By Mark Michael
The Rt. Rev. Mike Hill, the former Bishop of Bristol, has withdrawn from public ministry while a charge of racism is being investigated by the Church of England’s Disciplinary Measures tribunal, according to a recent report in The Church Times. The charge centers on Hill’s 2016 mishandling of the employment of the Rev. Alwyn Pereira, a priest of South Asian ethnicity he ordained in 2011.
After serving his initial curacy after ordination, Pereira, who was born in Kenya of Indo-Portuguese parents but educated in Britain, struggled to find a second church leadership position. Despite applying for multiple posts, Pereira remained unemployed for three years. Bishop Hill, who retired in 2017, attempted to intervene with other diocesan clergy on Pereira’s behalf. But comments by Hill preserved in personnel files include racial stereotyping and disparaging remarks about cultural differences.
On July 5, 2016, Bishop Hill wrote to a senior priest in the Diocese of Bristol asking him to supervise Rev. Pereira “to give him one last chance of being rehabilitated into the Church of England.” While admitting that he liked Pereira, Hill also wrote, “I think the only other thing I need to say, having worked very closely with people from the Indian sub-continent in my past, is that I think there are cultural differences in the way people like Alwyn communicate, and actually handle issues of truth and clarity.”
Two years earlier, when Pereira had been unable to secure a permanent position in the diocese, Hill had also written an email to the diocesan staff team expressing concern. He wrote that the Rt. Rev. Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon (a suffragan in Bristol diocese) had told him that Pereira’s “application was culturally eccentric, but this is slightly dangerous as of course Alwyn is a minority ethnic Anglican (whose cause, according to the National Church, we should be promoting). Cultural from our point of view might well be interpreted as racist by others. . . I judge this to be a difficult and potentially harmful situation for us.”
In November 2015, Hill attempted to broker an placement for Pereira in a different parish. Minutes of the meeting read, “the congregation said they did not want an African priest as they would be lazy. [Bishop Mike Hill] and staff spoke to them about racism. [Bishop Hill] does not think that people who meet [Alwyn Pereira] would know that he has a minority ethnic background.”
Pereira obtained copies of the communications written by Hill when he asked to see his file, and then complained of racial discrimination to the Diocese of Bristol’s HR department in October 2017. He was told to write to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and did so in March 2018. No formal action was taken on his report until November 2019, when Pereira attempted legal action.
A tribunal ruled in May that the allowable time for Pereira to make his racial discrimination complaint had expired. The Rt. Rev. Tim Thornton, the Bishop at Lambeth, who handled Pereira’s letter, defended his actions, noting that Pereira had failed to mention the 2003 Clergy Discipline Measure when he made his first complaint. Pereira says he plans to appeal the tribunal’s ruling, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells’ letter suggests that investigations of Hill’s comments are ongoing.
Hill himself issued a statement in response to the tribunal’s ruling, acknowledging that he used “racial stereotypes which were unacceptable and offensive. . . I deeply regret the incident and I wholeheartedly apologize.”
Hill’s successor, the Rt. Rev. Vivienne Faull, described Hill’s remarks as unacceptable, and also stated, “I have made the commitment to address institutional racism and to recruit and support more BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] clergy. I stand behind these and my other commitments. This work won’t be easy but I will be relentless in my dedication to bringing about change.”
Bristol’s racial justice protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd have been among the most high-profile in Britain, and Bishop Faull issued her statement shortly after Black Lives Matters protesters toppled a prominent city-center statue of slave trader Edward Colston and rolled it into Bristol’s harbor.
Pereira told The Guardian that statements by Anglican bishops in support of Black Lives Matter felt to him “like PR spin,” adding “I suspect my journey [in the church] has been impeded by systemic racism, because of my skin tone.”
He also recently told The Church Times he believed his case was “not a case of just one bad apple. It’s not just about Mike Hill… This is a current issue. It didn’t happen ten years ago. They were defending this in February.”
The Guardian report on Peireira’s case also detailed similar challenges faced by Augustine Tanner-Ihm, a black American ordinand who recently completed his training at Cranmer Hall in Durham, but who has been unable to find a curacy. He recently posted on Twitter a rejection email he had received, which stated, “the demographic of the parish is monochrome white working-class, where you might feel uncomfortable.”
Tanner-Ihm commented in response, “Bishops make statements [on] #BlackLivesMatter this week, I’m still struck by this I received & many more from Diocesan Staff this year. Also the 8 different dioceses that rejected me for a curacy. I guess not all black lives matter.”
The controversy over Hill’s remarks comes as leaders across the Church of England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have acknowledged the presence of institutional racism within church structures. In a video posted on social media last week, the Most Rev. Justin Welby said, “The racism that people in this country experience is horrifying. The Church has failed here, and still does, and it’s clear what Jesus commands us to do: repent and take action…. I feel within me, again today, that great call of Jesus that we are as a church to be those who set our own house in order and who acknowledge our own historic errors and failings.”
Bishop Peter Hancock of Bath and Wells sounded a similar note in his letter about Hill’s withdrawal from public ministry: “In this diocese, as in the Church of England as a whole, there is so much we have to do to address institutional racism. We have failed in the past and it is clear we are still failing now. We pledge ourselves to both listen and act to address racism and inequality in our diocesan structures and our church communities.”