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General Synod digest: Lord Boateng urges Church to revisit unfulfilled promises on racial justice

18 February 2022

Max Colson/Church of England

Lord Boateng

Lord Boateng

Racial justice

THE General Synod heard a powerful presentation on racial justice from Lord Boateng, who chairs the Archbishops’ Commission on Racism. He was introduced on Tuesday afternoon by the Archbishop of York, who said: “This is a critical issue for the life of our Church nation and world.”

Lord Boateng was born in Hackney and brought up on the Gold Coast, now Ghana, where he was christened, aged three. “When the priest said: ‘We deliver this child up and to you, OI Christ,’ at that moment, I jumped out of my parents’ grasp and ran off. . . I spent most of my life running from Jesus Christ. At this stage of my life, I have stopped, which is why I accepted this position.”

While preparing to speak to the Synod, he had been advised to answer the question: “Why are you here?” The Commission were here, he said, not simply because they were asked to be, nor for their range of titles and experience, nor for 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.”

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 [Christ]. Racism is a gaping wound in the body of Christ. Every time we succumb to it, we hurt him.”

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?”

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. That hasn’t just happened.”

He could remember being the only black junior minister in the government and becoming the UK’s first black Cabinet minister when he was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2002. “And I am not that old,” he said. “That required intentionality, the will to make a difference, and the willingness to do what it took to bring about change. There is no shortage in the C of E of policy and good intention. There is a shortage of delivery.”

Lord Boateng paid tribute to the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce and their report, From Lament to Action, 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).

“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 in front of 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 (NCIs) and other bodies, and would continue by travelling to dioceses around England over the coming months to spark conversation and ensure grass-roots change. He invited the 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.”

He concluded: “There is hurt; you see that hurt in debates around monuments to slavers in churches and in cathedrals. . . We are part and members and worshippers in churches which have themselves benefited from the horrors of the slave trade. That is the reality. . . They had ‘Society’ burnt on their skin. But there is a balm in Gilead. . . That is why I and your commission are here.”

His presentation received a prolonged standing ovation from the Synod.

Clive Mears/Church TimesAnna De Castro (Sheffield)

Responding, Archbishop Cottrell said that the Synod was “deeply in your debt, convicted by your words, and determined to be different”. Introducing a motion to take note of a progress report on racial justice in the Church, he said: “I want to say that doctrine matters.”

He referred to historic documents that had challenged a state theology that sought to justify oppressive racism. “Doctrinal fidelity and theological precision are not luxuries; they shape the way we live in a Christ-centred Church where there can be no room for racism, but where we must honestly, and painfully, and penitently confess that racism is a gaping wound in the body of Christ.”

Theologians mattered, too, he said. “Sometimes, the Church’s opposition to racism is dismissed as some sort of inappropriate dallying with race politics and culture wars. Not so. Not so. We make our stand on Christian doctrine.” He thanked Lord Boateng for that “challenging, prophetic, and, yes, deeply uncomfortable presentation” and his willingness to chair the Commission.

The report before the Synod identified 47 actions for systemic change across the Church — including the establishment of a “properly resourced racial-justice unit” — of which 35 had already progressed with the NCIs. The others needed more thinking, he said. The still-functioning Committee for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) would be taking this forward.

In the coming months, it would publish a diocese-by-diocese report on the work done on anti-racism, racial justice, belonging, inclusion, and diversity, “and hopefully a project to commission a collection of sacred liturgical objects that will narrate the rich diversity of heritage, culture, and ethno-social community found in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion”. The resource Staying Awake in Gethsemane: A theology for racial justice in the Church of England would be published with SCM Press later this year and made available to dioceses.

Sonia Barron

“Much is happening, but there is so much that still needs to be done,” he said. “All is far from well. But I think all we can do today is clearly demonstrate our determination to put in place a national strategy that will support the work of racial justice and enable our dioceses and parishes to be involved and build capacity. . . The work of racial justice is the work of the gospel.”

Beginning an hour-long debate, the Revd Sonia Barron (Lincoln), a former adviser to 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.” She had many stories of people who had felt unsupported and passed over. The Church had hugely underinvested in the work of racial justice because of a lack of will, she said.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, thanked the contributors to From Lament for Action, which had challenged her and the diocese of London as it developed its vision for 2030. This included the need to respond to and root out systematic racism that “purposefully and unintentionally privileges certain groups whileit marginalises others”. She agreed with Ms Barron that the challenge would require intentionality, resilience, persistence, patience, and co-operation.

The diocese had established a racial-justice priority group to act as a steering group, who had chosen to appoint a capacity-building consultant from a global-majority-heritage background to “fully integrate racial justice into operational and decision-making processes in leadership and representation”.

