Review of 'From Lament to Action'. # 27 27/04/2021

Out of Many, One People

Welcome. Another Report! Like the Sewell Report trashed pre-publication, though from the opposite political direction. But both I believe of positive worth. I hope you find this a useful guide; if so, please commend friends and colleagues to subscribe to ‘Out of Many, One People’.

Review of ‘From Lament to Action’

This is a brisk, workmanlike report from the Archbishops’ Taskforce on implementing ‘significant cultural and structural change’ on issues of racial justice within the Church of England. A section of the Report is simply entitled ‘How to Change’. So there is much more about needed Action than there is of Lament, with a strong awareness that past laments have issued in little specific action – an Appendix lists 151 previous recommendations.

Strengths

Input into the Running of the Church of England.

“We make poorer decisions if we do not hear from and include people of many backgrounds and disciplines in our leadership structures” (p 57) summarises well the Report’s emphasis on Participation. Such input into the authority structures was presaged by the Archbishop’s speech to Synod in February 2020, which advocated ‘basic rules’ such as minority ethnic representation on appointment panels. 

Action points to increase minority ethnic input into church life and decision making include:

* minority ethnic clergy from each region to be participant observers at the House of Bishops;

* widening the understanding and mind-set of diocesan bishops through ‘Reverse mentoring’ by a minority ethnic person. This is an imaginative proposal which could well be extended to clergy generally. Writers such as David Anderson in his excellent ‘Multi-Cultural Ministry’ speak of the need for leaders to have trusted guides in learning cross-cultural ministry.

* putting the emphasis and initiative in recruitment programmes on the (white) recruiters rather than (minority ethnic) applicants.

* prioritise minority ethnic youth work in Strategic Investment Board grants.

The Report notes how the church’s attitude to ethnic minorities has evolved from rejection to an acceptance, but one still marked by inaction (p 15). In particular the Report is serious in countering institutional racism within the church by creating a Racial Justice Directorate to implement the recommendations of the Taskforce, and with built in link to the Archbishops’ Council, so that a senior voice on racial justice issues is at the very heart of the church’s governance. The result of this is to set up an integral collaborative structure for developing a just multi-ethnic church; as opposed to the confrontational model which was implicit in the creation of an isolated Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns. In this respect the call to co-opt ten minority ethnic people on to General Synod may be retrograde in so far as it institutionalises an unelected and unaccountable minority group.

Influence on the Ethos of the Church of England.

This is a more elusive point than the organisational actions above, but stems from the recognition that the Church of England’s problems in a multi-ethnic society go to the deeper issues of people feeling alien within the church. A common thread through the recent Panorama programme on Racism in the Church of England was the church’s failure to provide a secure base for those who were outside the church’s fairly narrow band of cultural norms. This requires enlarging the awareness and experience of the whole church to the issues raised by a multi-ethnic society. The phrase ‘negation of relation’ still articulates too clearly the lack of interest, understanding and welcome that minority ethnic ordinands and others still feel within the wider Church of England scene. The proposal to have a ‘History and Memory’ stream within the brief of the Racial Justice Commission (p 54) addresses the alienation grievance stemming from historic injustice in Britain’s and the Church of England’s past.

Thus, with an eye to past neglect, “The Taskforce have considered how best to make sure the work of racial justice is reflected in the work of the whole Church, rather than being seen as a minority concern” (p 13). To this end it recommends that it is essential that those in training for ministry have sustained immersion in multi-cultural contexts through placements (p 32). Likewise for young people it recommends regular networking meetings between youth groups to develop relationship between groups with many or few minority ethnic members (p 44). The call for material on racial justice to be in Discipleship courses is an important initiative to involve the whole church is a much wider programme of listening and responding to racial injustice and ethnic diversity (p 35).

It recognises the difficulties also that the Church of England, especially through its public worship creates for minority ethnic people and those of ‘other backgrounds’ (a rare, presumably class-orientated perspective) to assimilate to the predominant culture,

The reality and cost of such dissonance is also recognised in the Education section by its attention to ‘attrition rates’ amongst minority ethnic staff (p 34). Surely similar attention is needed to attrition amongst minority ethnic clergy, as indicated by the Panorama programme.

Weaknesses

Insufficiently Aware of the Significance of Culture.

To a man with a hammer every problem is a nail. For the Taskforce every imbalance is caused by ‘racial injustice’. Whilst it realises the lack of congruence between the Church of England and the cultural ethos of most ethnic minorities, nonetheless its working assumptions often overlook the significance of cultural difference, even though being blind to cultural difference is also a form of racism..

