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Lord Boateng holds Synod’s feet to the fire over Church’s racism record

08 February 2022

Max Colson/Church of England

Lord Boateng addresses the Synod on Tuesday

Lord Boateng addresses the Synod on Tuesday

THE decades-long failure to address racism and a lack of diversity within the Church of England is “chilling”, “wounding”, and “a scandal”, Lord Boateng told the General Synod in an address on Tuesday afternoon.

Indicating first the platform, then the floor of the chamber in Church House, Westminster, he said: “Parliament looks better in terms of diversity than you do: people of every race and every background.”

Lord Boateng, who is of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage, became the UK’s first black Cabinet minister when he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2002. He was introduced as a member of the House of Lords in 2010.

Diversity in Government had taken not simply time but strategy, which the Church lacked, he said. “There is no shortage in the C of E of policy and good intention. There is a shortage of delivery.”

He challenged the Synod: “When we are worried, and we should be worried, by empty pews . . . about our failures in mission and service, we have to ask ourselves the hard question: Are we in fact utilising all the resources that are out there? Are we making the most of the people we have?”

Lord Boateng had been invited to update the Synod on the work of the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission to which he was appointed chair last July (News, 16 July 2021). It was suggested that he answer the question: “Why are you here?”

The Commission was here, he said, not simply because they were asked to be, nor for their range of titles and experience, nor their mandate to report back and disband within three years. “We are here as followers of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We are here to go on a journey with you; to be with you on the journey as we seek justice — in this instance, racial justice . . .

“You have already been on it for some time. It is not easy; it is not comfortable; at times it is very uncomfortable. I don’t find it easy. No black person, no person of colour in this room, finds it easy to talk about racism, believe it or not. We don’t like having to do it. But we have to do it because it is part and parcel of our reality that never goes away.”

He paid tribute to the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce and its report, From Lament to Action, which was published last year (News, 21 April 2021). The Commission, he explained, was charged with implementing their recommendations, most of which had already been accepted by the Synod (News, 21 January).

He went on to say, however, that: “The most chilling thing about this report, the most concerning thing about this report, are the appendices: the long list of previous recommendations,” he said, holding them up to the Synod, “which have not been implemented. Promises made which have not been fulfilled. It is chilling. It is wounding. It is a scandal. And it has to be addressed.

“It will require intentionality; it will require resources; it will require that the Church Commissioners and triennium party step up to the plate; but above all it will require each and every one of you to embrace it, to see that in every parish and every diocese there is a strategy.”

Sentiment was not enough, he warned. “We have to have a strategy. Love not as a sentiment but as a strong strategy. It is that strategic love that changes things.”

The Commission had already begun this work in positive meetings with the National Church Institutions and other bodies, and would continue by travelling to dioceses around England over the coming months to spark conversation and ensure grassroots change. He invited Synod to meet its members, and continued: “We will wash your feet, yes, but sometimes we will hold your feet to the fire, because sometimes that is what we have to do.”

Repeating comments made upon his appointment, Lord Boateng said to general applause: “All of us are diminished by racism. We have to talk about those things that cause hurt, not just to each other, but to Him. Racism is a gaping wound in the body of Christ. Every time we succumb to it, we hurt Him.”

This hurt included the ongoing debate over monuments to slave-traders in church buildings — a subject which was raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the emotional debate that followed.

“Why,” Archbishop Welby asked, banging the desk, “is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery that sits in front of the [Master] of a college — Jesus College, Cambridge – who has to look at it every time she sits in her stall?” He also said that the Church must change its appointments system to recognise UKME candidates. “I have sat through so many occasions where people have said: ‘They are wonderful, but not here and not now.’ That’s got to change. Why not here? Why not now?”

The Revd Sonia Barron (Lincoln), a former adviser to the still-functioning Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), said that “years of inaction” and the “less than positive response” to two of the key recommendations of the taskforce, including the lack of funding for racial-justice officers (News, Comment, 16 July 2021), had left her with the question: “Can I continue to trust this Church when trust has been broken so many times? The Church should be a sanctuary and place of safety . . .

“However, if the place you go to for safety turns out to be a place you are left wounded, bewildered, and feeling marginalised, it is no longer a sanctuary or a place you can trust. Trust has been lost, and as a humbler Church we need not only the desire to put things right but to take action to rebuild that trust.”

Anna De Castro (Sheffield) said that, being married to a black African and having two mixed-heritage daughters, this was a pertinent issue. She called for “beautiful diversity to be reflected in flesh and blood” in congregations and leadership at all levels. Like many contributors to the debate, she hoped that sufficient funds would be introduced to adopt the roadmap set out by the taskforce, as well as investment in grassroots change, “in churches that refuse to bend their white-British norm culture in an area that is predominantly not white-British”.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, had been interviewing candidates for a post recently, one of whom was of South-Asian heritage and who “zoomed us out from our tired binaries and tedious theological infighting, and it was fresh and thrilling, and that is the opportunity this process invites: for the C of E to be re-evangelised by this energy of global Christianity”. This required funding to poorer dioceses, because 65 per cent of BAME communities lived in 25 per cent of the poorest parishes, he said. “If we don’t do that this debate is hollow.”

Representing the standing committee of the House of Laity, Clive Scowen said that proposals were being brought forward to gather UKME nominations and select five candidates for co-option.

Rosemary Wilson (Southwark) was supportive of this proposal, and said to those who argued that there were no people of colour in their parish: “There will be. They are coming, and you need to be prepared.” She had not intended to make this topic her maiden speech, she said, but had been moved and inspired by Lord Boateng’s address, which had received a prolonged standing ovation from the whole Synod.

“I grew up in Battersea,” she said. “I was born in 1969 and it is people like you who gave me a vision of a life that could be lived beyond what expectations were of me from school, so I thank you so much.”

Concluding, the Archbishop of York said that it had been a “moving, powerful, beautiful, and important” debate. He agreed with Archbishop Welby that the process through which the UKME candidate “just came second to that nice white bloke” had to stop.

He denied that the Archbishops’ Council had rejected the taskforce’s recommendation of racial-justice officers, saying that more work was needed to ensure that this was the right way forward. He concluded: “Woe to you who say peace when there is no peace, but Synod, let us not fail to see that some change is happening; that there are little shoots beginning to emerge. We give thanks for that and want to build on that.”

The Synod voted by a show of hands (and green ticks on Zoom) to take note of the report.

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