Making anti-racism mainstream: reflections on From Lament to Action

I’ve been re-reading the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce Report, From Lament to Action, which was published on Stephen Lawrence Day back in April. From Lament to Action is the product of a review of some 25 previous reports on racial justice in the Church of England, and also advises the Archbishops (Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell) on the composition and remit of a Racial Justice Commission. The Archbishops have already committed to implementing several of its recommendations, and the Racial Justice Commission is to be presented to the Church’s General Synod this week.

So as steps toward implementation are underway – and no doubt still being debated and contested behind the scenes – I’ve been re-reading it in light of some of the previous reports to which it refers and the history of efforts to address racism and racial justice in the Church, with a view to understanding it better and offering some comment on its recommendations. In particular, I want to say something about the extent to which the recommendations reflect the report’s proper concerns about making issues of racial justice mainstream in the Church and about the relationship between institutional racism in the Church and in society in the UK.

It may seem obvious, but it really helps to read From Lament to Action in that longer view. The impetus for the creation of the Archbishops’ Taskforce came, in part, from the more immediate contexts of a debate in General Synod in February 2020 on the Windrush scandal and the impact of the murder of George Floyd in this country and around the world. But its effect on the Church’s leadership was to galvanise an attempt to review 40 years’ of efforts to address these issues in the Church and society, so as to find a way to make faster, more meaningful progress on them as an urgent priority. For, Archbishop Justin Welby had declared to General Synod in February 2020, the Church was still ‘deeply institutionally racist’.

Institutional racism

By ‘institutional racism’, of course, the Report understands the ++Justin to be referring to the influential definition put forward in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in its report in 1999:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Some have reacted strongly to the charge of institutional racism, as though it were a sign of the malign influence of contemporary secular activism, but the Church of England has, institutionally, been talking explicitly of its own institutional racism for some 30 years, and has been challenged to address it for longer still. Faith in the City, published in 1985, was not the beginning of that history, but it was an important moment. My account of it is drawn from Glynne Gordon-Carter’s Amazing Journey. The Church of England’s Response to Institutional Racism (Church House Publishing, 2003). The report called for a clear lead and organisational change to address racial discrimination and the ‘alienation, hurt and rejection experienced by many black people in the Church of England.’ 

One of the report’s recommendations was for the establishment of a Standing Commission of the General Synod on Black Anglican Concerns. The rejection of that recommendation by Synod, through a motion put forward by its all white Standing Committee, was illustrative and indicative of the problem at hand, and has to some extent framed the history that followed (and From Lament to Action seeks to rectify it). Synod instead agreed to the creation of the Committee on Black Anglican Concerns, which later became the Committee on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC) in 1996, whose members authored or contributed to most of the reports reviewed by the Taskforce. In those reports and the responses to them from General Synod, we can trace the developing articulation after Faith in the City of the charge of what amounts to, and is later expressed in terms of, institutional racism.

Faith in the City had identified Black people’s alienation, hurt and rejection in the Church as a problem requiring clear leadership and organisational change. The Committee’s first report reviewing racism in the dioceses of the Church and identifying good practice, Seeds of Hope (1991), argued that the Church’s mission should include ‘combatting racism among its members and within its structures at every level’. The second report, The Passing Winter (Church House Publishing, 1996), described the General Synod’s discussion of Seeds of Hope, as the first time Synod had ‘discussed the institutional racism which existed within the structures’ and acknowledged the need for work to be done by whole Church in raising awareness at every level (1.1).

I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of Seeds of Hope, but the 1996 parish study pack based on it defines (p. 22) institutional racism as a term used to emphasise ‘the fact that racism is built into and entrenched in the structures and institutions of society such as its economic legal, educational and political systems.’ Racism, it adds, is not just a problem of individual racists, but the way structures and institutions operate against black people.’ The recommendations from Seeds of Hope and the analysis and recommendations of The Passing Winter clearly identify racism in the operation of the Church’s structures and institutional and their impact on black people: in the ways in which the Church’s structures and bodies fail; to address the presence of racism in the Church, e.g. through education; to tackle the marginalisation in parish churches of minority ethnic Anglicans by white Anglicans; to address barriers to the participation of black people in its life, activity and decision-making, including in ordained ministry; to implement adequate and effective equal opportunities policies; and to monitor progress on these issues.

These problems of racism and marginalisation were evidenced in surveys that informed both reports. To get a sense of institutional racism in the lived experience of minority ethnic Christians in one of the more proactive dioceses in this period (when it was led by +John Sentamu, a member of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry), I would recommend Mukti Barton’s Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection (2005).

