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General Synod digest: GMH members call for justice and change in a white-majority Church

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Revd Andrew Mumby (Southwark)

The Revd Andrew Mumby (Southwark)

THE General Synod voted on Sunday afternoon to continue resourcing, collecting data for, and monitoring progress in, the Church’s racial-justice initiatives.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, introduced the motion, which commended the outcomes of From Lament to Action: a report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, published three years ago (News, 22 April 2021). The motion also called for further work to be done, and requested the Archbishops’ Council to ensure that “effective structures” existed to take forward the work of the Racial Justice Commission, which ends in November.

Bishop Hudson-Wilkin had seen the word “woke” bandied about in relation to racial justice, but its use was always incorrect, she said. The word had emerged among Black communities, and referred to the need to be socially aware. “As the people of God, we should never be afraid or embarrassed to be called an Advent people: always in the business of preparing, and staying alert.”

The racial-justice mandate did not flow from “identity politics”, she said, but the Christian identity. The Church must therefore continue in its work “embedding racial justice at all levels”, she said. “Lip service will not do, nor will ticking boxes.”

This would take resources, she said, and the representation of people of global-majority heritage in senior positions in the Church: there were few among diocesan bishops, or diocesan secretaries. Such reflections of diversity were necessary, she said, so that all children and young people would know that “this Church belongs to them.”

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin

The Revd Sarah Siddique Gill (Blackburn) said that “remarkable progress” on racial justice had been made in Blackburn diocese. “God does not show partiality,” she said, but there were some in the Church who did resist efforts to dismantle racism, and they needed challenging out of their ignorance. She still experienced “shock” when visiting monochrome parishes, where people could not believe that a woman from Pakistan could be a C of E priest.

The Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender, said that faith in Jesus had to be lived out in community and in relationships. “Working for racial inclusion and equality is love in action; we cannot escape that as followers in Christ.” Despite the welcome addition of more ethnic-minority suffragan bishops, there were still far too few deans and diocesans. There was not enough “intentionality” in appointments processes, he suggested. The Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns had always been underfunded, and he raised concerns about the future of the Racial Justice Unit, given that the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice finished its term next year. He asked whether worship at the Synod could reflect the diversity of worship in ethnic minority-led parishes, to create more visibility.

The Archbishop of York said that it was vital to be honest about the past, and not be fearful about looking to the future. This was equally true for safeguarding, the history of slavery, or many other things on the Synod’s agenda. Racial justice was about the Kingdom of God, and must be a “journey for all of us”, he said. “Racial justice is everybody’s business because it’s about who we are in Christ.”

He welcomed the report and motion, and called for further research to understand which strategies worked, and which did not. “Do not be complacent: there is still so much more we can do.” He led the Synod in applause for Lord Boateng, who chairs the Racial Justice Commission, for pushing the Church to action. The Church was not truly catholic while it remained white by default, he concluded.

The Dean of the Arches and Auditor, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis KC, said that the report showed how far short the Church had fallen in “Christ’s way of treating all people made in the image of God, regardless of colour”. Better data collection was needed to know the baseline, then assess progress. More visibility of ethnic-minority ecclesiastical judges had been built into the website to boost applications from diverse candidates to become chancellors, she said.

The Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick (Southern Suffragans), said that the facts of past injustice could not be changed, but that he could “change lament into action”. Progress had been made, but there was much further to go. “We need help to change the future,” he said, and highlighted collaboration between dioceses and the availability of national grants.

Daniel Matovu (Oxford), a new member of CMEAC, said that “you white folks have no idea” of the experience of racial injustice. He spoke of being the only Black person in many institutions throughout his life, from schools to barristers’ chambers, and said that institutional racism was “embedded” in the “life and culture of the Church”. When it came to racial justice, there was no chance of the Church’s being accused of being too hasty, he said. Despite the recommendations for action contained in numerous reports, nothing had been done, he said: a “shameful” state of affairs. There was no lead bishop for racial justice, he said, and this showed a lack of seriousness about taking action.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesBishop Mike Royal (Churches Together in England)

Bishop Mike Royal (Churches Together in England) said that leaders in his own Pentecostal tradition took a risk in the 1990s by calling him, aged 25, into pastoral ministry, to serve in a mostly white northern post-industrial community. People involved in choosing leaders “sometimes hold attitudes of prejudice”, he said, especially in presuming that ethnic-minority ministers could not lead white-majority churches. He urged the Church to challenge attitudes and be open to challege.

Rosemary Wilson (Southwark) had been surprised how many ethnic-minority clergy were self-supporting ministers, she said, but found that official data on the ethnicity of the clergy had not been collected by the C of E. She asked for this to be done. Many of her extended family still reported that Christianity was not an option for them, because they did not see brown and black faces represented in its culture.

In a maiden speech supporting the motion, Prebendary Sandra McCalla (co-opted, Convocation of Canterbury) said: “The work has just begun,” and focused on the theological imperative of continuing such work. “All believers are one in Christ,” she said.

