How the Church blew it on race

A secretive Church of England commission is intent on seeing bigotry everywhere

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York felt they had to act. They had a golden opportunity to set in train an inclusive, broadly representative, generous, open-minded process to examine whether there are things about the structures of the Church, or the ways they are operated, which impede the Church’s mission due to conscious or unconscious racism and, if there are, to propose effective remedies.

It would be motivated by love of God and neighbour, uninhibited by preconceived theories and categories. It would foster mutual understanding across the whole Church, as a widely-shared endeavour. Any proposals would be based on carefully gathered, objectively evaluated, contemporary empirical evidence. It would, by this, achieve a lasting, generally agreed settlement of this potentially explosive issue and avoid the bitter divisions which can be seen on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Archbishops could have done this. But they blew it.

Hurriedly, they set up an “Anti Racism Taskforce” which, as the Archbishop of York said, was “not intended to be a broad representation of different church contexts”. Its starting point was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sweeping assertion that the Church is “deeply institutionally racist”.

Hampered by Covid, the taskforce never physically met, had limited specialist expertise, conducted no critical analysis of work done (often many years ago) by the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, commissioned no contemporary research, delegated topics to small groups of its members or even a single member, never considered the possibility of causes of disparity other than racism, and did not evaluate or conduct cost-benefit analysis of any of its 47 “actions”, which are now treated as Holy Writ.

It is an activist invention

The work was then taken up by the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission (ARJC). Its members were selected in secret, with no open competition, and no published criteria for appointment. It seems to believe that its role includes delivering the Taskforce’s “actions”, despite their manifest deficiencies. The ARJC has just produced its first report. Its institutional mindset is revealed by an otherwise unimportant detail: the adoption of the term “GMH”. This neologism stands for “Global Majority Heritage” and means everyone in the world who is not white. It is an activist invention, spun out of divisive, dehumanising “critical/intersectional” theories, according to which society is crudely understood in terms of the exercise of power and categories of oppressor/oppressed.

Lord Boateng, the chair, writes in the introduction, “The response to an examination of racism and the exposure of injustice is often one of denial and defensiveness or obfuscation and delay. This must not go unchallenged.” It is this variation on the theme of “white fragility” that needs to be challenged. The implication is clear: contest the work of the ARJC and you may be accused of being “in denial” and, by “obfuscation and delay”, complicit in the Church’s systemic racism.

Boateng continues: “There is a need in these circumstances to speak truth unto power.” One may be forgiven a wry smile at this cliché being deployed by an ennobled Privy Councillor, former cabinet minister and High Commissioner to South Africa, who has the entire weight of the Church of England’s establishment behind him. Is it nonetheless, apt?

The longest parts of the report are devoted to criticism of the recent case in which Jesus College, Cambridge failed in its attempt to remove from its chapel a memorial to a seventeenth-century donor, Tobias Rustat. What the commission has to say on this topic vividly illustrates its collective tunnel-vision and lack of judgment. In reality, this was an instance in which power spoke to truth and truth won.

Tobias Rustat was a courtier and businessman. His many commercial interests included largely unprofitable involvement in companies engaged in the slave trade. He gave a vast amount of money to the college. A memorial, made in 1686, probably in the studio of Grinling Gibbons, was installed in the chapel (a Grade 1 listed building). Like other places of worship, the chapel is exempt from secular planning laws but subject to the jurisdiction of the Consistory Court. The college’s case, in a nutshell, was that this commemoration of a man who was involved in the slave trade “creates a serious obstacle to the chapel’s ability to provide a credible Christian ministry and witness to the college community and safe space for secular college functions and events”. This case was supported by evidence from, among others, the Bishop of Ely, the Master and Dean of the college. Much emphasis was placed on the pain said to be caused by the presence of the memorial, and the opposition to it, especially amongst the student body.

The judge, Deputy Chancellor David Hodge QC, dismissed the college’s application. His 95-page judgment (with a six-page summary) is available online. He stressed the undoubted horrors of the slave trade and demonstrated great sensitivity towards the feelings of those whose forebears were taken into or born in slavery. He meticulously reviewed the evidence and law. On the key issue of whether there was “clear and convincing justification” for the removal of the statue, he found there was not. In particular, he concluded that the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party had “moved to judgement” before completing the necessary research.

He found the LSWP’s chair “to be an
underwhelming witness who was firmly wedded to her own entrenched opinions and unwilling to recognise any views other than her own”. It had been put about by campaigners that Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from slavery and that this was the source of the money he had given to the college. This was untrue. None of the money given to the college was the result of that trade. Therefore, the sentiments on which the college had heavily relied, “were founded upon [an] entirely false narrative” which the college had done nothing to correct.

The ARJC’s reaction to this courteously crushing judgement, which has not been appealed, is to express its ill-founded dissatisfaction in demands for radical changes to the Consistory Court, saying the case “presents a systemic challenge which requires a response if [the Church’s] commitment to racial justice is not to be undermined”. Put plainly, the court stands accused of institutional racism. The Archbishop of Canterbury has publicly and trenchantly expressed similar sentiments, doing so with strikingly poor judgement while the Deputy Chancellor was actually considering his decision.

