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Clerics fear to take racism complaints further in C of E, BBC’s Panorama reports

20 April 2021

Church ‘bought silence’ through non-disclosure agreements, says former national adviser


Dr Elizabeth Henry is interviewed by Clive Myrie for BBC’s Panorama: Is the Church Racist?

Dr Elizabeth Henry is interviewed by Clive Myrie for BBC’s Panorama: Is the Church Racist?

TIME and again, the Church of England has “abysmally failed” to address racism within its institution, instead labelling complainants as “troublemakers” and “buying silence” through non-disclosure agreements, the Church’s former National Adviser for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns, Dr Elizabeth Henry, has said.

Dr Henry was being interviewed for Panorama: Is the Church Racist? which was shown on BBC1 on Monday night. During the 30-minute documentary, Clive Myrie reported on stories of racist abuse and claims of a hostile environment for BAME Christians within the Church (Features, 10 July 2020).

Dr Henry, who left her position last May after seven years, said at the time that she had felt “frustrated and troubled” by the Church’s inaction on tackling racism (Features, 3 July 2020). She told Panorama: “The issue that came up again and again and again was the feeling that they were not safe within the Church, that it was not safe to complain, that, in taking that complaint of racism further, that will mark them out as a troublemaker.”

One cleric who remained anonymous for fear of losing her post, told Dr Henry that she had felt trapped. She said that she had been racially abused in class at “Bible college”, but had been told to “turn the other cheek”, which, the cleric said, had left her “devastated”.

Dr Henry said that one young black church officer who had complained to HR about a “deeply offensive and deeply racist” incident was told that it was not racist; the man had received “a very small compensation” but had had to a sign non-disclosure agreement afterwards, she said, and has since left the Church.

This had happened many times, she said. “That doesn’t deal with the issue of racism. That buys silence.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury told Time Radio on Tuesday that he was not aware of this arrangement and that non-disclosure agreements should be banned. “I am totally against NDAs. . . NDAs are unacceptable. Something may not look like an NDA. . . but if it sounds like and walks like an NDA it’s an NDA. I am just horrified by that. Obviously horrified by the fact of racism. . . Within the staff and institution of the Church we have to stamp that out.”

Archbishop Welby and the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, have since written to senior members of the Church’s administration, banning the use of NDAs, Lambeth Palace has confirmed.

The Panorama programme was “shaming and rightly shaming”, Archbishop Welby said. On Dr Henry’s contribution, he said: “I am glad she was as forthright as she was.”

Dr Henry was unsure of the Church’s future, she said, because, “based on the racial reckoning of the Church, I’m afraid, they’ve abysmally failed, and it’s not fit for purpose.”

A spokesperson for the Church told the programme that such agreements were used only in “exceptional circumstances where open processes had not reached a resolution”.

The author and theologian Professor Robert Beckford told Panorama that the Church’s complaints system was “a complete mess”. “The situation is archaic, out of date, and not fit for purpose.”

The Revd Alwyn Pereira had been ordained in 2011 but had struggled to find a post after serving a curacy. The Rt Revd Mike Hill, who was Bishop of Bristol from 2003 to 2017, was rebuked under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) last month for “racial stereotyping, whether intentional or not” for a letter that he had written about Mr Pereira, and was told to undergo unconscious bias training (News, 5 February).

“I don’t feel I’ve had justice,” Mr Pereira told Panorama.

The Revd Peterson Feital was also interviewed. He served his curacy in a London church, St James’s, Muswell Hill, in 2011, where his task was to diversify the mainly middle-class congregation. Mr Feital, who was born in Brazil, had been successful for two years until his appointing vicar left, he said.

He told the programme that the new vicar had said to him: “Your English is not very good, I don’t like your preaching, and you are too Brazilian in your compassion — you’re not very coherent.” The vicar, he said, had also told him: “Peterson, you’ve got to find a job with people of your kind,” and that “If the London diocese is going to give you a job, it’s going to be for a diversity show.”

Mr Feital said: “I tried to change my personality for them, and I am ashamed of it.” He was made redundant and is now a self-supporting minister with permission to officiate (PTO).

A spokesperson for the diocese of London told Panorama: “We are appalled at what Peterson has experienced. We have spoken with Peterson regarding the process for bringing formal complaints against those involved.”

Archbishop Cottrell, who was also interviewed, said: “UK ethnic-minority people are underrepresented and disadvantaged in many of the structures and systems of our Church, and that has a terrible knock-on for our mission in the wider communities we serve. I don’t believe that the Church of England is full of racists, I believe most people in the Church of England want to make these changes. We have not found a way of doing that yet.”

Last year, the General Synod of the C of E voted to approve a motion on the legacy of the Windrush generation, which also resolved “to continue, with great effort and urgency, to stamp out all forms of conscious or unconscious racism, and to commit the Church of England to increase the participation and representation of lay and ordained BAME Anglicans throughout Church life” (News, 11 February 2020).

Archbishop Welby apologised at the time, saying that the Church was still “deeply institutionally racist”. “Personally, I am sorry and ashamed. I’m ashamed of our history, and I’m ashamed of our failure. . . It is shaming as well as shocking.”

Three months later, anti-racism protests erupted around the world after the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody in the United States (News, 1 June 2020). A review of memorials commemorating people involved in the slave trade was announced (News 19 June 2020).

The Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, which was set up shortly afterwards (News, 3 July 2020), is due to publish its first report on Thursday, Stephen Lawrence Day. It is expected to recommend quotas for the appointment of BAME clergy, with at least one BAME candidate shortlisted for every post, including senior posts. They are also expected to call for a racial-justice department.

The group has nine members, among them the Archdeacon of Bristol, the Ven. Neil Warwick. Its co-chair is the Vicar of St Nicholas’s, Durham, and a former director of communications at Church House, Westminster, the Revd Arun Arora. The taskforce had reviewed more than 20 reports relating to racial justice which had been presented to and approved by the Synod since the publication of Faith in the City in 1985 (News, 2 March). It identified more than 160 recommendations, most of which, it reported, “had not been acted upon or followed through”.

Mr Arora told Panorama: “There has been a lot of talk about racism in the Church. The issue is not that we haven’t talked about it: the issue is that we haven’t acted upon it enough.” He continued: “The Church is a fractured institution: it’s a broken and fallen institution made up of fallen and broken individuals just like me; . . . there comes a time when apathy and complacency will not cut it any more and a time arrives for vigorous and positive action. That time is now.”

Archbishop Cottrell said in a statement this week: “The stories we’ve heard are shocking, and there is no doubt that the Church has failed our UK minority-ethnic brothers and sisters. I hope that we are at least now approaching the challenge of tackling racism in a more intentional way, and that that this will lead to much greater participation at every level of the Church’s life, in order that we might become the change that we long to see everywhere.”

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