Church of England Begins Drive to Promote Ethnic Minority Clergy, Accusing Itself of ‘Institutional Racism’

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The Church of England has vowed to fast-track black and ethnic minority clergy into positions of authority, accusing itself of institutional racism. The Church will identify a “talent pool” of ethnic minority clergy this year, who will be mentored with the aim of increasing representation among bishops, deans and archdeacons.

Currently there are five black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) clergy in leadership positions within the Church, of which John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, is perhaps the best well known, the Guardian has reported. In addition, approximately three per cent of the last general synod – the Church’s parliament – were from ethnic minorities. A breakdown of the new synod, which has just been elected, has not yet been released.

The figures are in line with the general makeup of the Church’s professional body – 2.8 per cent of clergy overall are from ethnic minorities. There are no statistics on how many ethnic minority congregants worship within the Church of England each week, but the fact that Pentecostal churches, attended predominantly by black Christians, are thriving has been highlighted by those seeking to make a case that the church is institutionally racist, driving congregants away.

They say that the lack of ethnic minority people at the front of England’s churches puts off ethnic minority Christians from worshiping there, and have called for the Church to be more inclusive.

Jason Roach, a minister at Christ Church Mayfair, said the “woeful under-representation” of ethnic minority people in churches left young people without a role model. “I’ve spoke to young black people, trying to encourage them to join the church, into vocations, and often what they’ve said is ‘we don’t feel this is a place for us’.”

Although he admitted that he personally had been encouraged and nurtured in the Church, “you are nevertheless always aware that you’re very much in a minority, and at times that can be intimidating,” he said.

Others have accused the C of E of “inhospitality” towards ethnic minority congregants. Anderson Jeremiah, an ordained Anglican priest at Lancaster University’s department of politics, philosophy and religion said that from the 1960s onwards, immigrants arriving in English churches had been “gently and politely diverted … to churches where they might ‘feel more comfortable’.”

As a result, black-majority Pentecostal churches “are growing by leaps and bounds. People see others like them at the front of the church in leadership positions, and it gives them a sense of belonging”.

He added: “Until there is a systematic mechanism to ensure there is a visible change at a structural, hierarchical level [in the C of E], it’s hard to see how this can change any time soon.”

However, Pentecostal ministers have admitted that their style of worship is very different to the Church of England’s more subdued style, raising the possibility that ethnic minority congregants are indeed more comfortable attending churches which praise in a style they are more used to.

Bishop Ervin Smith, who came to the UK from Jamaica 60 years ago, leads the United Pentecostal Faith church in Lambeth, London. He is supported by four black pastors, and says that the majority of his congregation is black too, although “sometimes three or four white people come along”.

Upon arriving in London he first attended his local C of E church, in Streatham. “I was welcomed there,” he said, “but it was a bit different to the Pentecostal worship I was used to. I found a place in Brixton where my people were.”

Pentecostal services are louder and longer, with music, dancing, singing and preaching. Smith doesn’t prepare a sermon, but instead is “led by the spirit, you preach the gospel, the word of God.

“We can go on for two or three hours,” he says.

Nonetheless, the Church is convinced that it has a problem with institutional racism.

Julie Conalty, the vicar of Christ Church in Erith, Kent, whose congregation is 50 per cent black raised a question on ethnic minority representation at the first meeting of the newly elected General Synod in November. She later said: “I see a lot of goodwill, but not a systematic top-to-bottom drive to deal with what is institutional racism.”

Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons, described how as a teenager she came to England from the Caribbean in 1979 to find almost no black people leading C of E services. “I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say racism plays a big part of where the church is today in terms of lack of representation in leadership,” she said.

James Langstaff, bishop of Rochester, who chairs the Church’s Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns added “[Some within the church] hesitate to use the language of institutional racism. We also speak of conscious or unconscious bias, which is slightly less emotive. But it is, in my view, undeniable that there is racism within the system, because gifted people have not found their way into senior leadership.”

His committee launched Turning Up the Volume in 2010, an initiative designed to double the number of ethnic minority church leaders by 2020.

But the target was “unchallenging”, given the starting point, Langstaff said.

This year the Church introduced a fast track scheme, designed to identify a talent pool of clergy who would be trained and mentored with the intention of promoting them to leadership positions. The pool contained just under seven percent ethnic minority candidates, more than double the actual representation across the body of the Church’s clergy, but not enough to satisfy the drive towards greater representation.

A second pool is currently being identified, but the Church has resolved to select a third pool in 2016, made up solely of ethnic minority clergy.

Elizabeth Henry, national adviser to the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns welcomed the talent pool, but added: “This is not going to be a panacea. It’s one element of addressing these issues within the church.”

Stephen Cottrell, the bishop of Chelmsford agreed. He has been pushing for greater representation of ethnic minorities within the Church, starting with his own diocese.

Believing that senior officials with responsibility for making appointments training suffer from “unconscious bias”, he has introduced training in recognising that bias.

“It has helped to unmask some of the ways we make decisions,” he said, adding that the C of E was “way behind other organisations” in introducing such training.

Hudson-Wilkin concluded: “The church has to wake up. In the same way it has agonised over women, and has eventually seen that it’s right for women to be in leadership within the church, it needs to put the same amount of work when it comes to minority ethnic people. Now, every time the church sits down to make an appointment it asks ‘where are the women?’ I don’t think it’s saying ‘where are the minority ethnic people?’ It has got to right this wrong.”

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