In this respect a flaw in its approach is that it abandons the widely discredited ‘BAME’ for UKME/GMH, which retains all the confusions entailed in the former term, whilst adding even more acronyms (which serve only to separate bewildered outsiders from privileged insiders. Therefore this review has usually shunned the absurd acronym, and stayed with the simple words ‘ethnic minorities’). In reality, since the Report’s main emphasis is on the racisms perpetrated by whites on non-whites the acronym usually works. But not always, and its obscuring of differences loses some important observations. For example, it fails to note that all five assistant or suffragan bishops in the Church of England were born outside Britain, and the list does not include a man of Caribbean background. Neither was a man of such background included in the Taskforce, although, by a significant margin, British born men with Caribbean roots represent the Church of England’s most substantial evangelistic and pastoral failure.

The seven-letter acronym loses other important issues. By its bulked up treatment, the Education Action 5 raises the issue of school exclusions and ‘negative outcomes on UKME/GMH students’, obscuring the Sewell Report finding, for example, that Black Caribbean pupils are excluded at 3.5 times the rate of African pupils.

At root here is a weakness in the Report’s overall theological approach. Given the limitations of space this was bound to be brief, but by staying with generalisations about the unity of humanity, the centrality of love, and the evils of racism and injustice, the Report never focuses down on what may cause disparities church life, or identifies the central challenge of combining unity with diversity. Saying “In Christ, our differences are not simply erased but rather embraced, valuing the unique ways we each reflect the image of God” (p 8) is a pretty generalisation, but blind to the issues that ‘our unique ways’ at times don’t lie easily side by side. So the task that constantly confronts a church set amidst ethnic diversity of how quite deep-seated cultural differences can be lived out in a close unity of love and worship is never identified or discussed. It recommends training in racism awareness for ordinands, but ignores the companion topic of Cultural Intelligence, the absence of which often lies at the heart of failures by leaders. (Next week’s Blog will look more closely at the theological issues for ministry that the Report raises).

Insufficiently Aware of our Weakness.

The Church of England still tends to suffer from the illusion that it is the only show in town, leading us both to over-estimate our own strength amongst ethnic minorities, and to ignore the plethora of religious alternatives. That illusion led to the ill-fated foundation of the Simon of Cyrene Theological Institute in the 1980s, based on the errant assumption that there were many potential minority ethnic candidates who simply needed help with pre-theological training. The Report still tends to assume we have powers of command in a multi-ethnic society that we simply don’t have, leading us into a cycle of blame and frustration.

The Report confidently assumes 

* that theological colleges will readily be able to find competent minority ethnic staff (p 35);

* that 30% (that is 18, not 20) of minority ethnic candidates can easily be found for Strategic Leadership Development Programmes;

* that shortlists of candidates for episcopal and other senior appointments (p 26) can include one minority candidate without constantly calling in a rather short list of suitable potential candidates.

I would love to see evidence that these are realistic expectations, but I suspect they are illusions. In a recent interview the Archbishop of York made the grand suggestion that there were many able minority ethnic people available in the church for senior positions. Is it ‘systemic racism’ that prevents their appointment, or is he insufficiently realistic in his expectations?

On two occasions the Report refers to 15% - to membership of Bishops’ Councils (p 28); and all levels of governance structures from General Synod to PCCs by 2030. This matches the assessment of the proportion of minority ethnic worshippers in the Church of England at 15% (p 12). But this assumes the profile of minority ethnic members matches fairly exactly that of our entire membership. In my experience that is not the case – minority ethnic worshippers tend to be more elderly and female, with lower educational qualifications. None of these characteristics constitute an automatic bar, but real differences in potential underline the need for closer engagement with the life of our congregations than the report belies.

The Report nowhere recognises that today most Christian energy is being expressed through Pentecostal and/or diasporic churches. This is particularly true with younger adults and men. So Education Action 10 on developing culturally diverse liturgies overlooks that the default form of worship for most minority ethnic Christians is non-liturgical. Should we run with that or resist it is a question, along with several other cultural differences the Taskforce ought to have put on the table? (See my Blog on ‘Institutional Racism in the Church of England – 2).

Summary

The Taskforce has done its task. It has made recommendations to counter institutional racism in the Church of England, particularly through clearly thought out and at times imaginative proposals to increase the voice, participation and identification of ethnic minorities within the Church of England.

To do so will cost money. It will also create a number of extra posts (a Racial Justice Officer in every diocese?) and there needs to be serious, continuing evaluation with the awareness that a person doing one job therefore can not do another. Thus we risk taking talented people away from the front-line of the church’s pastoral and evangelistic ministries. Whilst the Report is sure-footed in its approach to the high-level administration of the Church, and - as on p 24 over Appointments – bureaucratically precise, yet it is significantly less grounded in what happens, and needs to happen, in parish churches. Yet ultimately the Church of England only bears effective witness to our society if it full of living, breathing, joyful, worshipping multi-ethnic congregations. What we have is essentially, and perhaps rightly, a top-down Report. It still leaves with us the challenge of giving much greater attentiveness, wisdom, and energy to how - in a diverse and very complex multi-ethnic society - Church of England congregations live out their faith.