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Angela Tilby: Racism is a personal sin, too

30 April 2021


RACISM is a sin,” the Archbishops write. “Of this, we have no doubt.” Yet it would be almost impossible to find anyone who goes to church on Sunday who would dream of thinking of themselves as racist. It is the sin of other people.

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, described how he became aware of issues of racism while working as a ward orderly at St Christopher’s Hospice, noting the way in which a black colleague was thoughtlessly and continually subjected to “jokes” during the Brixton riots. Suddenly, when she snapped, he realised what it must have been like for her, day after day, to be the object of unthinking prejudice, the kind that is easily shrugged off as “banter”.

When I was confirmed, I was advised that self-examination should be a regular part of my spiritual life. Later, I was persuaded that the Church put too much emphasis on personal sin, producing an unhealthy and introverted piety. We should not dwell on what is wrong with us so much as respond to the love of God.

All very true, of course. And yet I wonder what our forebears felt they were doing when they regularly made confession of their sins in the heartfelt language of the BCP: “The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.” I suspect that it encouraged them to a recognition of personal fallibility and of the dangers of projecting their sins on to other people. The Archbishop’s moment of recognition revealed how possible it is to sin through ignorance, by not knowing, failing to recognise, unconsciously editing out what is happening.

If we are honest, we can all find a certain enjoyment in denouncing other people. It is relief to discharge the confusion of ordinary human living on to those who have made obvious errors. In the recent Panorama programme (News, 23 April), I felt a surge of righteous energy when Bishop Mike Hill’s crass judgement of one of his minority-ethnic clergy was exposed (News, 5 February). It took me several days to realise that the pleasure I took in this was, in large part, the relief of its being someone else’s faultand a bishop’s, too.

Structural sin is real, and this is one of the abiding lessons of the various liberation theologies that have emerged since the 1960s. But if it is not balanced by a readiness to confront our sins of ignorance, all that we have to say on the injustices of our world runs the risk of being no more than hot air, a way of loading our guilt on to others. This, of course, stokes the fires of already existing conflicts. There is nothing more satisfactory than burning out from others the thought crimes of which we ourselves may be all too guilty.

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