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What can the Church of England learn from the Sewell Report?
1. Analysing the Interaction of Race and Class.
A central emphasis of the Report is indicated by it having a has a special section titled ‘Fixing the Problem for Everyone’, indicating its intention ‘to make improvements that will benefit everyone, targeting interventions based on need not ethnicity’ (p 53). So various initiatives are seen as benefitting people from ethnic minorities simply by virtue of many of them being a substantial part of a much larger group of the disadvantaged, as with Recommendation 7 to ‘Systematically target disparities in education outcomes between disadvantaged pupils and their peers’ (p 13).
The Church of England has had a long running, and most probably intensifying problem in the failure of its ministry to ‘working class’ people. (Or whatever term is now more appropriate). After the publication of Faith in the City the journalist Clifford Longley wryly observed that it was a problem ‘held not to exist because no one has a solution to it’. How does this problem relate to our lack of impact on ethnic minorities, given that a large number, especially Black Caribbeans, are working class? Clearly there is overlap between the two groups. My impression is that the overlap is considerably greater than we generally recognise. In that case the shortage of African Caribbean ordinands (especially men) may well be a sub-set of the wider problem of the very obvious shortage of working class ordinands.
In ‘Race: A Christian Symposium’ edited by Clifford Hill, and published way back in 1968, a black social worker is quoted as saying that the church wouldn’t increase black participation until it had addressed the problem of white-working class participation. Whilst in fact we have done slightly better with black people, especially women and the elderly, we have still not analysed the problem in these terms. In an informal but very perceptive study of ‘What do Afro-Caribbean men have against the Church of England’ (published as an Appendix at the end of this Blog) the results indicate that whilst for older black men the problem is very much that of their early racist reception, for younger black men it is the non-racial complaint, common also to white working class men, that church is ‘boring’.
Learning from Sewell therefore we need to change the lens of our analysis and try to balance out how issues related to class and race, including culture, illuminate the problems we face. I believe the suggestion in the Report that ‘Britain is doing much better on race than on class’ (p 31) applies with force to the Church of England. We agonise constantly over our lack of impact on ethnic minorities, attention to working class people (re Clifford Longley above) is considerably more muted. (Note here a significant development in House of Commons membership: increased minority ethnic participation, declining manual labour background).
In this respect one of the most positive developments in the Church is the initiative led by the Bishop of Burnley on the major challenge of our ministry to housing estates. If, God willing, we see some success in this very, very difficult area, then our ministry to and with ethnic minorities also flourishes, without it needing to be placarded as a ‘race initiative’. To use tainted language, it is an important opportunity for levelling up.
For the most part we are still ignorant of how the challenges of minority ethnic and working class ministries overlap, and of the nature of the continuities and discontinuities. Was the black social worker in 1968 correct? It is about time we finally asked.
The Church of England should undertake an in-depth study of the inter-connection of race and class in its ministry, attending to pastoral, cultural and political issues.
2. Accentuate the Positive.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Sewell Report was its focus on presenting a positive view of race in Britain. Understandably for people who feel that racism has had a seriously damaging effect on their lives, this was seen as false, blind optimism. But the Commission believed that a story of progress and achievement gave both a more appropriate depiction of the situation, and a more constructive basis for future policies.
The Church of England is focussed on telling a grim story, evidenced in the Archbishop’s bleak (though unspecified) admission that we are institutionally racist. A miasma of guilt and failure hangs over the church. But how justified is that? Round the corner from where I live is a large Anglo-Catholic church, St Mary, Lansdowne Road, with an encouragingly high level of minority ethnic participation. In the same deanery are at least four Anglican churches where attendance is rarely above the 30s, with mainly elderly, black female congregations. Why the difference? We don’t know.
One of the original briefs for the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns was to share good practice. However, over against its focus on lobbying for increased minority ethnic leadership in the church, this has largely lapsed. But it is urgent that, like the Sewell Report, we identify places of light, see what can be learned from them, and how positive results can be replicated. Virtually every bishop will know of churches that are thriving and churches that are stuck in multi-ethnic areas. What can be learned about church life, ministerial character and ability, and training? The Sewell Report loves the word ‘granular’, and speaks of ‘drilling down’ (p 81) into the effectiveness or otherwise of schools. We need similar granular well-informed attention to detail to be aware of what causes churches to thrive or not as multi-ethnic communities.