The Revd Andrew Mumby (Southwark) asked Synod members how they felt about the colour of their skin. “Perhaps you just don’t feel anything,” he said, “if you grew up in a place where the colour of everyone’s skin was the same as yours. Perhaps it is for white people to take the lead in dismantling the structures of racism we see all around us.”

David Hermitt (co-opted) said that “transforming unjust structures” was one of the Five Marks of Mission. As a former head teacher, he knew the challenge of balancing education for mixed classes of white and ethnic-minority children. “Our children are rejecting the Church because they are more radical than we are in calling out the hypocrisy,” he said. Unless the C of E began with racial justice in schools, it would not see this filter through to adult congregations. He urged members to enact the recommendations relating to education in the report From Lament to Action.

The Revd Rachel Webbley (Canterbury) said that even “good people” could perpetuate racism because it was a systemic structure. Uncovering the history of brutality against black and brown people should provoke repentance in the Church, she said. Describing herself as a “recovering racist”, she urged white members to be unflinching in admitting their own complicity in prejudice and discrimination.

Nadine Daniel (Liverpool) said that anti-slavery efforts were vital, even today, and that the legacy of slavery was embedded in every parish church.

Busola Sodeinde (London) commended the efforts of the Racial Justice Unit, and hailed the greater diversity and representation brought about in the transformation of her own church, Holy Trinity, Brompton. “I have seen what good looks like, Synod,” she said. The C of E was growing rapidly, especially among Pentecostal streams, she said. Inclusion was a responsibility for everyone.

As the chair began to call for a motion for the closure, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, on a point of order, requested that the debate be prolonged so that every ethnic-minority member who wished to speak could do so.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Revd Sarah Siddique Gill (Blackburn)

Continuing the debate, the Revd Amatu Christian-Iwuagwu (London) said that people on the front line of the climate crisis had mostly been people of colour, battling droughts, flooding, rising sea levels, and heatwaves. The mainstream environmental movement was built by people who cared about wildlife and trees, but “did not care about black people”, he suggested.

The Revd Esther Prior (Guildford) said that she had experienced racism. She recalled the Euro 2020 final, when three black footballers missed penalties for England, and later suffered racial abuse. But this was not what God intended, she said. The cross redeemed the world from racial injustice. She then read from Revelation prophecies, and described “intercultural church” as a “taste of heaven”.

The Revd Christian Selvaratnam (York) said that his city was one of the least diverse places in England, but that this was changing in hopeful ways. There was great potential in new, younger congregations that were much more racially diverse, he said.

Dawn Brathwaite (Birmingham) warned that change would happen only if the Church was ready to try new and innovative things. A group of dioceses in the Midlands had agreed to work together to tackle racism collaboratively across boundaries, which would help with capturing consistent data, she reported.

“For years we’ve been saying it . . . now it’s time to sort it,” the Revd Folli Olokose (Guildford) said. There were good things happening on the ground, with the foundation of organisations such as the Anglican Minority Ethnic Network (AMEN), and the Teahouse network for clergy of Chinese heritage. He encouraged members to return to their communities with energy to continue this work.

Kenson Li (co-opted) said that he had been speaking with fellow ordinands who were of global majority heritage. There was much work to be done in the discernment and training process, he said. “One even told me she felt more marginalised than before she began her ordination training.” Racial justice should be addressed right at the start of training, and ordinands should be involved in shaping this response, he said.

Temitope Taiwo (London) echoed Mr Li’s comments about encouraging people from under-represented backgrounds to explore vocations, and highlighted the value of existing leadership programmes.

Adanna Lazz-Onyenobi (Manchester) said that she was “deeply hurt” that some felt unwelcome in Anglican churches, and urged “each and every one” to take the spirit of the motion back to their parishes.

The Revd Treena Larkin (Lichfield) said that, in her previous NHS career, she had been one of many ethnic-minority staff, but had lost confidence in herself after ordination because of the Church’s “overwhelming whiteness”. She thanked those who had walked alongside her to help her to rediscover her voice as a “treasured and confident child of God” — but the fact that there were only two deans and two archdeacons from an ethnic-minority background troubled her. “Who are the gatekeepers who fail to see the potential of people like me?”

Responding to the debate, Bishop Hudson-Wilkin said that white priests and bishops could serve anywhere, while black clergy were sent to minister only in black communities. “There’s something not right there,” she said. She echoed Ms Larkin’s question: “Who are the gatekeepers?”

The motion was carried by 364 nem. con., with two recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod:

(a) commend the practical and positive outcomes in From Lament To Action but, recognising the need to further embed racial justice in the life and practice of our Church, request that the national Church ensures crucial resources remain available including appropriate governance arrangement and funding, recommend that Dioceses give priority to the collection, monitoring and measuring of relevant data, and encourage parishes and deaneries to develop local action plans to address issues of racial injustice.

(b) note that the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice shall complete its mandated three-year term in November 2024 and request the Archbishops’ Council ensure effective structures exist for monitoring actions and outcomes on racial justice, including a possible review and strengthening of the role of the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, and that the Synod Group Sessions in February 2025 review the progress made by Dioceses, the NCIs and other related institutions in implementing the recommendations in From Lament To Action.

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