IN THE report Black People and Human Rights, published in November, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights noted that the replacement, in 2007, of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has weakened the focus on race-equality issues.
The Committee found that, as a result of grouping together those with protected characteristics, UKME communities were effectively left without advocates for their rights: racial justice fell off the agenda.
“At national level there is no organisation whose priority it is to champion race equality and lead the drive for progress,” the report said. “The UK has lacked capacity in this area since the Commission for Racial Equality was folded into the EHRC. The re-creation of a body along these lines must be considered as a matter of urgency. Such a body should also drive forward change at local level, fulfilling a similar role to that previously performed by the race equality councils that were set up in partnership with the Commission for Racial Equality.”
These recommendations were very much in our mind when we proposed in our report, From Lament to Action, the creation of racial-justice officers in every diocese of the Church of England (News, 23 April).
Our proposal was that such posts should be missional in their outlook. Besides leading culture change within the Church of England, such posts would also have an outward focus, ensuring that the Church of England, with both its national and local infrastructure, could lead nationally on the issue of racial justice, becoming a model for others to follow.
We hoped that this would go some way to being a “game changer” for the Church in its relationship with racial justice, moving beyond past apologies and hurts, and leading the way for society as a practical demonstration of the gospel imperative to love our neighbour as ourselves. It is an argument that we would have put to the Archbishops’ Council when it discussed the report, had we had the opportunity.
IT WAS, therefore, with sadness and dismay that we learned of the decision of the Archbishops’ Council not to proceed with this recommendation. We were aware of some opposition to our work generally, not least through the leaking of an early draft of our report to a journalist, designed specifically to rubbish it before its publication. This was followed by a member of the Council taking to social media to label recommendations in the report as “ludicrous”, barley hours after it was published.
Despite this, it remained a surprise to learn from answers given to the General Synod that the decision had been taken not to fund this proposal on the grounds of cost, and/or because our proposals were made with unfortunate timing in between funding cycles for the Church, and therefore could not be implemented.
Of course, issues of finance and costing were something of which all members of the taskforce were aware. As members of the Church operating in various dioceses, we were all acutely aware of the financial impact that Covid was having on our finances, whether at a parish, diocesan, or national level. We were also aware of the pressing need for action on racial justice, and the opportunities present in the work of racial-justice officers in every diocese. To that end, we entered into discussions about funding solutions, but were reassured that it was not part of our remit to find the money.
The parallel with international aid has not been lost on us. The announcement by the Government of its intention to break the legally binding manifesto commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on intentional aid was rightly opposed by many in our Church, including our leaders (News, 20 November 2020; 11 June).
The Government’s response — that Covid had led to a number of financial challenges that required savings elsewhere — was rejected by church leaders and others, who said that it was possible both to honour commitments rooted in justice while also making decisions which would ensure that the financial burdens of Covid would be met. The decision went beyond maths and economics to one of principle, the church leaders said. If spending decisions are a matter of “doing theology with numbers”, then the theological imperative demanded an honouring of a commitment to the poor.
The argument of the Archbishops’ Council, and others, that we simply cannot afford racial-justice officers, or other recommendations in the report, echoes the Government’s argument for breaking its commitment to international aid. Yes, of course we need priests in our parishes, and funding for curacies. But setting up a false dichotomy between funding for clergy and funding for justice is the kind of zero-sum game which we rightly reject in other areas, and should reject here, too.
ON THE final day of the Synod meeting this week, members of the House of Bishops, the Church Commissioners’ Board, and the Archbishops’ Council issued a joint statement in response to the decision of the Archbishops’ Council not to support the proposal for racial-justice officers.
The statement does not change, or divert from, the Councils’ decision. Rather, it suggests that these bodies “will be listening very carefully” to what the Racial Justice Commission advises on this issue. There is no suggestion that money will be found, or that the original proposal will be enacted. It is not clear to us what the Commission will need to say any better than the taskforce already has for it to be heard.
Given that the commission will not make its first report until March 2022, at the very earliest, it is likely to be a year from now, perhaps for even longer, before any action will be taken. In the mean time, there will, yet again, be a time for lament. A prophetic opportunity for the Church of England to lead the nation has been missed. This is not so much a ball in the back of the net as a spectacular own goal.