WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT RACISM IN THE CHURCH
So much of the narrative that has come in response to the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK has been about history. And much of it has been about white people defending what they believe to be British history – usually in defence of statues that live high up on plinths. Monuments which have largely become a backdrop to daily life that no-one really notices. That is until someone points out an inconvenient truth about the occupant of one plinth or another and suggests he (and they are mostly he) might not deserve to be remembered with quite such uncritical reverence.
It speaks volumes about how we receive the stories of our history, and how selectively it has been taught for far too long. Political heroes are like saints in this matter: they are celebrated for one or two attributes or actions.
Churchill appears as a statue for his leadership in World War II that led to Britain remaining free from Nazi occupation, not for his known racist beliefs, or his failures in World War I. Peter was canonised as a saint for his courage and commitment to Christ that led to martyrdom, not for his cowardice in denying him before the crucifixion. This is not history, it’s commemoration. When commemoration becomes the main narrative sewn up as history, it’s a travesty against those who suffer because of what is left out of the story.
In biblical storytelling, we aren’t given sanitised versions of the characters. King David is presented as a philandering husband who commissions a murder, as well as a great hero, for example. We need to make sure that the same is true when we tell the story of the Church’s history, not only because it’s about good practice in historical terms, but because it is damaging people in the Church today.
Abolition – and compensation
Slavery has left bloodstains on our Church here in the UK. But the blood was spilled a long way away, only the money and goods made from this evil trade were visible here. We remember with pride those Christian abolitionists who fought so tirelessly to end slavery, yet we fail to acknowledge the money that poured into the accounts of ‘good Christian’ families and clergy from it. Among the lists of those receiving compensation for their business losses after abolition (not a penny was paid to slaves and their families) were clergy and others who called themselves ‘Christians’. The reason this is important today, is that slavery and its aftermath have shaped the culture and climate of our nations and our churches. Racism in the UK is the direct descendant of colonialism, empire and slavery. All the stereotypes of black and brown people that are held and disseminated today, come as a direct result of this part of our history. It is very late in the day for a genuine and thorough repentance, and a turning around to think and act differently.
A place to call home?
When the Empire Windrush docked in England in 1948, it carried people from the Caribbean who had been encouraged to come and work in what they considered the motherland. These people were part of the British Empire who had fought for us in the war, yet we know how poorly they were treated when they arrived to live and work here. Many of them were devout Anglicans, and they arrived at churches all around the country on Sundays, only to be told they weren’t welcome.
Some tried three or four different parish churches but gave up after being rejected at each of them, because of the colour of their skin. There has never been anything approaching an adequate apology for this outrage against the tenets of our faith, and its legacy is an ignorance and ineptitude – and all too frequently, overt racism – that still pervades our structures and parishes today.
In recent years, we’ve been hearing the harrowing stories of people from the Windrush generation being accused, threatened and deported after living here for decades. The racism of the 1940s has not gone away, it’s simply dressed itself in more subtle clothing. Or to be biblical, ‘sheep’s clothing’. The church should be one of the loudest voices on this grave injustice, yet it has mostly remained silent because it hasn’t affected the majority of its members, who are white.
Augustine Tanner-Ihm came to prominence recently when he went public with the account of how he’d been treated when he applied for a ministerial placement in the diocese of St Alban’s. After his interview, he received an explanation as to why he hadn’t been offered the post: the main consideration was that it was a white, working class parish and ‘he might not feel comfortable there’. It should be noted that no equivalent observation is made when white clergy are appointed to predominantly black congregations. Augustine’s releasing of this information led to a hurried ‘explanation’ of how unfortunate and isolated a case this was, written in defensive terms and assuring the public that the person who’d sent the original email had now undertaken diversity training. It read more like a damage limitation exercise than an apology. This is not an isolated incident, it’s simply that he took the risk of going public. On his website, he writes:
A shared experience
In his courageous and important book Ghost Ship, Azariah France-Williams tells the story of so many black clergy and lay people who have struggled with racism in our Church. He describes it in this way, ‘It is much more about subtraction of support than addition of suffering, but it amounts to the same experience for people of colour.’
His thorough explanation of the events that have led the General Synod of the Church of England to repeatedly, over decades, promise action and reform on the issue of racism, only to make sure nothing actually happened by sabotaging the process behind the scenes, makes for chilling reading. It is also essential reading for all of us who call ourselves ‘CofE’. Racial Equality Commissions demoted to committee status, standing committees rewriting Synod mandates, the dropping of the section on racism and racial equality from ‘The Faith In the City’ report, is all presented in glorious technicolour. The following quote from 2003, shows how, yet again, the Church has failed to act upon its own findings.
Archbishops and bishops may make public apologies, take the knee in public support of Black Lives Matter, but what is needed is real action, real change. For this to happen, we need to take a good look at how we white people view our own pain, when we realise we have been guilty of racial bias or discrimination: when our ignorance has wounded others. The term ‘unconscious bias’ has been doing the rounds, for me this is a soft term to help spare the feelings of us white people who are horrified when we realise we’ve contributed to racism. Finding out you’ve been complicit in racism is hard, but it’s nothing compared to having to live with it every day of your life.
Maintaining the status quo?
Racism isn’t only the ugly name calling, the racial slurs and the violent attacks. It is also the less obvious maintaining of the status quo, that keeps some in positions of power or at an advantage, and that prevents those who have been historically oppressed and continuously disadvantaged from thriving. The latest admission by the Church of England that it is institutionally racist came in February 2020. A commission has been set up to look into the matter: it feels like déjà vu. It will largely be something that gets debated in rooms in London, unless the people on the ground in the Church decide they’re not going to wait any longer and take action in educating themselves and bringing about change in local churches.
This is a Kairos moment: the Spirit is offering an opportunity for us as Christians to repent: that doesn’t mean feeling bad but thinking and acting differently. The hierarchical structures have failed in this gospel call to justice, and it is beyond time for us to take up the challenge and change our Church. The Church must stand against racism, or forever be branded racist.
In the next of this two-part series, I will be looking at how we can be the disciples who make this change happen. So I am now going to ask you to consider doing something between reading this article and the next one: to watch one or more of the videos or TV programmes listed, and read Ghost Ship by Azariah (A.D.A.) France-Williams. This might be some of the most important time you invest, for yourself, for the Church and for our black and brown sisters and brothers.
* Quotes used throughout this article are taken from: Ghost Ship by Azariah (ADA) France-Williams. See below for details.
BOOK TO READ…
Ghost Ship (Institutional Racism and the Church of England)
by Azariah (A.D.A.) France-Williams.
SCM Press, published July 2020.
About the author: A.D.A France-Williams is a priest in the Church of England in an urban parish which is a member of the HeartEdge church network. He has been a priest for 10 years and holds an MPhil in Theology as well as a Masters degree in Mission.
About the title: ‘Intelligence and passion fuel France-Williams’ dissection of the leadership “club” – people like me – at the heart of the Church of England’s failure to own and address its racism. The reader need not accept all his arguments uncritically, to recognise this authentic black voice needs to be heard.’ – The Right Reverend Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
VIDEOS TO WATCH…
Ghost Ship Launch video from HeartEdge:
Painful Legacies, event video on YouTube at:
The School that Tried to End Racism – available on All 4 catch up at:
Black and British, a Forgotten History with David Olusoga – available on BBC iplayer at:
Black is the New Black, celebrities talk about their experience – available on BBC iplayer at:
 Taken from Ghost Ship by Azariah (A.D.A.) France-Williams, SCM Press July 2020.