “What you put most value on is in your chequebook. So, when it comes to racial diversity and inclusion in the Church of England, I would ask ‘What is the budget?’

“If it were about increasing young people, growing churches, safeguarding — there’s always budget for that. All those things are really important. If you believe in this vision of Pentecost, and the passage in Revelation of every tribe and tongue coming together, then it takes effort. A Church that is segregated is not a true witness of Christ Jesus.”


DESPITE the racial inequality in the Church of England, there remain committed people — black and white — dedicated to redressing the balance. A member of the senior clergy who is most often described as an ally on racial-justice issues within the Church is the incoming Archbishop of York, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell. Speaking at the General Synod in February last year, he hinted at “a change of heart and a new direction in our determination to combat racism in all its manifestations and to be clear that all people are made in the image of God”.

Moving the Church of England from “institutionally racist” to “anti-racist” is not just a matter of political correctness; the belief in the imago Dei is central to the Christian faith, and must result in equality and dignity for all, no matter what their background. If this is central to the Church, then this belief must be reflected in every sphere of its activity, from theology to senior clergy appointments.

The Church of England has not yet recruited a new National Adviser for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns to succeed Henry. I asked her what skills she felt would be needed by whoever took up the baton next. “Courage, commitment, resilience — and the strength that it takes to speak truth to power,” she said.


Chine McDonald is a writer, speaker, and broadcaster. Her book God Is Not a White Man and Other Revelations (Hodder Faith) is due to be published next summer.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)