We have made a major emphasis on increasing the numbers of minority ethnic clergy. We need to be assessing the outcome. My personal impression is that the minister’s qualities are of much more impact than their ethnicity, and that we overplay the significance of role models. Am I right? (Note: ‘Evidence on the impact of teachers from ethnic minorities in the UK is scarce’ – p75). The researcher Bob Jackson claimed that neither gender nor ethnicity had an influence on the level of a minister’s effectiveness.
If the Church of England is concerned to avoid institutional racism then, to use the classic words of the McPherson Report, we should be ensuring the delivery of a ‘professional service’ in our ministry with ethnic minorities. We need research to clarify what brings that about.
The Church of England should initiate a research project to explore the characteristics of effective multi-ethnic parishes and ministers.
3. Learning across ethnic boundaries.
Sewell’s Recommendation 6 is to ‘understand and replicate the underlying factors that drive success of high performing groups’ (p 13) with particular reference to education. An ethnically diverse society is to be welcomed as a laboratory, a university, or even an adventure playground where differences lay side by side to give a great opportunity to learn and borrow across cultures, not in the more obvious areas of food and music, but more foundational ways of being, doing and praying. (Discussed in my Blog 11b: ‘Institutional Racism in the Church of England 2’). In particular there are ‘high performing’ minority ethnic or diaspora churches. I believe we need to be much more intentional about developing a two-way traffic with them in matters such as theology, spirituality, church planting, youth work, and many more. The volume of traffic on those roads will not be of equal volume in both directions. In some we need to learn more, in others have much to give; but it is urgent that means of sharing become developed much more.
At both formal and informal levels we should be encouraging contacts with minority ethnic or diasporic churches in order to develop a culture of shared learning and ministry development.
4. Emphasis on Fathering.
The Report rightly refuses to turn a blind eye to the connection between disparities and family structure, though is still rather afraid to ‘moralise’ about the extent to which the life chances of Black Caribbean children, especially boys, are undermined from early years by not having a father in the home. In fact the church ought to moralise – we readily rebuke racists, but are coy about rebuking irresponsible fathering (made worse by us having chosen a Prime Minister who is part of the problem). At present we are not being ‘prophetic’, simply re-cycling the morality of centre-left progressivism. We rightly commend Marcus Rashford for his concern for child hunger, and even more the care and strength of his mother for bringing up five children on her own. But is it a red-card offence to ask where was the responsibility of the children’s fathers?
Loving, responsible fathering is central to our ethical understanding of families, and our pastoral practice, teaching and political advocacy ought to be raising its profile. The increasing normalisation of single parenthood is a grievous social harm, which seriously damages children’s future well-being, and which bears particularly heavily on black children.
5. Imbibing the Report’s Ethos,
Several aspects of the Report’s overall approach should be taken on board by the Church of England. One fundamental aspect is its recognition of multiple variables in affecting disparities, thus avoiding the simplistic assumption that race is the only factor at play when we discover unequal outcomes. A related factor is the need for assertions to be evidence based rather than upon anecdotes, or on what it is simply fashionable or thought virtuous to assert. This may help form closely thought through concrete proposals for action, rather stay with unspecific complaints and generalised, unevidenced suggestions. In particular statements about institutional racism need to be followed by clearly identified symptoms, considered diagnoses, and ideally with concrete, practicable responses.
6. Other issues.
* The value of ‘trite’ details in bringing change (p 125): saying ‘welcome’ in Tamil, knowing the spread of ethnic groups in Nigeria, praying for Uganda before a critical election. Small ‘nudges’ can make a positive difference to how at home people from ethnic minorities feel in our churches. They can have more impact than high-sounding abstract pronouncements on racism.
* The Report is dubious, rightly I think, of whether quotas are of benefit (p 54).
* ‘Work with private and public sector firms has revealed that, despite an increased ethnic diversity at the board level, other employees in the organisation still face marginalisation. Shifting cultures takes a more sustained effort than increasing representation’ (p 126). What cultural shifts (over white entitlement, but also over leadership styles? supernatural awareness? greater expressiveness?) need our sustained effort in order to decrease ethnic minority marginalisation in the Church of England?
* Let’s hear it for children/youth workers and volunteers! The Commission recognises that ‘The social capital that . . supplementary education providers give to children should not be underestimated’ (p 83), with a particular eye on black church supplementary schools. As we survey the ravages that Covid19 will have had on the education of poorer children, the churches have a massive challenge and opportunity to enter the breach to provide both formal and informal out-of-hours learning opportunities for children.
* Finally a rap on the knuckles for Tony Sewell and the Commissioners: their list of influences that have shaped ‘the rich variety of British culture’ includes classical civilisations and the European Enlightenment, but says absolutely nothing about Christianity (p 90)! Commissioners, dispose of your secularised blinkers – you only have to read Tom Holland’s ‘Dominion’.
