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From Lament to Action: action is needed both locally and nationally

by
20 May 2021

Lee Coley considers what can and should be done legally to implement the recommendations of the Anti-Racism Taskforce report

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A scene from a video promoting the Anti-Racism Taskforce’s report, From Lament to Action  

A scene from a video promoting the Anti-Racism Taskforce’s report, From Lament to Action  

WITH its welcome assertion that addressing systemic and institutional racism and racial sin in the Church is a mission imperative of the Church of England, the Archbishops’ nine-member Anti-racism Taskforce’s report, From Lament to Action, has made 47 urgent and far-reaching recommendations (News, 23 April; Comment, 30 April).

It sets out a timetable for implementation, which could commence within weeks. Key recommendations include the urgent appointment of racial-justice officers in every diocese; ensuring that, by 2030, the membership of least 15 per cent of all church governance structures is made up of UK minority-ethnic and global-majority-heritage (UKME/GMH) people; and, as of September, that at least one minority- ethnic candidate must be considered for all senior posts.

So, along with the will for change, it is interesting to consider legally what can and should be done. Of course, change has to be driven from the highest levels, and the onus to implement change lies with the leadership within the Church: the House of Bishops, the General Synod, and the national church institutions.

It is worth noting, though, that the Church has a diffused pattern of authority, meaning that change cannot be compelled, unless the General Synod changes the law. That said, there are opportunities to tackle racial injustice and under-representation locally which without change to the legal framework.

 

AS THE report suggests, a good first step that dioceses might consider is to ensure a more representative membership across synodical government and broader diocesan bodies, such as cathedral chapters, governing bodies, and boards of directors of church schools and academy trusts.

While the racial justice officers recommended in the report will play a key part in encouraging further engagement locally, I wonder whether it is time to require each diocese or relevant church body to report annually on diversity, in a similar way to gender-pay-gap reporting.

Clearly, this would require legislation; but this process would also require an honest assessment of progress each year, and would open that to regular external scrutiny. That, surely, would be a good thing. Other organisations and sectors already do it, and this is having some effect in driving real change. It is, simply, one measure, but one that could ensure that momentum is maintained.

A further and more significant step, one alluded to in the report, is positive action in recruitment for clergy and other posts in the Church: i.e. considering or preferring a UKME/GMH candidate for a particular post.

This is a tricky area of law to consider, and creates an interesting interface between the effect of the Equality Act 2010 and the canonical and broader legal framework of the Church. Given that this is a developing area of law, there would undoubtedly be some reticence about taking this approach; but, to break through the Church’s lack of diversity, I wonder whether this is a step that needs to be taken.

 

THE key question, though, is what happens if the Church does not change and does not become more diverse. I pray that this will not happen. In the words of the report: “We also recognise that failure to implement these recommendations will lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Church does not consider this a priority and is content to continue a record of benign neglect — a record which past failures to act have come to represent.”

In closing, From Lament to Action provides the Church of England with the recommendations, framework, and timetable for real and meaningful change. I hope that it will get the traction that it needs and demands to ensure that racial equality, equity, and justice are embedded in the Church — so that, when we look back in years to come, this was not just another report on race.


Lee Coley is Registrar and Legal Adviser to the Bishop and diocese of Leicester, and a partner at the law firm Stone King.

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