The (United) Kingdom of God is like…

A curacy in the Church of England can bring many joys, and unexpected challenges. For a black curate starting his curacy in the West Midlands a few years ago, challenge came in the form of a question from a white parishioner, who upon seeing the curate’s clerical collar asked: “Are you a proper priest?” When the curate, somewhat bemused, answered “No, I’m a priest in training”, the man followed up with “Are you a proper priest in training?” Despite the evidence, this black curate would regularly find himself assumed to be the pastor of a black majority church. People found it easy to see him as a minister in other churches – but a vicar in the Church of England? For these white parishioners, Black, Church of England and clergy could not go together.

Racism – a reality check and some definitions
Since 1983, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) has advanced the definition of institutional racism as:
“…a range of long-established systems, practices and procedures which have the effect, if not the intention, of depriving ethnic minority groups of equality of opportunity and access to society’s resources. It operates through the normal workings of the system rather than the conscious intent of the prejudiced individual.”

In December 2019, Gus John, a former consultant to the Church of England on the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), resigned over the Church’s “woeful” record over the past 30 years in combating racism. In February this year, at General Synod, Archbishop Justin Welby, was reminded of the failure of white Anglicans in previous decades to welcome black Anglican Christians into their parish churches; he was also challenged about the Church’s present-day lack of solidarity in the current ‘Windrush Scandal.’ In response, Archbishop Welby admitted that “the Church of England is still deeply institutionally racist.”

Dealing with racism by simply targeting individuals as ‘bad apples’ will not address failures which are embedded at an institutional, systemic level – neither will treating ‘the institution’ as though it were an impersonal entity, as if any institution can be distinct from the individuals who work and act within it.

The (United) Kingdom of God?
Racism in UK society has long, deep roots that spread back centuries via the British Empire, colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. The history of the UK as one of the most significant empires of recent times has left an ongoing legacy of racism and anti-blackness that is still very much with us in the present, in a myriad of covert, ‘respectable’ forms. Overt racism has also experienced a renaissance as increasingly hostile anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have once again become a normalised part of the political landscape.

The Church of England itself played a complex and complicit role within the British Empire. The thinking and theology that gave us Christendom, and which also gave rise to the United Kingdom’s self-understanding as ‘a Christian nation’, still exercises a powerful sway over British society. Indeed, present-day lament over the loss of Christian values stems partly from the assumption that, until relatively recently, the UK had long been upholding essential kingdom of God values. Yet even in the present day, a form that candidates must complete as part of the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry, requires candidates to confirm that they are not a member of the British National Party (BNP). In effect, in 2020 the Church still has to remind candidates that ordained ministry in the Church of England is not compatible with membership of a political party with an exclusionist nationalistic agenda.

The Kingdom of God is like…
Jesus, often through parables, and always through his life’s example, teaches us that the kingdom of God is about who God is; it is deeply and inherently founded in love, justice, peace and joy – we are to love and value other people deeply, including the “alien and stranger” in our midst. The vision of the heavenly kingdom that Revelation presents us with is a glorious vision of people of every tongue, tribe and nation worshipping the Lamb together. One of the Five Marks of Mission in the Church of England is a commitment ‘To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation’. We routinely pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

And yet our embrace of the Good News of the Kingdom here on earth in the United Kingdom all too often finds it easy to accommodate xenophobia and racism, both overt and implicit. Within the Church of England – a church originally conceived of as a church of and for all the English people – there still remains a powerful, underlying culture that sends the message that people who are white English are ‘rightfully in’ and the Church should be preserved and perpetuated in their image. In his very timely and insightful book, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, Azariah France-Williams refers to this merging and blurring of Christianity and nationalistic notions as ‘The Cross and the Crown (Club).’  Christians who find themselves classified as ‘non-white’ – including those Christians whom God has clearly called to serve as an integral part of the Church of England – are treated as ‘resident alien others’, eligible only for partial, conditional participation.

Despite the centuries of evidence of the violence that racism does in all its forms, in the Church, racism is conveniently relegated to the category of an unfortunate, but inevitable, social problem. The fact that it took something as extreme as the brutal public killing of George Floyd for many in our country to be shaken awake to the deadly reality of racism is telling of how too many people are used to ignoring and minimising the violence of long-entrenched racism. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus taught and lived out recognises racism as a sin that demands a deeply theological response because it constitutes an attack on the Creator God who chose to create

m>all humanity in God’s image, in glorious diversity. The popular ‘colour-blind’ approach to race is not a solution; the racism in our systems, structures and institutions needs to be seen to be addressed.

Godly sorrow leading to action
Telling a more truthful ‘warts and all’ version of British history – without defensiveness or debilitating guilt, but with the inclusion of the perspectives of those whose heritage lies in the former colonies, would enable us to see more clearly together and so recognise the racist systems and assumptions that have been ingrained into the institutions of our society. For the Church of England, this would need us to be honest in a way which allows for the ‘godly sorrow’ of which Paul speaks (2 Corinthians 7.8-11a). Godly sorrow brings repentance – it is life-giving and embraces justice – and is demonstrated in thought and word and deed.

In an open letter to the Archbishops of York and Canterbury in June 2020, the Anglican Minority Ethnic Network (AMEN) emphasised the need for transformative action now. With all that is currently happening in our world, with the renewed and new cry for racial justice, could this be a kairos moment – a prophetic time for “anyone who has an ear to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”?

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be not mere hearers of the word, nor just proclaimers of the word, but doers of the word. In Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, the thief is no longer given free rein to use racism to steal, kill and destroy in the body of Christ. As Christians, to be true to the Gospel means that it is Jesus’ kingdom values, and Jesus’ vision of life in its fullness for all, that has to reign in His Church – including the Church of England.

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Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England by A. D. A. France-Williams is an important book, exposing some of the ways in which racism is embedded into the Church of England, and sharing more accounts of people’s experiences of racism. France-Williams is not an evangelical and the references here to his book should in no way be taken as endorsement of his theology! Sadly, I do not know of any equivalent studies written by evangelicals.

Other posts in this series:
The gospel antidote to racism, Chik Kaw Tan
Black lives indeed matter, Oyin Oladipo
Racism: why we might miss the opportunity, Niv Lobo

For more articles on this subject, please see the Autumn 2020 edition of Crossway. Details are here and copies can be purchased here.

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