Appendix: ‘What do Afro-Caribbean men have against the Anglican Church’ by Lynne Batten.
(This was a project written as part of training for lay ministry in 2005. Sadly Lynne died in 2010 – a much loved woman of great warmth and faith.)
In this piece of work I am going to explore the issues relating to why the Afro-Caribbean men do not attend the Anglican church. I chose this topic as I noticed that there were approximately six Caribbean men attending our church and this did not appear to reflect the same amount of Caribbeans in the community. Therefore I was curious to understand the reasons behind this,
To help me explore this issue I conducted a survey and attempted to get a fair picture by approaching men of various ages, such as 18-40, 40-60 and 60 plus. I interviewed people living in the community near the church known to me; I also visited other communities, for example Kenton and Harlesden.
Do you believe in God?
Out of thirty men, twenty-five men said they believed in God.
Why don’t you go to an Anglican church?
* The younger men interviewed 18-25 yrs mainly responded to this question by saying that the church was boring.
*The older men 40-60 yrs responded with answers such as too busy, and a few said that it is a white church. Two gentlemen said that they left the Anglican Church to attend a Church of God, as they did not connect with the ministry of the Anglican Church.
* 60 plus – nine men in this group, which was all of them, suggested that the church was racist. One man said “I can not sit down and listen to a white man telling me wrong from right, his preaching is like he is talking down to me”. Another comment was that the Anglican church is an organisation not a church.
To conclude this section the younger men in particular suggested that the church was boring I wonder if this is connected to their age, their moral up bringing and the fact that some young people have a different focus and may not be ready for a religious commitment.
Comments such as too busy indicate to me that the 40-60age group are at a stage in their lives when they have particular obligations and maybe striving to achieve certain tasks, not knowing that with God on their side it would be easier. However race also seems to be an issue for some in this age group suggesting that they are more comfortable in a church with a minister of their own race.
These comments suggest to me that the older men, 60 plus, might have felt more oppressed. It made me consider their connection with colonialism; in view of their age they are still possibly carrying the pain of this history and its connections with slavery.
What could we do to start encouraging you to attend our church?
The younger men suggested that a club with a gym or snooker available connected to the church to encourage them. Another suggested that continued persistence from church members could convince him to attend the church. The older man suggested community activities that they enjoy organised by the church could be a way of developing a relationship.
In conclusion to this section this response from all ages indicates that the church needs to find ways of communicating with them on their level to help build a relationship, to in turn encourage them into the church. Also in view of what the younger men said persistence may pay off.
In conclusion I feel that there are many Afro Caribbean men that live in the community who could attend our church. However I feel that as suggested in the survey the Anglican ministry needs to take an active part in meeting families of the community.
Evidence in the survey suggested that a white minister may appear superior to the Afro Caribbean men, making them reluctant to attend the church therefore the minister of the Anglican church needs to find a way of meeting them on their own level.
In order to understand a community one need to take an active part to meet the people of the community, develop a cultural and mutual understanding. To encourage people to attend the ministry one should show a welcoming, enthusiastic standing, be prepared to be creative in how to take this forward. It seems to me the answer is in the community, go and ask them what they want.
Lynne Batten, July2005
An Annex to the Appendix: Whilst Lynne was doing the lay ministry course, in a time for silent prayer and reflection, an incident from her early days in Britain came to mind, She was working in a supervisory role at Lyons Corner Houses. At one team meeting she made a suggestion for an improved way of doing things – it went down like a lead balloon. Just a few weeks later a (white) colleague made a very similar suggestion, which was warmly received and proved to be very successful.
In the silent prayer Lynne saw how this early rejection shaped the rest of her life in Britain – keep your head down, stay separate, don’t get hurt. Had she pointed out to her colleagues what had happened, most likely they would have indignantly told her that she had a chip on her shoulder. Result: her employers, and our society, lost the potential contribution of a thoughtful, intelligent black woman, and her potential sadly suppressed and unutilised. Similar versions of this story will have happened uncountable times over the past seven decades to shape where we are today.
St George’s Day: Reimagining English Identity – a Zoom conference organised by Rev Kumar Rajagopalan of Totteridge Road Baptist Church and All Nations Christian College, Ware on Saturday 24th April from 9.45 to 13.00. Details and booking on
Next Week: Review of the Anti-Racism Task Force of the Church of England Report, plus related Panorama tv programme.