A review of Azariah France-Williams’ Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship is a revelation, an unveiling of realities largely unperceived by privileged members of the Church of England who are also racialised as white, in powerful imagery and devastating testimony. You may have heard of the Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby’s speech at the Church’s General Synod, moving his private member’s motion, in which he called for practical solidarity with the victims of the Windrush scandal, and acknowledgement of the Church’s own institutional racism. You may have read or watched it and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s widely reported frank admission, in response, that the Church is indeed ‘deeply institutionally racist.’ This book is not the first publication to give voice to the experience of minority ethnic clergy in the C of E, but I suspect it is the best publicised so far and so best placed to stimulate reflection and action. It offers an eloquent exposition of that complex experience and a diagnosis of the institutional culture which makes the Church and its dioceses unsafe vessels for minority ethnic vocations and ministries. It what follows I want to pick out some of the themes that stood out to me on reading and re-reading it.

Micro-aggressions and emotional labour

One of the book’s strengths is that it gives voice to a number of members of the Church of England from ethnic minorities, mostly clergy, some named and interviewed, several as anonymised respondents to a survey. The experiences they report here are chronic, exhausting and reveal a culture that is stressful to inhabit for them, because of the constant possibility of being spoken to or spoken about as the out of place, curious, exotic, deficient, suspicious or frightening racial other; a culture, moreover, which places all the burden of managing these micro-aggressions on those who receive them. These ‘mini-assaults on one’s personhood are death by a thousand paper cuts’ (p. 6). The testimonies cited in the book relate such occurrences in the process of selection for ordination, at theological colleges, in ordained parochial ministry, from BAP selectors, fellow ordinands, parishioners and white fellow clergy. The seriousness and significance of micro-aggressions for people from ethnic minorities is underlined by some do the findings from the Minority Anglican Project, described by Dr. Sanjee Perera here.

In/visibility and tokenism

Closely related to these experiences is a repeated experience France-Williams describes of simultaneous invisibility and visibility in contexts of ministry, team meetings and in relation to the hierarchy. That is to say, he (and others) are visible to their white peers and senior clergy only on certain terms: as a racial other, not as themselves, not as those made in the image of God and called by God to minister in Christ’s Way. They only register in so far as they conform to – and give the impression (smiling) of being comfortable conforming to – the expectations and norms imposed upon them by a white majority middle class clerical culture which works assiduously and quietly to exclude them from significant responsibility, to reconfigure their initiatives and, above all, to recruit their persons as badges of their own inclusivity. What is not welcome is the experiences, the pain, the histories and cultures of minoritised Anglicans, and the difficult and costly reckoning that would follow from engaging seriously with them. Tokenism is, on this multi vocal account, a serious obstacle to mission, communion, w/holiness and racial justice in the Church of England.

A history of silence and exclusion

Another powerful and instructive feature of the book is its relating of the histories and presences that provide the complex haunting context for these experiences and this treatment. There is the massive trauma of Caribbean slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, British colonialism and its legacies in the Caribbean, and the Church’s part in profiting from and upholding these institutions. There is empire and its iconographic celebration in English churches and cathedrals. There is the cold reception or rejection of Anglicans of the Windrush generation. All these histories and legacies need to be better and more widely known and reflected upon in the Church, at all levels and incorporated into its liturgical anamnesis (the discussion of Canon Eve Pitts’ Ancestors Arise service, and the analogy with Remembrance Day, in chapter 2, is really thought-provoking here).

And then there is the repeated failures of General Synod to take meaningful action in response to the exodus of Black Anglicans to Black Majority Churches in the late 70s, and the sustained efforts of the General Synod Standing Committee to curtail and stymie the efforts of minoritised Anglicans, led by Bishop Wilfred Wood and what became the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), to address the institutional racism they encountered in the Church and its governing body, the General Synod, following upon recommendations made in Faith in the City report of 1985. France-Williams’ scepticism about future prospects of meaningful and adequately radical reform are very understandable in light of this history.

Whiteness, power and safety

France-Williams’ diagnosis of the treatment ethnic minority Christians and clergy have experienced in the Church is an analysis of the unexamined use of power in the Church of England by and for people (usually male in the anecdotes) racialised as white, backed by and perpetuating a largely unreflective normalising of whiteness: i.e. White supremacy. It is a stark, shattering assessment, which deeply challenges the Church of England’s institutional identity as a moral arbiter of justice and holiness and its sense of being ‘the good guys’. It will meet with instinctive resistance, but it is really the explication of the admission of institutional racism.

