After reading this book I feel in shock. In one way or other my whole life has been played out in the Church of England (‘C of E’). It is the church I grew up, came to faith through, got through university with and now attend with my family. I have regarded the church as essentially either at best a net contributor to building God’s kingdom or at worst at least benign. Personally, it has provided nourishment to my soul, the strength to get through hard times, somewhere between provocateur and comfort blanket. In times of trouble I have sat in churches as a point of security, a point of reference in an otherwise fast moving landscape. However, I have done so as a white male, and this book has made me realise that so much of what I feel towards the C of E would simply not be true were I not white. Worse the church might do more harm than good.
Father Williams has written a beautiful book, which mixes personal recollections from the author, stories of other individuals and their personal narratives with rich allegories that draw home how deceptive power structures can be. It is not though a positive book (as given its subject matter it perhaps cannot be); it is harrowing, this is not a good news story. Indeed, its epilogue paints an alternative vision from 1987 had different decisions been taken by the various institutions and power structures within the C of E. This is a book of grief, of mourning towards missed opportunities.
The main point that the book makes is that the C of E is essentially a ghost ship where passengers, particularly clergy, board it akin to the tragedy of the MV Christena. That the C of E is at its worst a grotesque club where the white (and mostly male) are inured against the worst elements of the tragedy that unfolds within it. The powerful twin themes being firstly that the C of E does not live up to its calling to serve God; that it has both been historically and still is compromised as part of the wider establishment with a supreme governor who remains the UK monarch. Secondly that the C of E is institutionally racist; where the governance and power structures play out with a white bias. The point made by Father France-Williams that whilst not always intentional, the net effect is that black individuals are meant to be grateful for being allowed to be involved and are expected to continue the power and subtle structures that have been formed within the church… they are meant to play along.
The two most profound stories I found were ones directly from the authors experience. Firstly, his experience preaching at St Pauls and seeing the inscription ‘to God and Empire’ and what that meant to him as a black person. I reflected just how different my response would be to such an inscription; as a white male. That would not have had the negative connotations of subjugation, in fact it would feel almost of a friendly quaint hang over from a more friendly and certain time. It was challenging to see how the remains of our history act as a reminder, be they our statues, our inscriptions, our buildings or indeed our institutions. Secondly, he speaks of an encounter with a retired bishop and a white colleage at a Quaker service and implicit power structures and silent narratives that are presumed to take part as they talk after the meeting. In one of the few rays of hope that story ends with a reflection of regret by the bishop that perhaps he should have been done. I can relate to seeing countless similar interactions, the endless need to understand that ‘the game’ has to continue and regret that more challenge was not forthcoming when it is often too late.
As someone who professionally works within a Royal Charter institution I can see many of the common themes and subtleties. Indeed, my own organisation is in many ways similarly challenged. However, there are within that institution concrete levers that can be concretely pulled to initiate change, and indeed that are being pulled. The governance processes though are far less complex and not so reliant on serving one’s time and playing ‘the game’. What has shocked me on reading this book is that I should have seen this. Governance is my area of expertise; to have influence within the C of E you have to learn to play the game, to get in step… it becomes self-perpetuating. In a nutshell the problem the C of E has is that it almost exclusively recruits internally, either to its leadership or governance structures; there is very little (if any) external perspective. At the same time it is overly complex made up of a myriad of parishes, diocese… even the national body is made up of seven seperate but interconnected ‘National Church Institutions’. In short in terms of governance it is setup to be self-perpetuating; locked into statsis.
Please do read this book, but do not expect a happily ever after story… or even dare I say it any sense of hope. I left feeling very down about just how much work needs to be done and just how unlikely that is to happen. Exchanging messages with a friend (who is a black member of clergy within the C of E) I wondered what I can do; he suggested that a starting point is to be at least honest at a parish level. So if you are a church member please do read this and go back to your parish church with new eyes. That somehow does not feel enough but if nothing else it’s a starting point. I go into the week, holding on to the hope that I know so many amazing people who live and work within the C of E (many I have had the privilege to work alongside), but my simple message to you whether lay or ordained is please read this book.
This is the most helpful prayer I could find as a response:
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
I have blinded my eyes. In spite of the clear evidence of deeply embedded racism all around me, I have looked the other way. Too many have died. Too many have suffered. Too many have been locked out and cast aside. Too many indignities. Too many injustices. And still I looked the other way.
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
I have hardened my heart. Believing the lie that blacks have the same opportunities as whites, I could not allow myself to admit that my life was shaped as much by racism as theirs—mine to benefit and theirs to harm. But it was and it is and it will continue to be. I have cared too little. I have grieved too little.
Have mercy on me, O Lord.
I have silenced my tongue. My voice has not been raised in prophetic rebuke and anger. My feet have not stepped out for justice alongside those who have more courage than I. And in my silence I am an accomplice to bigotry.
Forgive me, O Lord.
I have sinned against you and against those who suffer the evil of racism. Indifference has smothered my soul and snuffed out fleeting impulses for reconciliation. I ask for your forgiveness and I will appropriately seek their forgiveness.
Empower me, O Lord.
I need your strength to step beyond blindness, indifference and fear; to step toward those whom I have sinned against. I make no grandiose promises or plans today for I know how easily these can be made and forgotten. But this I know. I cannot be the same. And I will not.
Amen!Mark Young, Denver Seminary