By Rosie Dawson
Dioceses in the Church of England will have their “feet held to the fire” as the Archbishops’ Commission on Racial Justice tours the country to examine their racial justice work. The commission, set up in response to the report From Lament to Action (published April 2021), will review all aspects of the church’s work on racial justice.
It is led by Lord Boateng, a Labour peer and the first Black person appointed to the U.K. Cabinet in 2002. In a challenging speech to the church’s General Synod in February, Boateng invited members to meet with his team: “We are here on a journey as we seek racial justice. We will wash your feet, but we will sometimes hold them to the fire.”
“It was encouraging that the church was challenged by someone who is outside of our structures,” said the Rev. Sonia Barron, a General Synod member and a member of the commission. “He said that the church is supposed to lead the way, and yet today’s government front bench is more diverse than we are. That was a very powerful challenge to us.”
Boateng told Synod members that he found the failures of the church to implement its past recommendations on racial injustice, catalogued in From Lament to Action, “chilling.”
“It is a scandal,” he said. “And it has to be addressed. It will require intentionality; it will require resources … it will require each and every one of you to embrace it, to see that in every parish and diocese there is a strategy.”
Commission members first visited the Diocese of Bristol at the end of January. The city was rocked by Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Protesters toppled the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbor.
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt. Rev. Vivienne Faull, set up a task force to challenge racism in the diocese, support black and minority clergy in the diocese, and address the diocese’s historic engagement with the slave trade. A three-month research project on memorials throughout the diocese concluded at the end of last year.
The cathedral set up a separate research project into its memorials. The Dean of Bristol, the Very Rev. Mandy Ford, said she welcomed the opportunity to share that work with the commissioners during their visit.
“It’s given us a much more nuanced understanding of the people memorialized, the history of this city as a slave-trading port, and the ways in which middle-class people as a whole profited from it,” she told TLC.
“We have also been talking to Bristol people of African heritage about what it felt like to walk past the Colston statue day after day. The next step is to ask what we can do to repair that injustice. That starts with the recognition that the slave trade was just the start of the racial injustice experienced by many in this city.”
In March the commission will visit Liverpool, another British port with historical involvement in the slave-trade triangle. It partners with the dioceses of Virginia and Kumasi (Ghana) in a Triangle of Hope project that combats contemporary slavery and human trafficking. At a more grassroots level, the Slavery Truth Project is working to help local churches acknowledge their past involvement with slavery.
“Of course we need to work on the history of slavery and its connection with the church, but just as importantly there’s an ethnic diversity borne of 21st-century migration in many of our cities,” said Canon Philip Anderson of Liverpool Cathedral, who is also on the commission. “The commission is challenging us to get better data about the reality of this engagement.
“We have a Farsi-speaking congregation based at the cathedral and a local Anglican church serving the Chinese community, but the Anglican church here, as elsewhere, still has more work to do in engaging with the faith of more recent Christian migrants.”
The commission will visit Truro (Cornwall), one of England’s most rural dioceses, in April. Its population of half a million swells to 4 million during the holiday season.
“We are small, fragile, and on the edge, geographically, missionally, and economically,” said the Rt. Rev. Hugh Nelson, Bishop of St. Germans. “That means our churches feel the challenges of a fast-changing world more keenly, but it also gives us an agility to try things out.”
Last year the diocese held a study day on racial justice with Black Voices Cornwall and Dr. Sanjee Perera, the archbishops’ adviser for minority ethnic Anglican concerns. Training about unconscious bias was run for all clergy, readers, and diocesan staff ahead of the event.
“We thought that perhaps people would say that these issues aren’t relevant because there’s less diversity in Cornwall,” said Rebecca Evans, the diocese’s ministry and parish development officer. “But we didn’t hear people say that at all. People said things like it was part of being a Christian to love their neighbor, whoever that is. There’s also a strong feeling among many Cornish people that they are themselves a minority group, and so we’re seeking to harness that perspective in encouraging a wider discussion around issues of race.”
The diocese is putting the finishing touches on a new equity, diversity, and inclusion policy. “I expect the commission to ask some sharp questions about that,” said Bishop Nelson. “They may ask us how we don’t lose the focus on race when the strategy is also dealing with issues around gender and disability. But we are up for robust challenge and look forward to the conversations.”
In his address to General Synod, Boateng raised the question of how the church’s racial justice work was to be financed. There was widespread consternation last year when a From Lament to Action recommendation to appoint a racial justice officer in every diocese appeared to have been shelved.
The Diocese of Bristol is working to appoint such an officer, although details of how it will fund this have yet to be made public. Bishop Nelson says the Diocese of Truro has no budget for its racial justice work. “It’s culture change that we’re aiming for, not a project or initiative,” he said. “Everyone working on it is doing it as part of what they already do.”
Liverpool, which has fewer historic endowments than any other diocese, pins its hopes on outside support to fund its racial justice work.
Perera has been preparing a bid for national funds, including profits from the Church Commissioners, to help dioceses implement their plans, including the possible appointment of racial justice officers.