The adversarial nature of the court’s procedure is condemned, but it was exactly that which exposed the “entirely false narrative” which had fuelled the college’s case. The logic of the ARJC’s position is that feelings resulting from falsehood should somehow trump objectively true facts.

The ARJC wants to change the court’s criteria, to give greater weight to “lived experience” (even where that evidence is hearsay). It asks for compulsory training for the judges “on the theology of racial justice and the implications for ministry of monuments to slavery”. This risks the pre-judgment of contested issues. “The theology of racial justice” sounds like little more than secular racial politics given a theological gloss.

This is compounded by the suggestion that judges sit with “suitably qualified assessors … where specialist knowledge, not least of the lived experience of diverse communities and of the history of those communities within these islands and beyond, would be of assistance”. That is the role of expert evidence, which can be tested in cross-examination. It is wrong in principle for someone to play the dual role of both judge and witness.

It is fundamental to Christian belief
that the capacity for good and evil runs through every human heart. Where better than a place of worship to contemplate that truth and the possibility of redemption? In this case, truth prevailed.

It is deeply troubling that the ARJC seems not to accept this and, instead,
proposes measures which would make this outcome more difficult.

What the ARJC has to say about children’s education is just as worrying. The principal taskforce “action” sets the tone. Programmes must be developed “to ensure theological concepts drive curriculum design across the whole curriculum in a way that promotes equity and racial justice”. This remarkable idea has been taken forward by the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership (whose work has “deeply impressed” the ARJC).

Its trajectory is clear: “it is key for us
that schools see justice as a key theme running through every aspect of the curriculum — from text choices to artists to historical perspectives to the impact of climate change on our global neighbours”. The whole of primary and secondary education in church schools, in every subject, is thus to be pulled out of its present shape and reconfigured with a single, controversial purpose concerned with racial categories.

It is easy to foresee, for example, narrative history being replaced by history as anachronistic adverse judgement on selective accounts of the past. A sense of foreboding about the materials which will be used is justified. This is an especially acute problem since the rise of campaigning “experts” and activist academics. We may expect contentious, politicised content which alarmed parents will be powerless to resist.

What problem is this intended to solve?

What problem is this intended to solve? There is simply no evidence that Church of England primary and secondary schools are turning out cohorts of junior racists. One looks in vain for any account of what is presently taught and analysis of any identified deficiency in terms of citizenship (of which racial sensitivity is only a part). No one seems to have asked whether it is moral to racialise children in this way, especially without consulting their parents. This “Action” has the look of a programme driven more by racial ideology than data.

There is much else in the report to dismay Anglican foot soldiers, including: the assertions that the Church of England has “theological foundations of prejudice and discrimination” and suffers from all-pervasive “systemic and structural racism”; the prospect of the Church paying “reparations”; correcting “the erasure and repression of memory” (this based on the assertion that insufficient attention is paid to slavery); yet another revision of liturgy; and establishing an Orwellian-sounding “Racial Justice Directorate”.

The disappointment is that this is a very important subject which deserves better. Where racism exists it must be confronted and beaten. But there are real dangers in seeing everything through its lens. The thrust of empirical data is clear. Britain is one of the least racist countries in the world and is still improving. While it is important not to be complacent, a sense of proportion must be maintained in the face of many other pressing social problems and empiricism must be the touchstone.

This single-issue juggernaut seems unstoppable

Despite its inadequacies, this single-issue juggernaut seems unstoppable. Something, however, may be retrieved. Firstly, the archbishops should amend the terms of reference to include the requirement that all its recommendations must be justified by contemporary empirical data, concerning both diagnosis and remedy. Proposed remedies must be evaluated and subjected to carefully quantified cost-benefit analysis. Secondly, they should appoint additional members to the commission, to achieve representative diversity and expertise. A theologian who contests the theory of “black theology” is especially needed.

Thirdly, to achieve much needed transparency, the following should be made available online: the documents relating to the Commission’s creation (including terms of reference, appointment criteria, letters of appointment, correspondence between the taskforce, the archbishops, their staffs, and the appointees); notices, agendas, and minutes of meetings; commissioning letters to external witnesses and experts; experts’ reports; all payments to, and expenses incurred by the ARJC, its members, and secretariat, together with the source(s) of its funding; and a contact address for the commission’s secretariat and Lord Boateng.

If nothing like this is done and the juggernaut just rolls on, the already deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Church can only increase. The Church is kept going by many thousands of Christians dutifully doing the grinding, largely thankless, work of parish life.

They are good people who are not racist and are not complicit in racism, who do not want racial distinctions embedded in the Church, who want to keep their memorials, who do not want their village schools racialised, and who, knowing that the ARJC has already asked for “a minimum of £20 million”, do not want to see money which could be used to relieve their relentless burdens being spent on projects with which they do not agree. What will happen to the Church if they speak truth to power but power will not listen?

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