The use of the concept of institutional racism by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in its report in 1999, and its call for other institutions besides the police to review their policies, outcomes and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities, clearly gave fresh impetus to the Church’s official self-examination. It also led to the Church’s own institutions using the concept of institutional racism to describe itself. Called to Lead (2000) was a report to General Synod from a group tasked with an action plan to follow up on the Inquiry’s report. It foregrounds the Inquiry’s definition of institutional racism and notes that, in response to the Inquiry’s call, the Archbishops’ Council had ‘recognized that the Church of England, like other institutions in society, must accept the challenge of institutional racism and repent.’ (p. 2)

What institutional racism looks like in the Church is evident from the report’s analysis. It quoted Bishop John Sentamu’s observation that ‘the Church of England ‘is still socially glued together by a culture that is monochrome i.e. white’. (The appendix by Lorraine Dixon offers powerful testimony on what it is like to be marginalised by a culture centred on treating white people and their culture as the norm). Called to Lead noted that in areas where minority ethnic communities made up a higher percentage of the local population, minority ethnic Christians also made up a higher percentage of C of E congregations, churchwardens and PCC members, but these rates were not matched in electoral roll membership, local readers and clergy or Deanery Synods. It reported experiences of isolation by minority ethnic Anglicans exploring vocations to ordained ministry; experiences of marginalisation, exclusion and racism by minority ethnic Anglican young people at the hands of white church members; and experiences of stereotyping and marginalisation by minority ethnic members of General Synod.

You can find similar analysis of evidence for institutional racism in the report of the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Racism within the Structures of the Diocese of Southwark, another response to the Lawrence Inquiry, published in the same year. It’s worth noting in particular the stories here of underfunding of initiatives, the alienating effect of white, middle class culture in church life, in the ethos of and recruitment to committees, and in vocational processes, and concerns about exclusionary effects of vestiges of an imperial and colonial mentality in aspects of diocesan life. Later reports give the clear impression that these issues did not and have not gone away. (For an eloquent recent account and analysis of that experience and its impact on individuals and the Church as a whole, I would strongly recommend Azariah France-Williams’ Ghost Ship).

Called to Act Justly expounded the meaning of institutional racism at greater length and emphasised its usefulness when it refers to institutional policies and practices which disadvantage certain groups, regardless of the intention of personnel, and of which white people are beneficiaries but by which they are also corrupted. And General Synod acknowledged the institutional racism of the C of E again when affirming its commitment to tackle it in its resolution on the report in July 2003.

What is striking about reading these and subsequent reports is the repeated of acknowledgement of the problems, the need to re-articulate to General Synod why these problems matter, the repetition of similar recommendations, the repeated sense that while some actions are being taken in some places, overall not nearly enough is being done and not nearly enough progress is being made, and that hopeful signs tend to be followed by a sense of disappointment and frustration at lack of progress. The sense that the message of institutional racism is not being listened to, and that formal acknowledgement is not being born out adequately in action becomes increasingly prominent in later reports to General Synod, and the sense of urgency in the remit of the Archbishops’ Anti-racism Taskforce, and in From Lament to Action, clearly echoes those reports and is really the culmination of a long history of frustrated efforts to get the Church to engage with meaningful change.

A tradition of anti-racist theology

One complaint about From Lament to Action is that it does not have enough theology. Of course, it was not tasked with developing a theological account of racism and anti-racism (though much more of that work is needed in the C of E). Nevertheless, such a theology does inform the whole report and its relatively brief articulation in it is best understood as drawing together, in its own way, a tradition of theological reflection that has informed all the reports it has been asked to review. For, as should be clear now, From Lament to Action stands within and seeks to forward a tradition of official reports and a history of activity, and needs to be read in light of its relationship to them. What comes through all these reports, and From Lament to Action, is the argument that racism is contrary to core Christian convictions about creation and salvation, that anti-racist work flows from the Gospel and so should be integral to the Church’s life and mission.

Seeds of Hope articulated a theological framework in 1991 that grounded its recommendations, and which is quoted in the study guide. Guiding those recommendations were convictions about: the unity and character of the triune God as a God of justice and mercy, about the unity of humanity as one race made in God’s image and the unique worth of each individual before God, and of the church as a people created by Christ’s sacrifice to be community of reconciliation, love and justice who share a foretaste of God’s kingdom. It was brief but rich, implying the coherence of divine unity, human unity and the reconciliation of humanity in the life of the church, and the grounding of the church’s pursuit of justice in the worth of human beings as made in God’s image, Christ’s loving sacrifice for them, underwritten by God’s own just character.

