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Heed the voices of Chinese clergy

27 August 2021

The C of E’s pursuit of racial justice must not ignore East Asians, argues Mark Nam

WonSeok Kim

The Revd Wing-Man Tsang and the Revd Agnes Palairet during evensong in St Martin-in-the-Fields, last week

The Revd Wing-Man Tsang and the Revd Agnes Palairet during evensong in St Martin-in-the-Fields, last week

THE TEAHOUSE, a national network of Chinese-heritage clergy in the Church of England, was launched last week in London (News, 20 August). While this was a cause for celebration, the fact remains that those with Chinese heritage represent just 0.2 per cent of all stipendiary clergy: a paltry increase from 0.1 per cent in 2012. If the C of E is to fulfil its vision for the 2020s — “To be a Church that is younger and more diverse” — the participation of East Asians at all levels of the Church is vital; otherwise, we risk sliding further into irrelevancy.

For the past two decades, East Asians in Britain have become one of the fastest growing “ethnic” groupings. These numbers are set to rise with the expected arrival of more than a million people from Hong Kong with British National Overseas (BNO) status over the next five years. While ecumenical organisations such as UKHK Welcome Churches have sprung up to offer welcome and support (News, 19 February), the C of E has yet to issue a formal statement, or to suggest a plan concerning the largest planned mass migration to the UK since the Empire Windrush.

The Church must not repeat the mistakes that it made during the Windrush era, when many of those who arrived in the UK in the 1950s and ’60s were discouraged from attending Anglican churches. Having recognised the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion, the Church cannot afford to neglect the concerns of Chinese and East Asian worshippers in the Church.


LAST October, the Church of England launched its Anti-Racism Taskforce, with a brief to propose measures to promote greater racial equality across the Church (News, 16 October 2020). It was launched on the very same day as Sarah Owen (a Labour MP of Chinese descent) tabled a debate in Parliament, during which she drew attention to the 300-per-cent increase in hate crimes against Chinese and East Asian communities in the UK.

Given this rise in racially motivated hate crimes — the largest facing any ethnic grouping since the pandemic began — I was dismayed to see no East Asian representation on the Taskforce. How can the Church of England care about the issues facing East Asian communities if their existence is not acknowledged?

Dr Diana Yeh, a British-Chinese sociologist who is a leading expert on racism in relation to Chinese diasporas, has exposed as false the assumption that the Chinese and other East Asians do not experience racism or suffer racial disadvantages because they are regarded as a “model minority”, who are supposedly well integrated in terms of education and employment. Dr Yeh has argued that this assumption masks inequalities; she has pointed out that “if you look at diversity debates, there’s very rarely a Chinese or East Asian representative on the panel.”

Indeed, research in 2015 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that, despite obtaining educational outcomes on a par with, or superior to, their white counterparts, East Asians struggled to achieve the same career progression, and remained under-represented at higher levels. This is known as the “bamboo ceiling” — a term coined by Jane Hyun in her book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career strategies for Asians (HarperCollins, 2005) — which identifies the individual, cultural, and organisational factors that impede the progress of East Asians inside organisations. As far as I am aware, there are currently no archdeacons of East Asian heritage in the C of E, let alone bishops.

Since the publication of the taskforce’s report in April (News, 23 April), the Church has made a commitment to establishing a three-year Racial Justice Commission. Although the Archbishop of York has expressed delight at the launch of The Teahouse, it remains to be seen whether anyone of East Asian heritage will be invited on to the panel to participate in matters related to racial justice.


MY DESIRE for East Asian voices to be heard is not just for the sake of those communities. I firmly believe that our perspectives can breathe new life into existing conversations around race, which concern the whole Church. By the introduction of a third conversation partner and the triangulation of discussions, deadlocks are broken, and new possibilities emerge for everyone. The trinitarian imagery is implicit.

The imagery of tea — from which The Teahouse derives its name — is also helpful in this respect. Tea is, of course, traditionally Chinese. It is also quintessentially British (“More tea, Vicar?”). I believe that the blending of these two cultures will create a new aroma in the Church. Only through working together and valuing the contribution of every voice can we truly hope to reflect the Kingdom of God in all its unity and diversity.


The Revd Mark Nam is Assistant Curate of St Anne’s, Oldland, and All Saints’, Longwell Green, in south-east Bristol, and the diocese of Bristol’s Minority Ethnic Vocations Champion. He is the founder of The Teahouse.


Listen to an interview with Mark Nam at churchtimes.co.uk/podcast

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