Filling Vacancies # 24 06/04/2021

Out of Many, One People

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Filling Vacancies

A friend of mine was invited to be on his DAC (Diocesan Advisory Committee) which advises dioceses on proposed changes to church buildings, including their aesthetic impact. He asked my advice. I said “Don’t do it.” It struck me as a strange invitation. My friend had no particular interest or experience in anything to do with the arts or architecture. He had never been a vicar with responsibility for a church building. But he did have one qualification: he was minority ethnic.

Of course, I wasn’t privy to the discussion that led to his invitation. But I have an uncomfortable (possibly unfair) sense of how it went. Imagine: the committee has a vacancy to fill; they recognise they are all pale, hopefully not too stale, and probably not entirely male. They flick through their mental card index file of the possibly rather small number of people from minority ethnic backgrounds they know of who might be invited to fill the vacancy, and my friend’s name came up.

So, whose interest was being served here?

Certainly not my friend. He was being invited to sit on a committee in whose business he had little to contribute, quite possibly sitting out the evening in rather bored silence, and maybe even feeling a little inadequate. With the committee meetings, plus documents to read, and possibly site visits thrown in as well, when accumulated it could be that well over a week of his annual ministry time was taken up unfruitfully.

Nor would the mission of the Church of England benefit. Someone with an all-too-rare Indian background, using creatively his ability to speak north Indian languages, with a wide range of fruitful contacts, was being taken away from the Church’s front-line mission to waste his time unfruitfully doing a less urgent back-room job. Further, one that would make very little addition to his list of ministerial competencies.

For the DAC, the benefit would be mixed. In effect they would be carrying one committee member with very little to contribute. On the other hand, they had ticked a box that would protect their reputation. If interrogated about ‘BAME representation’ their back was covered. The quota had been fulfilled.

We could do things better. The Ouseley Report into institutional racism in the Diocese of Southwark (2000) recommended that “A register of people from minority ethnic communities should be developed, listing details of their experience and skills. In time, as positions become vacant, it should become relatively easy to check whether there are suitable candidates and to invite them to put themselves forward for consideration for election”. This is a very practical and realisable suggestion for dioceses to implement. Finance and law would be obvious areas, so also people who are fluent in various minority languages, and certainly as far as DACs are concerned, people with gifts or experience in art and architecture. Was there no one lurking in the corners of my friend’s diocese who would fit that bill if they were only known? An archdeacon or similar in every diocese should be able to compile such a list.

It is widely accepted that the Church of England lacks minority ethnic people in senior positions. But we are too readily pressured into making easy, ineffective and damaging responses. We try to cover up our failures by cosmetic solutions, rather like a woman wasting time and money on make-up, when it fails to cover the internal sadness being expressed by her face.

Bad appointments (of which my initial story would have been a fairly light instance) damage both the individuals involved and the church. Some decades back a friend of Caribbean background was appointed as archdeacon by a socially progressive bishop who wished to further black appointments. He had been a parish priest without any great distinction, and had also had a marriage breakdown. Being an archdeacon strikes me as one of the grimmest and loneliest forms of service in the Church of England. With my friend, the appointment went pear-shaped. Personal problems surfaced, he resigned the post, and left the ministry. Within a few years he died. It was a bad appointment.

Making so-called ‘BAME’ appointments can do harm, not least to ‘BAME’ people and the development of a multi-ethnic Christian community. Appointments made to assuage white consciences, or buff up the church’s public reputation, or filling quotas in order to avoid being rapped on the knuckles by investigators, can easily lead to inappropriate choices or to appointing good people before they are ready.

Cosmetic appointments, or putting people of colour on our brochures, are futile attempts to cover up a basic inner failure – that we have still made distressingly little impact in nurturing British-raised leaders from ethnic minorities into confident, positive ministry at all levels in church life, most especially in the parish base.

Add Ons

The big news is the release of the Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which I am half-way through reading. Rather than be yet another person commenting without reading it, I will give a full discussion next week(s).

Meanwhile today (Wednesday) there is an on-line RapidResponse Briefing organised by Dr Krish Kandiah starting at 8pm.