A sense of lack of overall progress lead the authors of Called to Act Justly (2003) to offer a theological reflection on institutional racism in respect of the structural nature of sin and individual and corporate repentance through the pursuit of social justice as the appropriate response to recognising that sin. Racism, like all sin, it argues, fragments relationships, individually and corporately, through the abuse of power held on the basis of physical appearance and cultural assumptions. It requires analysis of the distribution of power, identification of the relationships fractured and of mechanisms for achieving reconciliation, within the institution, in response to the judgement of God on oppressors and God’s compassion for the oppressed. The paradigm of cross and resurrection frames the social dimensions of transformative reconciliation for the powerful, for which listening to black people, repenting of white sin and responding sacrificially to the inequalities and injustices they face are preparatory steps. For the struggle for justice is the other side of the search for reconciliation. Fundamental to that process is the undermining the basis for the dominance of white people, and their expectations of being agents of any change involved.

Present and Participating offered a further theological reflection, no doubt born of the same basic diagnosis that the Church’s failings in addressing its institutional racism were theological at root. It articulated an inclusive theology of generous, reconciliatory, and paradigmatically eucharistic, hospitality. This hospitality is modelled on the hospitality of Christ in his ministry and so imitative of God, and anticipatory of his kingdom, which is receptive to others’ gifts and contributions and so to God’s image in them. Such hospitality realises a fellowship characterised by genuine mutuality and cooperative partnership, figured in the Pauline image of the body of Christ, which transforms those welcomed as guests into hosts – a witness to the world. It thus articulates a theological account of the process of transformation of white majority members called for by Called to Act Justly, though it struggles to transcend the way its concepts centre white Anglicans as hosts imitating God in Christ, and other minority Anglicans, who may have lived all their life in the Church, as strangers. (It also tends to homogenise their experiences and the gifts they bring.)

From Lament to Action clearly echoes and dialogues with this tradition in its treatment of human beings, racism as sin, the saving work of Christ in restoring humanity and the commitments that follow from the transforming reality of being part of his body and identified in relation to him primarily (a theme reflected in the emphasis given to passages like Gal 3.28 and Col. 3.11). It accents the primacy of that identity but is careful to articulate that being identified in Christ embraces human differences and the unique ways each of us images God – elaborating a theme from Seeds of Hope and strengthening the connection in this tradition between creation in God’s image and redemption in Christ.

From this identity and this sharing in Christ comes the commitments to holiness and the pursuit and embodiment of justice, reflecting and witnessing Christ’s restoration of humanity. This calling makes addressing systemic racism and racial sin, which run counter to Christ’s saving work, a missional imperative. ‘The Christian narrative of reconciliation offers us an invitation to confess the sin of racism, and to acknowledge our past and present complicity in various forms of ethnic discrimination and racial prejudice, so that we may truthfully and honestly work together to build the kingdom of God here and now.’ The theme of the full participation of UK Minority Ethnic and Global Majority Heritage Christians in the life, governance, ministry and witness of the Church of England, foregrounded in this report as in so many of its predecessors, flows from this theology, its Christology, ecclesiology and missiology.

Making anti-racism mainstream in the C of E

As From Lament to Action emphasises, its recommendations stand in considerable continuity with those of the reports the Taskforce reviewed. So often in those past reports, as in this, is meagre progress lamented, that you have to ask what does the Taskforce think will make a difference this time, under God? Part of the answer lies in the creation and work of the Racial Justice Commission, as intended by the Archbishops, to which I’ll return below. But also key is the action plan. The Taskforce seem to have taken a leaf out of the way Setting God’s People Free sought to address a very similar story of an even longer history of reports and recommendations without action in respect of the empowering of the laity for the mission and ministry of the Church. In both, setting out a detailed action plan, with clear assignments of responsibility and timescales for implementation, is key. From Lament to Action also updates and adds greater specificity to its actions. It seeks to chart a multi-stranded process of change, initially over a 5-year period, embracing the many parts and levels that make up the Church of England. It advocates nationally funded racial justice officers for every diocese, and it introduces a body at national level to monitor implementation, the Racial Justice Directorate.

As an approach to addressing a systemic problem embedded in the Church’s structures, there’s a good deal of sense in what amounts to a more thoroughgoing, systemic approach to implementing action and embedding accountability, though the coherence of that accountability seems a bit strained in respect of the multiple officers and bodies with oversight of monitoring implementation along with the Racial Justice Directorate. There’s a tension here between making implementation a responsibility for people and agencies in accordance with their normal roles and functions, and introducing a new body to give coherence and grip to oversight, which is reflected more widely in the report’s recommendations and strategy.