Initial actions included a racial-justice strategy; an operational plan for change; an anti-racism charter; a programme of unconscious-bias training for clergy and anyone involved in recruitment; appointment packs for clergy posts; a racial-justice prayer network; and a schools network. “You may think our steps are small; but we hope that they are in the right direction.”

The Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby (Southwark) referred to his motion carried by the Synod in February 2020, which had called on the Church to lament and apologise for the racism experienced by the Windrush generation (News, 14 February 2020). He had spoken then of the “awful racism” experienced by one of his congregation, Doreen Brown. He had asked her to pray for the Synod as it debated racial justice this time. “Her response cut deeply. She said: ‘I don’t know why they bother; nothing will change.’ Our sister Lena said: ‘Never in a million years.’ . . . Their hope is being sapped because they see a Church in which things change so slowly.”

He commended Lord Boateng’s energy and urgency on the issue. “Discrimination in our churches anywhere is a gateway to discrimination everywhere,” he said. “We have explicit and implicit discrimination, and it is a wound in the body of Christ.” He urged members to stand up for others.

Robert Zampetti (London), who works for EY, said: “If we need to spend to achieve these things, so be it.” But first, he said, “Let us not bemoan the fact that the NCI require a bigger budget.” He was not convinced that full-time racial-justice officers would introduce the culture change needed. Cost-benefit practicality should be applied. He suggested that diversifying leaders and creating champions would be preferable and more successful.

Busola Sodeinde (London), who, last year, was the first black woman to be appointed as a Church Commissioner, asked for diverse leadership to support the work of the Commission. “I ask that we may strip away pride and suspicion so that we may seek peace and justice.” In her interview for the position, seeing the First Church Estates Commissioner, Alan Smith, on the panel had eased her nerves, she said. She sympathised with Doreen Brown, but encouraged the Synod that change was “now and here. Help us reflect, prayerfully act, and be fully present, seeking solidarity and repentance.” She was positive about the impact the Synod could have.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), 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.”

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender (Northern Deans), said of Lord Boateng’s comparison of the diversity of the Synod and Parliament: “That is a very worrying observation. We ought to be setting the pace and example to the nation, not the other way around. . . It shows how much catching up we have to do.” He thanked the Taskforce and Commission for addressing “this scourge in public life. . . Together, we can do so much more.”

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

Prebendary Amatu Christian-Iwuagwu (London), a member of the diocese’s racial-justice priority group, was disappointed that it was not a full house on the floor of the chamber. “If we are serious to move from lament to action, there needs to be serious culture change. . . The practicalities of what we see and the reality of racial injustice in our system is big, huge. We cannot solve those problems in three years.” He encouraged the Synod to ask questions to dismantle the powers of racism from the grass-roots.

“Lament to action means action,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said. “We have to change the way we do appointments. . . It means that you can’t say, I want someone like me; I want someone with my theology rather than someone who I am not quite sure about. 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?”

An archdeacon who had asked him this question had led to the “best appointment I have made in my life, and she is sitting right there,” he said, pointing to the floor of the Synod. The Church also needed to change its practices on faculty jurisdiction. “Why”, he asked, banging the desk, “is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery that sits in front of the dean of a college — Jesus College, Cambridge — who has to look at it every time she sits in her stall?” Strategies must turn into engagement, he said. “We cannot continue to say, ‘Not here, not now.’”

Representing the standing committee of the House of Laity, Clive Scowen (London) said that proposals were being brought forward to gather UKME nominations and select five candidates for co-option. He commended that model to the Lower Houses of the Convocations.

Clive Mears/Church TimesThe Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender

Contributing to the debate via Zoom, the Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers (Leeds), asked for more practical advice on implementing these aims, considering recent budget cuts. He agreed with Mr Zampetti that diocesan directors would be more use than racial-justice officers. He suggested that the reason that faculty jurisdiction was difficult was the number of people involved. “We do not want a decision from on high, or a culture of deference,” he warned.

Rosemary Wilson (Southwark) had not intended to make this topic her maiden speech, she said, but had been moved and inspired by Lord Boateng’s address. “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.”

Racism was a continuing experience in this country, she said, and, therefore, so was the process of lament. She was supportive of the co-option 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.”

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) said that this issue was “too important to hold up against cuts. . . We will find the money,” he said. As it was for safeguarding (News, 12 February 2020), so it would be for racial justice. “You cannot have a vision and strategy for the future without repairing the past.”

Concluding, Archbishop Cottrell 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 outright the Taskforce’s recommendation of racial-justice officers: 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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