A CHURCHWARDEN in West Sussex has resigned after a row over a sermon on the Black Lives Matter campaign.
In a video sermon on 21 June, the Vicar of St Andrew’s, Furnace Green, in Crawley, the Revd Richard Poole, criticised the practice of “taking the knee”, a prolonged genuflection, in support of the Black Lives Matter protest, after the death of George Floyd in the United States on 25 May (News, 5 June). Several bishops in the UK have taken the knee, and expressed contrition for continuing racial bias in the Church of England (News, 12 June).
Referring to when the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, knelt to pray before a protest march, Mr Poole argued: “All lives matter. . . What we want to do is encourage people to take the knee, but not to Black Lives Matter, but really take the knee, bowing, before Jesus as Lord and Saviour.”
Several families in Mr Poole’s congregation are black, including one of the churchwardens. After a protest, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, wrote to a congregation member on Wednesday of last week: “Richard Poole has been made aware by members of his congregation of the extent of the offence and hurt that was caused by his sermon.
“He realises that he had failed to consider carefully what he was trying to say and is devastated by the damage that he has consequently caused. He has sent me a full and sincere letter of apology and is working with his congregation to communicate that to his congregation.
“I take this as a sincere response to an immediate realisation of his offence and hope that you will also feel that it is a proportionate and appropriate response.”
In his following video on Sunday, Mr Poole apologised that Mr Floyd had not been mentioned until then. He referred to “the pain and hurt that this killing has raised to the surface. It is something that many people feel very keenly.”
Referring to his failure to mention it before, he said: “I am truly sorry . . . it’s not been a deliberate thing: it’s been an oversight on our behalf. For any of you who might have been offended by this . . . please forgive us, and forgive me, for not addressing this, and bringing this important subject into the light of day.”
Mr Poole did not refer to the previous week’s sermon, however.
The two churchwardens called an emergency PCC meeting last Friday, in hopes of a reconciliation. The majority of PCC members, however, did not express dissatisfaction with Mr Poole’s sermon, and, in any case, he had apologised. On Monday, one of the churchwardens, of BAME origin, wrote to the Bishop to resign, stating to congregation members of BAME origin that he had resigned “with a heavy heart”.
He said on Tuesday: “The main reason I resigned was that the response was not what I would expect. Instead of people of BAME origin in the congregation being considered victims, the Vicar and some members of the PCC are making him out to be the victim; it doesn’t sit very well with me.”
The issue was not the lack of any specific reference in the sermon to Black Lives Matter, he said, but a general absence of compassion and understanding which should typify the Christian faith. He described Mr Poole’s response as “a tick-box apology”. “It wasn’t heartfelt, with unhelpful references like ‘they’ and ‘the BAME community’ when referring to members of the St Andrew’s family. This was also the feeling of members of the congregation of BAME origin who had raised complaints originally.
“Maybe I expected too much. I am the only black member of the PCC. One or two said they had been hurt or offended, but the majority either had nothing to say, or didn’t find anything wrong. I became concerned that it was not just the Vicar, it was perhaps a wider problem: not that people were doing things to offend, but a bigger problem where people didn’t know how to deal with this.
“I expected a reaction like ‘We are all hurting,’ but I got ‘Some people’, and ‘They’, separating us from the rest. It highlighted that fundamental lack of understanding or appreciation that we are all meant to be in it together.
“What has broken my heart is that a number of people of BAME origin have said they will never go to that church again. I hope that the Church of England will get involved so the congregation is not damaged or decimated. I am not sure how they can do it; whether it is education, or maybe enlightenment is needed, but something needs to be done.”
He has worshipped at St Andrew’s for 11 years, but said: “I won’t be going there again. I have been in turmoil. I don’t think I shall be going anywhere for the moment. It’s not the fact a mistake was made, it’s the response — ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ — the lack of recognition that people like me are hurt by this. If there is no general acceptance by the leadership that there is an issue, then we can’t share it and then we can’t address it properly.”
Maureen Mwagale, a Crawley Conservative councillor who has attended St Andrew’s for 18 years, said that she had received an emotional apology from Mr Poole, but he had not altered or expanded his recorded remarks. “We’re not looking to get him sacked or anything like that,” she said. “But there must be some kind of awareness training or retraining on issues of race — not just for Richard, but for C of E clergy and fellow Christians alike.”
Mr Poole said on Tuesday that the episode had left him “heartbroken”, and admitted a lack of knowledge and understanding. “I am a white middle-class vicar who doesn’t know very much about these things, and I humbly accept that I need to learn and understand,” he said.
“There was no malice in anything I said; there was ignorance and lack of understanding. The problem is, we don’t know. I need to dialogue more and try to understand; I need people who are willing to talk to me and not think I should know. I had no idea, and I am still trying to work it out. I humbly accept that I have not understood the pain and the hurt of the BAME community. I really want to understand, and I come in humility. I care for all people.
“I think the Church could help by bringing us together with BAME people to help us understand. God is teaching me a lot. What more can I do but repent of my sins and ask God to forgive me for my lack of understanding and the hurt that I have caused?”
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