How can the Church of England speak about race when its leaders are so white? | Arun Arora

The reaction of many of those in leadership positions in the Church of England to the killing of George Floyd has been to ask BAME people about their experience, not only in the United States but also in Britain.

Social media posts with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter have been copious, as have been the searches for people “who can speak about race and the UK church” with sensitive rejoinders about “white people putting pressure on black people to tell us how to solve racism for us”.

All of this comes as Dr John Sentamu prepares to step down from his post as archbishop of York. His retirement comes at a time when the Church of England has been talking about making great strides in the appointments of senior BAME leaders. Yet from tomorrow, for the first time in over a quarter of a century, there will be no black or minority ethnic diocesan bishop serving in the Church of England. When diocesan bishops next meet and discuss their response to the events in America, the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities and on poor people in urban communities, there will be no one of colour with an equal voice among them. 

The questions about race and racism in the church extend far beyond its leadership. Yet when the Conservative party, hitherto unknown for racially progressive leadership, appoints a BAME man and a BAME woman to two of the four highest offices of state and appoints others to the cabinet, the one-colour nature of the senior leadership of the Church of England begins to look perilously archaic.

A glance at the most senior level of leadership in the Church of England reveals an alarmingly retrograde trend. Michael Nazir-Ali, who served as the bishop of Rochester, was the church’s first BAME diocesan bishop when he was appointed in 1994. Following Sentamu’s appointment as bishop of Birmingham in 2002, the church enjoyed the zenith of its ethnic diversity in leadership with two senior bishops until Nazir-Ali’s retirement in 2009. For the last decade, Sentamu has alone represented that diversity. 

But leadership in the church is about more than bishops. Leadership comes in many forms – lay and ordained, in parachurch organisations, mission agencies, theological colleges and diocesan administrators, to name but a few. 

These groups present an equally monochrome image of leadership. Take for instance Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and New Wine, two of the strongest evangelical networks operating in the Church of England today and with a considerable influence on new and growing churches across the country. There are no BAME members of HTB’s senior clergy or senior leadership team. None of their churches across London and the UK is led by BAME clergy. According to New Wine’s website, there are no BAME clergy or lay leaders in its 30-strong team of national directors, regional directors and heads of ministry.

But this failure is not confined to the church’s evangelical wing. In leading Catholic organisations the picture is the same. The newest organisation, the Sodality of Mary Mother of Priests, promotes itself on social media with a picture of a group with an image of 25 priests gathered around an altar – all of whom are white. More established national Catholic networks paint a similar picture. The leadership of the Society of Saint Wilfrid and Hilda is exclusively white, as is the leadership of Forward in Faith in its executive committee. If the old dictum that “you need to see it to be it” is applied to the church’s leadership, that offers little hope to young BAME church members for their inclusion or participation.

Try looking for BAME appointments in other senior roles within the church. Diocesan secretaries? None. Chairs of diocesan boards of finance? None. Principals of theological colleges? None. 

Last week, Robin Ward, the principal of one of the church’s training institutions, took to Twitter to call out the archbishop of York for supporting the Black Lives Matter rally in Hyde Park. Pitching his desire to see churches open their doors again against the tragedy of the death of George Floyd highlighted the lack of understanding or empathy at work in parts of the higher echelons of the church. 

But the picture is not entirely bleak. In recent years, there has been much rejoicing at the appointment of women and men as assistant or suffragan bishops in the Church of England. Rose Hudson-Wilkin as bishop of Dover, John Perumbalath as the bishop of Bradwell, Guli Francis-Dehqani as bishop of Loughborough and Karowei Dorgu as bishop of Woolwich joined bishop David Hamid from the diocese of Europe.

Yet if we were add up all of the Church of England’s serving BAME bishops, out of more than 100 we would still be counting on one hand. 

For some, the appointment of Sentamu as archbishop of York was going to mean that the issue of race and racism in the Church of England could now be dismissed. That kind of aspiration is simplistic. After all, after eight years of the Obama presidency in the United States, when one hoped that historical progress was being made, we are confronted with the opposite.

In a church that rightly proclaims that the gifts of the holy spirit are for all people, from every race and nation, why does the Church of England present such a contradictory picture?

• Arun Arora is vicar of St Nics Durham

• This article was co-written by Eileen Harrop, Remi Ole and Shemil Matthew

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