Do BAME lives matter in the Church of England?

The following are my notes of a seminar delivered by Anderson Jeremiah, Anthony Reddie, Elizabeth Henry, Lusa Nsenga Ngoy and Sharon Prentis. Any inaccuracies is my responsibility.

BAME are at the mercy of the majority community. Being white is the norm. So, minorities are defined by not being white instead of the rich diversity each of us brings. Lives of minorities are of inferior status and less valuable if not negligible.

The church in general and the Church of England in particular is a product of the wider social framing. The church replicates and mirrors the normativity of white lives as special, superior, essential and all others as inferior.

Society and church are primarily defined by a particular privileged majority community that sees the minority communities as neither equal nor valuable; as something that needs to be included at the behest of the majority community. There is a gatekeeper, there is fencing and framing within which the minority community has to be accepted. So, you will be accepted if you fit into the norm. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ questions such a social framing. It gives self-worth to every living being bearing the image of God as proclaimed in the Old Testament, as a God who embraces everyone and redeemed by the blood of Christ, gathered as a family as described in the book of Acts.

The church by its very nature is diverse. It cannot be defined by one particular norm. By its very nature, the church cannot be defined by any one majority community. Therefore, if BAME lives are not valued in the Church of England it has to seriously reconsider its definition as a church. If the Church of England is defined by a white majority, is it a church?

Minorities in the Church of England continue to be measured from the white privileged position which has access to power, opportunity and agency.

To ask the question ‘do BAME lives matter in the Church of England’ is absurd. It should be axiomatic that all lives matter. If our lives mattered we would not be asking the question in the first place. We wouldn’t need a movement if humanity had behaved in the way God had intended. We have to start with the failure of the church to be the church.

Theology of good intentions

When the church is accused of not caring for those on the margins they set up a working group, they produce a report, they have apologetic rhetoric that says we have not done better in the past and promises that we will do better in the future.

After the working group has been wound up and the report has been published with its recommendations life goes back to normal. Things are done the way they were before; until another incident forces another apology… Then we go through the same cycle again. Another working group, another report, another set of words… another theology of good intentions.

Instead what we need is radical action for change. And dethroning of whiteness

Original sin of theology; silence in the face of white supremacy

The Church of England has to ask itself who is its real lord and master. Is it Jesus Christ, a Palestinian Jew who was on the side of those on the margins or is its white supremacy? Until that question is addressed our lives are not going to matter; they will continue to be governed by the theology of good intentions.

How can a white person in 2020 ask ‘what does racism look like?’

Do BAME lives matter in the Church of England? The answer to the question is: the evidence tells us not and the experience tells us not.

My family have been Anglicans since 1643. They were slaves and indentured slaves.

When my mum came to this country from the Caribbean, she, like others, went to an Anglican church but it wasn’t the church for her. She ended up in a Pentecostal church.

Often Black lives do not matter. We are being called to repent, to lament.

The moment the Church became captive of imperial powers it lost its ability to be the church that originated in the margins. (I wonder whether the moment the Church became safe, it lost the voice it was meant to speak with. It stopped being persecuted because it was no longer posing a threat).

What would the church’s reorientation look like?

Those who currently hold the power in the church need to relinquish it and step back. With power comes privilege. Will there be relinquishing of power?

All theology is contextual. It is also autobiographical. It is (wrongly) presented as universal. This is especially so with white theologians. They pretend to be neutral, well informed, scholarly …Utter nonsense. Everyone should admit their starting point, their bias.

Theology is human speech about God. God does not do theology. Humans do. But we do theology from our locatedness as creatures. God is the creator; we are his creation. We can only write partially.

When we have all our voices around the table, then and only then we get close to who God is. It’s a lot better than just having a limited number of voices, usually white. So, a question worth asking is: who is missing from around the table?

As a minority seminarian I learnt European theology. By doing so I lost my ‘mother tongue’; because I was being taught to speak someone else’s language.

Education is key to transformation. But it’s sad the church has lost its pedagogical tool of empowering and equipping people.

How to enable BAME people in more senior roles in the Church of England?

We would never need to say: how to enable white people to do so; to get there and to flourish effectively.

We have the reports. We know what’s needed. What we need to do is to remove the structural barriers.

There is a lot of patronage in the church. This is likely to benefit white people. We have to be honest; we have an appointments process that is not fit for purpose. The church needs to make room for talented BAME people. The patronage which means there is a lack of transparency. So, the structures and systems that allow this have to be changed.

How can we be a model for society?

We have Jesus as our model. He thought things were not right, so he decided to challenge it. He wanted to offer a new model. He invited people to follow him.

So, the very task of the church is to be the alternative model.

The church should enable the presence of God in every community that we live.

If the presence of God is not facilitated by each one of us whatever ethnic background we happen to be then we cannot call ourselves as church.

In any situation we should ask: who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged. We should then ask what we need to change in order to advantage the disadvantaged. What structures and models do we need to operate so that the normative way of doing things is turned over?

The Beloved Community in the Episcopal church is a good example. It contains repentance, reconciliation, proactive action, identifying with those on the margins and having courageous conversations.

It was said of the First Century church: look how they love one another. Do we now really love one another?

Council of World Mission is another example. They moved their headquarters from London to the global south in order to decentre empire. They are planning reparations.

Bishop Francis-Dehqani, a Persian Christian added:  

  • Being powerful in and of itself does not make us an effective church.
  • In answer to the question: do BAME lives matter? the answer is: BAME lives matter to God. The church is God’s expression on earth through the power of Jesus Christ.
  • If BAME lives matter to God then the church is not truly church or it’s a very diminished church until it fully encompasses that. To do so it need to fully understand and practice justice