‘Is the Church racist?’, asked the BBC’s Panorama yesterday evening, as reporter Clive Myrie interviewed a few minority-ethnic clergy who have experienced some awful abuse at the hands (or from the mouths) of other members of the clergy, or from fellow ordinands, or from their theological tutors, or from a few of those who sit in the pews week by week. And so the Church of England was bludgeoned with its decades of “broken promises on race and racism”, with the BBC trumpeting to the nation that black and Asian and other minority-ethnic clergy are forced to pretend that everything is okay; that there’s a “culture of fear” about complaining, and that black and brown-skinned clergy feel “invisible” and “powerless” in an institution plagued by racism and well-meaning white supremacy.
Some of the experiences recounted were truly awful, and some of them were told with tears and trembling. When a bishop draws attention to a priest’s ethnicity and uses it to question their ability to express the gospel clearly, and even to speak the truth, then yes, there is racism. When an ethnic-minority ordinand is told to “turn the other cheek” after being abused by a white ordinand, it is indeed devastating and isolating, if not crass and insensitive. When a trainee vicar is told by his senior that he is “too Brazilian” and that “people of your kind, of your colour, are not clever enough”, then yes, there is a very ugly undercurrent of racism.
And when a young black man receives a picture of a banana with his head superimposed upon it, and beneath it is written ‘Banana Man’, and he makes a formal complaint against the person who sent it, and his HR Department determined that it wasn’t racist, then yes, there is not only racism, but an astonishing ignorance of racism.
And when this man finally settled his case but was forced to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, there is something very rotten indeed. No-one in the Church should be awarded compensation contingent on their signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement, except in truly exceptional circumstances. You’d think, in the Church, that truth, transparency and humility might trump abuse, obfuscation and secrecy.
And yet some of these grievances were not only about racism, but classism. One priest found herself ministering to “middle and upper class” white people (..in England..), and said she “had never felt so black, or so poor”. Is her congregation to be blamed for her feelings? Did they really, maliciously, set out to make her feel black and poor? “I felt like I’d landed on an alien planet,” she explained, her problem apparently being more one of community ignorance than racism. If you are a white, privately-educated Oxbridge priest and you are called to minister in Brixton, it really isn’t very kind to say: “I felt like I’d landed on another planet.” How is that supposed to make your flock feel? Do these priests have no sense of mission, of inculturation, or of the need to become all things to all people instead of insisting that all people must be more like them?
“Only one in 10 accepted for training into the Church of England are from ethnic minority backgrounds”, Clive Myrie informed us.
About 13% of the population is from a minority ethnic background, so isn’t 10% ethnic-minority recruitment rather good? But that ‘only’ was left ringing in the nation’s ears, as though 50% of England is black or brown, but the Church which purports to serve them is run by a manipulative and bigoted white cabal.
Is the Church racist?
Some members of it are, yes, undoubtedly.
But out of 800,000 worshipers every week, you’re bound to find a few hundred racists. And out of 11,000 or so members of the clergy, you’re bound to find at least a couple of dozen whose theological formation hasn’t quite eradicated all of their residual racism. And out of a hundred or so bishops, you’re bound to find one or two who say racist things which derive from racist attitudes.
And when the BBC manages to find a few examples from all of these groups and weaves them together in a Panorama documentary, then yes, you can convey that the Church of England is deeply, hopelessly and irredeemably racist. And they could no doubt do the same for homophobia, misogyny, or disability. There is (literally) no end to the Church’s imperfections.
But when reports of these abuses reach the Archbishop of Canterbury, he writes genuinely of his “anger” and “sorrow”, admitting, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, that “much more needs to be done about institutional racism in the Church”. This is the job of the media: it thrives on universal negativity and scurrilous hatchet-jobs which are designed to captivate, appall and disgust. ‘You want to see real racism?’ they ask, and so they devote 30 minutes to brief interviews with 10 people who combine to give the impression that white supremacy is the Church-ordained fascist order of things, and that this is a world apart from the God-ordained ordering of creation and His purposes for salvation.
“I don’t believe the Church of England is full of racists,” insisted Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York.
But Clive Myrie was having none of it. “What is so appalling about the situation is that this isn’t the British Army or the BBC or the Metropolitan Police,” he hammered. “This is the Church of England,” he preached, in his best dismayed and disgusted tone.
The Archbishop paused and breathed.
“But it doesn’t mean to say that the whole Church of England is wrong,” he ventured tentatively. “It means we’ve got some things we need to address,” he explained reasonably, calmly, dispassionately. “And they’re really important, and we’re going to address them,” he assured the nation.
But you know what? If Stephen Cottrell and Arun Arora and other excellent people on the Church of England’s Anti-Racism Taskforce manage to eradicate racism and perfect inclusion; if they manage to purge the Church of ethnic division and perfect perceptions of the diversity of the human race; if they manage to order all mission and ministry so that it is a blessing to all creation, please don’t expect Clive Myrie or the BBC to make a Panorama documentary about how excellent the Church of England is at grappling with the ecological, economic, socio-ethical, legal, political and cultural complexities which are manifest when diverse human beings try to live side by side.
All they want is to hear that the Church of England is “deeply institutionally racist”, as the Archbishop of Canterbury obligingly told Synod a year ago. There is no exposition of that ‘deeply’, and no real understanding of that ‘institutionally’. These are the terms required for remorse and repentance, and they are the words demanded by the media which desires nothing but to report on the Church of England’s fundamental weaknesses, which are, in truth, no different from those which it has in common with all churches in the world. When a religion is incarnational and culturally situated, it is inevitable that its notions of liberation and its language of transformation will be ‘corrupted’ by the contextual and situational.
The Church of England does have a tendency to demand that people do not merely acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, but also abandon their former way of life in favour of that of a peculiar middle-class sub-culture. Notwithstanding some of the excellent work going on in some of the most impoverished parishes in the country, the public perception remains one of middle-class privilege and an élitism which has little relevance to a modern, pluralist, multi-ethnic society. While this may be a misconception, it is undoubtedly exacerbated by the nature of establishment and the fusion of the Church with secular government. But the media is only concerned with reporting on how ‘out of touch’ the Church of England is with contemporary England. If that antipathetic relationship is all we hear about, and if that is what drives Synod agendas and Archbishops’ pronouncements, there is no doubting the corrosive effect this will continue to have upon public perception.