How to alienate good people

Having insulted thousands of its blameless members, the Church of England now aims to embed racial distinction in its very structures

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

On 7 October, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced the membership of a new Racial Justice Commission “to help [them] fulfil their commitments to identify, respond to, and root out systemic racism in the Church”.

Its remit includes reviews of: theology, slavery, history and memory, culture and liturgy, complaints handling, participation, and patronage. It is apparent from what has already transpired that these topics will be approached, as the Archbishops intend, with a racially-focused, radical agenda which embeds racial distinction in the structures of the Church.

“Institutional racism” can be a slippery concept

According to the Archbishop of York, the Commission will be “representative of complex interests and expertise within and beyond the Church”. Whatever or whoever else the Commission represents, it does not represent the many thousands of sincere, thoughtful, sensible, Christian members of the Church of England who are not racist, who reasonably and truthfully believe they are not unconsciously racist, and who do not accept the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sweeping assertion that, “there is no doubt when we look at our own Church that we are still deeply institutionally racist”.

Furthermore, they are not taken in by being told that this does not mean they are personally racist. A report on which the Archbishop relies, says this: “we are compelled to acknowledge the corporate nature of the sin of racism … Our inability to deal with this sin, even if we feel we are not racist in ourselves, is a sin. Our silence is our sin.”

These good people, unrepresented and misrepresented, are not merely the backbone of the Church; they are its arms, legs, eyes, ears, and voice. They are the ones doing the cleaning, mowing the churchyard, preparing the rotas, visiting their sick and grieving neighbours, and always worrying about money. They are the ones upon whom the recommendations of this strangely elitist Commission will be imposed and they are the ones who will be paying for them.

First, some ground clearing. Inevitably, the Church of England contains members who can be found somewhere along the continuum between mild prejudice and outright hostility. And in some parts of the Church’s complex structures, there have been, and are, people disadvantaged due to their membership of a particular group (not confined to race). Racism, personal or institutional, is serious and must be addressed. But “institutional racism” can be a slippery concept.

The Church of England experienced the same self-critical anxiety

The right test involves a causal connection between race and discrimination (albeit unwitting). Disparities are not in themselves sufficient. There may be other causes. Exploration demands objective, careful, comprehensive, evidence-gathering and empirical evaluation. “Lived experience” is continually cited. But any encounter between human beings is experienced by more than one person. Each has his or her own “lived experience”. Empiricism is the only satisfactory way of resolving their differences.

What led to the creation of the new Commission? In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the Church of England experienced the same self-critical anxiety that gripped so many institutions. The Archbishops’ response was to create an Anti-Racist Taskforce with the remit “to review recommendations made in previous Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) reports, noting actions taken or omitted, and to identify previous recommendations which could be implemented swiftly and to advise the Archbishops on the composition and remit of the Racial Justice Commission, including terms of reference and membership”.

Explicitly, the Taskforce was “not intended to be a broad representation of different church contexts”. It is entirely unclear how its nine members (whose good faith and good will are not in doubt) were selected and by what criteria.

To a substantial extent, the problems of the Taskforce were not of its making. Due to the pandemic, it could not physically meet. The original deadline was too tight and had to be extended. The work had to be divided up, each section being taken on by a smaller sub-group or even one person. It was short of specialist expertise. It had neither the time nor the resources to commission any new research but had to rely on work done years earlier by committees which were hardly more representative and relied on limited research.

Disparity may be due to something other than racism

However, the Taskforce conducted no critical analysis of the earlier reports, and, like them, did not consider whether apparent disparities (in relation to roles in or engagement with the Church) really reflected what they seemed to show. For example, there was little or no analysis of comparative age profiles or the proportion of UK minority ethnic (UKME) people who are committed to other faiths or denominations. Like its predecessors, it did not examine whether any disparity may be due to something other than racism.

Despite its limitations, the Taskforce felt able to make no fewer than 47 recommendations, unevaluated, untested, uncosted, and without specifically identifying the associated evidence. These included: full time Racial Justice Officers in every diocese; a quota of a minimum 30 per cent UKME participation in the Church’s Strategic Leadership Development Programme; training modules in Black Theology or Theologies in a Global Perspective; the delivery, in Church primary and secondary schools’ assemblies, of “racial justice” resources; unconscious bias training; and, for bishops, “reverse mentoring”.

In relation to the composition of the Racial Justice Commission, the Taskforce said only this: “As requested we have … provided to the Archbishops nominees for the Chair and members.” Even by the opaque standards of the Church of England, this mysterious statement is extraordinary. Who were they? How were they identified? Was it just that they were already known to members of the Taskforce? By what criteria was each of them chosen? Why is appointment to be done this way at all, rather than by election or applications in an open competition?

Ghost Ship by the Rev Azariah France-Williams

Before turning to the Commission, it is worth looking at something which casts light on the frame of mind which guides some of the processes of the Church: Ghost Ship by the Rev Azariah France-Williams.

This is an important book but, perhaps, not entirely in the way its well-placed admirers seem to think. The title is a metaphor for the Church of England, conceived as a doomed, rotting hulk, with the white elite of the Church on deck and “black and brown clergy shoved below-deck as second- or third-class crew,” many of whom will not survive. This far-fetched metaphor is somewhat holed below the waterline by the praise heaped upon the work by the on-deck clerical and academic Establishment (including the Commissioners, Professors Anthony G. Reddie and Mike Higton).

The author, who has powerful rhetorical gifts, vividly expounds contentious political theories of white privilege, oppression and power. Reference to forgiveness is hard to find. When black Nevisians respond better to a white colleague than to him, it must be due to slavery-induced false consciousness. It was also somehow inappropriate for the Church to celebrate William Wilberforce and John Newton.

Preposterously, “parishes can confine us and feel more like plantations, with an old master in the big house, an overseer, and the expectation of one’s labour being of greater value than one’s life.” France-Williams writes poetry using the pseudonym “BraveSlave”, thus seeming to compare his travails with those of his forebears.

It is possible to push back against the dystopian picture

Without doubting the sincerity and veracity of its author, it is possible, respectfully and reasonably, to push back against the dystopian picture painted by this polemical book. Its largely effusive and unqualified reception by the Church Establishment casts some light on how the leadership of the Church risks failing to provide an all-inclusive space for the resolution of what could easily turn into US-style bitter division. Which brings us back to the Commission.

All the Commissioners, directly appointed by the Archbishops in an entirely obscure and private process, are distinguished or worthy or both. But no attempt to accommodate a wide range of representative opinions can be detected. It is not a criticism of individual Commissioners to say that is hard to envisage the robust, oppositional dialectic which is necessary for effective policy making.

For example, the Taskforce report expresses the startling view, for the Commission to consider further, that the Church of England has “theological foundations of prejudice and discrimination”. There are two academic theologians on the Commission: Anthony Reddie, who is a well-known proponent of Black Theology; and Mike Higton, who describes himself as a friend of Reddie and an admirer of his work. It would be more reassuring if they were somewhat further apart.

The Archbishops face a tricky situation. Racism is a difficult, incendiary subject. Where there is racism in the Church, its nature and causes must be precisely identified, analysed, and dealt with. But this won’t do. To insult the membership of the Church (let us face it, that is what has happened) and then expect it to fall into line when top-down prescriptions arrive is too much to ask.

It is passing strange that a Church which is so undogmatic about almost everything else is so dogmatic about this.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover