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Racism and the church

Tiny leaf in the shape of a heart, black against a white background.

In the wake of the BBC Panorama documentary aired last night, one CofE Vicar shares their experiences anonymously as a guest post. We need to listen and truly hear these experiences, and then challenge ourselves – all of us – if anything is going to change.

I grew up experiencing overt racism in public places, in school, and, yes, in church. I lose count of how many times racial slurs were hurled at me in the open. The rhyme about sticks and stones, which claims that words will never hurt me, is rubbish. I did feel hurt. I loved my heritage. I loved my skin. But others saw it as a way to exclude me, and that hurt. When you have experienced racism – or any form of discrimination – for a period of time, the consequences of it can last a lifetime. I am not bitter, and I don’t walk around these days expecting to be shouted at in the street, but, like a shadow in the far corner of your eye, the possibility lurks there in the background, and I am aware of it.

As an adult, I hardly ever directly experienced overt racism. Once, in the workplace, on my lunch break, some of my colleagues (all of whom were white) used a racial slur when talking about a local business. I shrank into my chair. They were not being directly racist towards me, but the term they used, betrayed a level of racism. I didn’t feel able to confront it. However, for the best part of fifteen years in my first career, I can only think of that one incident at work. And one more outside, where a child used a racial slur to describe me. 

And then I began training for ordination in the CofE.

I was aware from the offset that I was the only global majority woman training in a prominent theological college. There were no global majority tutors, either. For the whole time I was there, this was the case. I was used to this in a church environment – this had been the case in the three churches I had attended as an adult. 

Early in my training, as a class we were tasked with identifying significant influences that shaped who we were. I chose a famous leader from my background as, when I had been growing up, their actions and philosophy were huge influences in our family life and profoundly shaped some of my thinking. This was rejected by the class because this person wasn’t ‘of our culture’. I suddenly was faced with my ‘difference’. 

I spoke to the tutor about it afterwards and asked whether there would be any diversity and inclusion teaching as part of our training. My tutor told me the best thing I could do was to go back to my classmates and explain how I had felt. So early on in my training, I didn’t feel at all comfortable doing that. Maybe I should have done so. But I didn’t. The tutor’s response about training was to ask me if I knew anyone who could deliver it! I messaged a prominent and well-liked clergyperson that I knew, to ask if they knew anyone. Their response was that they didn’t, but did we really want to encourage more of ‘them’ in the church because ‘they’ often hold very conservative views that wouldn’t necessarily fit with the CofE. Demoralised, I gave up. We didn’t receive any training on inclusion and diversity.

Other incidents – an ordinand telling me she didn’t ‘see’ my colour, another ordinand complaining when I talked about Black Lives Matter – ‘well, all lives matter, don’t they?’, a leader addressing a roomful of people by saying ‘we are all white, middle class, here’. Sometimes I flagged up the problem. Most of the time, I did not. As the only global majority woman there, was this now my task? To be the voice and challenge such comments? I didn’t want it to be, at all. I didn’t want that level of exposure. I didn’t want to be defined solely, or primarily, by the colour of my skin.

And, then, something else started to happen. I know that I am called as a priest and I know that I am good at what I do. This is not pride or arrogance, but a recognition that God has given me gifts and I should use then to serve God through serving others and the church. I have, in my time as a CofE priest, been asked to do many different things – sit on boards, represent the church in various places, talk at meetings, write articles and so on. I’m aware that, sometimes, one of the reasons I have been asked is because I am a global majority woman, and there aren’t that many of us in the church. But I also like the think that isn’t the only reason I have been asked. However, it became clear that some of my peers, my clergy friends, were resenting this. I was told by one friend that I only got asked because of the colour of my skin. I was told by another that I ‘tick a diversity box’ and this is why I am on the board. When I accepted one role, a colleague said ‘well, they needed to increase their diversity, so they asked you’. None of this was said with grace, or in jest. This was voiced in a tone of bitterness, resentment and envy. And I felt it. It hurt, deeply. It has made me much more guarded around friends and colleagues. I am careful what I share with who. I would love to feel that I can be affirmed and the things I do celebrated by my friends, the way I hope I affirm and celebrate them, but I can’t trust any more that that will be the case. 

Being asked onto a board, or to be part of a group, because I represent something that is not there, is a tricky one. On the one hand, I know all too well how it’s only by seeing people in positions of leadership, that others will come forward, and I desperately want to encourage that. I want people of all backgrounds, who may be experiencing a call, to feel that they can pursue that call in the CofE and that they will fit. People feel a much stronger sense of belonging in places where they see reflections of themselves. However, I don’t want to be the token that ticks a box for the institution and makes them think they have ‘done their job’ when it comes to racial inclusion. So, every time I am asked, I think carefully about the place asking me – are they serious about real inclusion, or is this simply for show? Sometimes, I have made a mistake. I joined one group and it soon became blatantly clear that my whole role there was to ‘bring the diversity’ into the project. When the group needed to develop series of resources for the wider church, someone mentioned that we would need to include people from all backgrounds, and I was immediately called upon as the person who would find voices from minority ethnic backgrounds. I left quickly. If middle aged clergy serving in churches are able to approach young people for such resources, why is it the job solely of global majority people to approach other global majority people? 

I’m trying to keep this short, so I haven’t included all the incidents I have experienced. Incidents where I have challenged inappropriate and racist language only to receive lengthy email after lengthy email explaining to me that they are not racist and asking me to talk to them, educate them, and help them understand more. It’s tiring. I mentioned at the beginning about the ever-present recognition that I could be judged because of the colour of my skin. When incidents like the ones that I describe happen, a small part of that old wound splits open. I feel exposed. I feel nervous. And, more often than not, I withdraw.

I write this anonymously because I don’t feel safe to talk openly. As a woman in the CofE, I have also experienced discrimination based on my gender, and have shared that. But, there are a lot more women in the CofE than there are global majority people, and when I share a story about gender discrimination, I share in a space where others have experienced the same and there is solidarity. I don’t feel I can do the same about issues relating to the colour of my skin. I love the CofE with all my heart. I love the breadth of tradition. I love the huge amount of work people do, day in and day out, serving the most vulnerable, and bringing something of the hope and love of Christ to them. I am called to serve the church and serve it, I will. But, sometimes, it’s very hard and lonely. 

I don’t know what I will achieve writing this blog post, but I know that personal narratives often speak much more that policy. They make it real. Well, this is my reality. I hope that, with the many people who have been so much braver than me and put their head above the parapet on this issue, something will eventually change. You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:32). Well, this is my truth. It sits alongside the truths of many. May it be the catalyst that sets the church, and its people, free.

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