There are some powerful observations here about whiteness, white supremacy and it’s English Anglican manifestations. France-Williams quotes the Episcopalian priest, Winnie Varghese: ‘whiteness is a claim to power, it’s a claim to rightness’, an identity Christians have to resist (p. 14). English racism, he observes, is ‘often more about subtraction of support than addition of suffering; more about a retreat from people of colour than a full-on direct assault’ (p. 89). And that’s borne out in the experiences related here. As a black minister in the Church he meets ‘colleagues who are white, where white means power and a belief that they know what is best for all concerned when they should be there to listen and support’ (p. 17), an observation illustrated in several excruciating episodes recounted here. It is the whiteness and class unity, the shared social capital and heritage (p. 74) operative behind the scenes in dioceses that the author sees unveiled in the unity of his white clergy colleagues, otherwise divided in terms of doctrine and practice, on the cricket pitch and in the business informally done there (pp. 173-4).

Of the Church of England he writes, (p. 8) that this sapping whiteness ‘is at work in every arena of the Church of England, from its ruling council General Synod, to its theological colleges, and the way the Church of England operates in its communities. All privilege white concerns as the norm.’ And he sees that whiteness in the Church intersects with class, gender and ableism. Hence the challenge offered by the book: ‘Unless the status attributed to being white is examined, the white historic Church will continue to both consciously and unconsciously limit the voice, action, and influence of her own non-white members, her women, her members of the queer community, her neuro-diverse, and those who live with disabilities.’ And this must lead to a radical transformation (p. 21): ‘Until our institutions are reordered, our education systems, our political systems, and our church systems, a person of colour does not have the societal backing and reinforcement to flourish.’

Central to this analysis of the use of power in Ghost Ship is the tensed pairing of Cross and Crown, from the juxtaposition of a portrait of the Queen and Prince Phillip alongside one of Jesus in the front room of France-Williams’ parental home (p. 32), to the label he uses for General Synod: the ‘Cross and Crown Club’. The Cross here is the way of ‘willingness to suffer alongside the vulnerable’ (p. 96); the Crown is the way of ‘status, superiority and security’, the ‘path of power, privilege and prestige… the way of the predator’ (p. 33). The Church of England, he argues, seeks to serve both Masters, both Crucified Lord and Crown, and collapses them into one unstable identity and ethos in which the way of the Crown predominates beneath the rhetoric of the Cross, a prioritising inevitable, in the case of General Synod, by the management of its agenda as an exclusive club. France-Williams’ memorable and arresting way of figuring this doubleness and the effective priority of the Crown (and part of the genius of the book is the care that has been taken to arrest and provoke the imagination to think, to engage) is by using of the familiar mythos of CS Lewis’ Narnia stories, and especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Church of England presents itself as serving and proclaiming Aslan. But the experience of its clergy from ethnic minorities, he argues, is that beneath that exterior they actually encounter Jadis and her wolves, and an icy whiteness for which they are unacclimatised, while Aslan is kicked out or sacrificed again.

It is this diagnosis which leads to the judgment embodied in the central image of the book, the Ghost Ship, drawn from the disaster of the sinking of the overloaded ferry boat the MV Christena between the islands of St Kitts and St Nevis in the Caribbean, in August 1970, but also drawing on the imagery and history of the Middle Passage and its ghosts. The Church of England, France-Williams argues, is to its clergy from ethnic minorities an unsafe vessel in which to voyage, because of its hierarchical white supremacist culture. Its dioceses (‘Dire-Seas’), too, which should come with safety ratings. There is a strong note of caution here for anyone from an ethnic minority seeking to pursue a vocation on the vessel, one which should alarm the House of Bishops and Ministry Division.

And yet, he argues, it does not need to be like that. There is a history of missed opportunities, transformed in the Epilogue into an ‘alternative future history’, to give leadership to ethnic minority members (p. 33), and clergy (p. 134), to listen to them and empower them. There is the opportunity still for white clergy, bishops especially, to recognise and work against the white supremacy that advantages them, to choose the kenosis of whiteness, the way of the Cross, and its costs, including reparations. It is possible because it is being done elsewhere, in the Diocese of Long Island (pp. 62-4), in the USPG (p. 114).

Ghost Ship is a revelation, full of imagery fraught with background, freighted with pain. It is powerful, prophetic, poetic testimony, a threnody, a warning, a call to repentant action and a vision of another future. If you have a vocation to ministry in the C of E; if you exercise ministry in the Church in any capacity; if you hold power in the Church in some regard- or hope to do so: you should read it.

A.D.A France-Williams, Ghost Ship. Institutional Racism and the Church of England (2020) is published by SCM Press and available from their website: https://scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780334059356/ghost-ship

One thought on “A review of Azariah France-Williams’ Ghost Ship

  1. Thanks for this summary/review, Ben. I’ve recently finished the book myself and found it revelatory in many respects. There is a lot in France-Williams’s book I’ll probably have to re-read at some point soon.

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