A strong theme of this report, as of some of its predecessors, flowing from its theology, is that racial justice and anti-racism become mainstream to the Church’s life, ministry and institutions. It coheres closely with the theme of participation: the more fully UKME and GMH Christians participation in the governance structures, institutions and vocational pathways of the Church, the more scope, in the Spirit, for its ways of thinking, decision-making and configuring ministry to be transformed by their contributions, in this direction, amongst others. That same imperative is reflected elsewhere in, for example, recommendations to make anti-racist training mandatory, to transform school and theological educational institutions’ curricula. In some of these recommendations we find the same tension at work. I’ll give two examples.

The first is the much-discussed requirement that ordinands study either an introductory module on Black Theology or one on Theologies in Global perspective. This recommendation rightly reflects a concern to integrate a greater diversity of traditions of theological reflection, from a greater range of contexts and experiences, in the way people are trained for ordained ministry (presumably this could and should be extended to those training as readers, too). Making engagement with such theologies offers a great opportunity to be challenged and formed in one’s ways of reflecting theologically, and equipped to think theologically about racism and racial justice along with a range of other concerns. Focusing that concern in a requirement to study a module provides a relatively ready way of acting upon it within existing possibilities and with minimal need for rethinking other aspects of training and curricula or for bringing a whole teaching staff on board. It brings change quickly in ways that may influence how students engage with other aspects of the curriculum, and it may thereby promote a demand and desire for change in other ways. However, it’s also possible that it allows TEIs to silo their adherence to the letter of the recommendation without embracing and being transformed by its spirit, and working toward offering a curriculum that integrates diverse theological voices across the board. (I’m basically agreeing here with Mike Higton).

The second is the recommendation for the creation of a study course or materials on racial justice and anti-racism as part of Christian Discipleship, for churches and small groups. Again, there’s much to like about this. It recognises that changing the culture of the C of E has to happen at parish level, and not only when parishes elect people to PCCs or Deanery Synods, appoint a new vicar or recommend someone for training. Perhaps this is the most difficult and significant arena for bringing about change, though one which may be impacted by many other recommendations (e.g. the one just discussed). A discrete resource or study course is something which gives the issues the space they need, allows people to focus on them and discuss them together, and can be produced relatively quickly. However, there is also a danger that we do the anti-racism and racial justice course and then carry on as before. So there is perhaps a similar challenge of how to promote deeper integration of this core element of Christian discipleship across everything the Church does on discipleship – e.g. with the Everyday Faith initiative – at every level.

In a way the Racial Justice Commission exemplifies the same tension. As a standalone body with a clear remit and resources, it can make progress on the issues proposed for it, avoiding the obstacles and inertia which might encumber other institutional arms of the Church. At the same time, there is the challenge of the work to make its work and concerns integral to the normal operation and culture of other departments at national and diocesan levels. So, for example, the Commission is tasked here with examining the C of E’s theology for foundations and frameworks which entrench racial prejudice in the Church (I hope they go beyond official doctrine and liturgies and look at actual espoused and operant theologies on the ground and in different aspects of the institution). But how will antiracism and theological reflection on theology and race and racial justice become integral to the work of the Faith And Order Commission and others with significant responsibilities for doctrine and theological reflection? There’s a risk that those in other bodies in the Church are allowed to think that this work is still someone else’s problem. Given the relatively short time-frame of 5 years, I’d suggest that problem should preoccupy the Commission and the Directorate from the outset. These challenges are similar to some of the worries about targets for participation, and perhaps the same applies in both cases: much depends on how these recommendations are implemented and used to bring about a change of culture. (For some good reflections on targets in the report, see the analyses by Jonathan Jeong and Al Barrett).

Church and Society

A notable feature of the reports preceding From Lament to Action is a concern, evident most fully in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in Called to Lead, to relate institutional racism in the Church and action to address it, to systemic racism in society as the Church’s context, including in respect of expressions of national identity and immigration and asylum policy. There are clear pointers in this direction in From Lament to Action, but, as Charlie Pemberton pointed out to me on Twitter, on the whole it is quite inward looking and does not consider sufficiently how far, precisely as a national church, it is influenced by the culture of which it is a part. The wider history beyond the Church of ethnic minorities in England seems marginal to the otherwise vital briefs given the Commission on slavery and memory, and immigration and asylum history, policy and their interaction with the politics of migration don’t really appear, even though they are the context for the C of E’s response to the presence of minority ethnic Christians in its congregations and its own failures, as recalled by the debate about the Windrush scandal at which ++Justin re-articulated his conviction of the Church’s institutional racism. It is difficult to see how the Church can make real progress on racism and racial justice without examining its relationship to this wider history and context.

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