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We are treated as a token, leaders of colour in US Episcopal Church reveal

23 April 2021

Two-year audit assesses racial make-up of the Church and attitudes to race

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A TWO-YEAR study of attitudes to race in the Episcopal Church in the United States has identified nine different patterns of systemic racism in the Church. Leaders of colour say that they feel treated as a token and marginalised.

The aim of the study was to assess the racial make-up of the Church and attitudes to race held by its leaders, both clergy and lay.

The Episcopal Church is one of the most predominantly white Christian denominations in the US, and the study confirmed that its leadership was overwhelmingly white. Of those surveyed, 77 per cent were white and 22 identified as people of colour. A lower proportion of the clergy were people of colour.

The audit was conducted by the Mission Institute, working with the Church’s racial reconciliation and justice team. Some 3000 clergy and lay leaders completed a survey, of whom 65 took part in in-depth interviews, over two years.

The study’s findings, published on Monday, revealed that white leaders and leaders of colour held different perceptions of what racial discrimination was. When asked how often they had witnessed less respectful treatment of a person of colour, nearly 40 per cent of the leaders of colour surveyed reported this as occasional or frequent, compared with 25 per cent of white respondents.

People of colour reported feeling both “hypervisible” in the Church, where they were treated as tokens and expected to undertake diversity and inclusion work, and “invisible” when it came to being appointed to posts within the Church.

“I don’t feel like clergy. I feel like a commodity,” one Black priest said. “I’m on these leadership groups so I can check a box, or the leaders can check a box.”

Leaders of colour also reported feeling stress as the only people of colour in white-dominated churches, where they were frequently held responsible for confronting racism. They also reported a rise in racism after the murder of George Floyd.

“While they knew that this kind of racism was present, it is moving from the shadows and into the light,” the report said.

The study said that much anti-racism work in the Church had focused on one-off changes rather than a genuine transformation of the dominant culture over time. This included focusing on workshops, books, or protests rather than examining and transforming the white-dominant culture.

The audit arose from resolutions at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2015, which declared that it repented of the “historic and contemporary participation in this evil” of racism, and called for an internal audit to assess racial disparity and systemic injustices in the Church. It also forms part of the Church’s programme Becoming Beloved Community, which seeks to bring about racial reconciliation during a period of high racial tensions in the US.

The Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, said: “This racial-justice audit, I think for the first time, has given us a real picture of the dynamics and the reality of structural and institutional racism among us. It has given us a baseline of where we are, to help us understand where we can, and must, by God’s grace, go.”

The report makes several recommendations, including follow-up audits of church leaders every five years, widening these to include more dioceses and congregations, and educating white congregations about race.

The Mission Institute said: “This racial audit has attempted to magnify the voices of people of colour in the church, while also maintaining a spotlight on the systems and structures created and maintained by the white-dominant culture. Even though we have come far in addressing racism within the church, we still have a long way to go.”

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