Can the C of E’s Ghost Ship change course over its institutional racism?

Image: Azariah France Williams

By Rosie Dawson

The Rev Azariah France-Williams has been a priest in the Church of England for 10 years, but he cautions other prospective black and brown clergy to think very carefully before following his lead.

“I knew I wasn’t being recruited into Disneyland but I didn’t realise it was going to be the House of Horrors at times either,” he told a Religion Media Centre webinar on Tuesday.

Azariah France-Williams likens the Church of England to a ferry, the MV Christena, which sank between the islands of St Kitts and Nevis in 1970 with the loss of 230 lives. The church, like the Christena, he says, was built with poor materials and is not fit for purpose.

Black and brown clergy were shoved below deck as second or third-class crew and many do not survive the trip, he said. His journey and that of others within the church is told in his book Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England.

He says black and brown clergy are often treated as “cannon-fodder”, and asked to submit reports and offer insights that are then ignored. He recalls being asked by a white vicar of a large multi-ethnic church to conduct a survey among people of colour in the congregation about their experience of church. But when he went to the vicarage to presented the survey “he took the report, swung round in his swivel chair, and in one movement dropped it into the top of his in-tray. He said: “The Spirit is now saying, ‘Now is the time for unity, not diversity’.”

An opportunity for change in the Church of England was missed in 1985 when General Synod debated its ground-breaking report into urban areas, Faith in the City, says France-Williams.

The report made 61 recommendations with all but one being approved. The exception was the proposal that the church set up a commission for black Anglican concerns. This was opposed by the standing committee out of fear that it would threaten unity in the church and a committee with far fewer powers was established instead. The epilogue to Ghost Ship imagines an alternative history in which a commission was established and a process of truth and reparations enabled the church and other national institutions to face up to the legacy of the slave trade.

Another black Anglican, the Rev Jarel Robinson-Brown, spoke of his hope that France-Williams’s book would lead to real change within the Church of England. “People are tired and have had enough. If change doesn’t come from this we’re in a really bad place because we can no longer talk as if we don’t know what the reality is any more.” But he asked where the prophetic challenge to the church was going to come from: “How prophetic can the clergy be when the institution they are trying to challenge is the one which feeds and houses them?”

The poet and broadcaster the Rev Rachel Mann, an Anglican priest in Manchester, acknowledged that the book gave a perspective which built empathy and “shook the ground”. Azariah had said that words could open, unlock, energise and stir people up. “I sense that for you, that poetic voice, if it can’t stop tanks can maybe motivate people to move out and face down the Church of England’s tanks on the parish lawns,” she said.

Dr Sanjee Perera, of Coventry University, has completed research on the way in which the Anglican church navigates race. “I think this is a topic of the moment,” she said, “and I think that there will come a time when they’ll tick the box and say ‘we’ve done that’ and move on — and that would be heartbreaking if we don’t actually achieve transformation.

“I don’t think that the defence mechanisms are coming necessarily from the hierarchy as much as from middle management and the ecclesia. That’s the difficult part. It doesn’t really matter what the bishops say unless the people who are the real lifeblood of the church are not behind this.”

Azariah France-Williams welcomed the decision by the House of Bishops to set up a commission on racial justice after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told General Synod in February that the Church of England was still “deeply institutionally racist”. The Archbishop’s Racism Action Commission, which will begin work early in 2021, will aim to “implement significant cultural and structural change”.

He says he looks forward to learning the detail of how the commission will operate, including how it will be funded. “Within an era of pandemic, when church and diocesan funding has tanked, this is a real test: will they fund this properly? That will demonstrate to me whether people are really serious this time.”

Azariah France-Williams’s book, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England is published by SCM Press

The full conversation on YouTube can be seen below: