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Holy unacceptable: racism and the Church of England

A new book investigates why black Anglicans are too often made to feel like outsiders, and examines how the Church can repent and change

13 August, 2020 — By Marjorie Brown

Azariah France-Williams

GHOST Ship is an astonishing book. I picked it up expecting a dry and critical look at “Institutional Racism and the Church of England”, as advertised in the subtitle. But it is a feast of the imagination. The book makes the reader experience the gut-punch of racism in the Church rather than contemplate it at arm’s length.

The cast of characters include Jadis the Queen of Narnia, Charlie from the Chocolate Factory, and Samson and Delilah.

We have tales from a griot (in the tradition of West African storytelling) and poems from the author’s alter ego, BraveSlave.

ADA France-Williams gives us a new view of the world and undermines our settled assumptions.

A central metaphor of the book is the sinking of the MV Christena 50 years ago. The ferry was making its last crossing of the day between the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis, and the defective boat was dangerously overcrowded. It sank with 320 people aboard who were travelling to celebrate emancipation day, August 1.

Only 91 were rescued. Many of the dead were trapped in the wreckage and the decision was made to leave them in their tomb on the seabed, in the “ghost ship” as it came to be called.

Azariah France-Williams, whose family is from St Kitts and Nevis, is a prophet and he has a mighty roar.

The Church of England is currently trying to increase the number of Black and minority ethnic clergy, of whom he is one. He asks if candidates are being invited onto a broken ship that is already sinking.

Should the Church not change before beckoning BAME passengers to come aboard, only to be herded onto the dangerous lower decks?

He compares the national Church and its governing structures to a Cross and Crown Club.

The sacrificial love of the crucified Lord is overshadowed by the rigid hierarchies of a privileged white male establishment. Black Anglicans are too often “othered”, made to feel outsiders.

Rev Marjorie Brown, vicar at St Mary’s Primrose Hill

France-Williams sounds angry, and he is.

His personal story of setbacks makes for sad reading. Too often he, like many others, has been patronised, sidelined and ignored when he has offered to be an agent of change. He lists and celebrates the many Black clergy, theologians and lay leaders who have inspired him but whose challenges to the Church have gone unanswered.

It is all too easy to condemn the flagrant racism in other parts of the world or even in our own country, while believing that Christians are immune.

We can applaud the Black Lives Matter movement while failing to see the extent to which we are involved in the structures that oppress people. Complacency allows injustice to flourish.

And yet France-Williams still has hope.

The Church of England is starting to look in the mirror and recognise that there is a problem.

The Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged in February of this year that the Church is “still deeply institutionally racist”, an admission that makes Anglicans profoundly uncomfortable, and rightly so. But it might just provide the opening that can allow something new and life-giving to creep through and begin to flourish.

This extraordinary year of 2020 has seen great changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time in living memory, people all around the world have been facing the same fears and living through the same restrictions on normal life.

We have been united by the lockdown in a new kind of solidarity.

It is no surprise therefore that the whole world has paid attention to the horrific death of George Floyd and started to question our own complicity in racial injustice.

Every year October is observed internationally as Black History Month.

This year, many Anglican churches will make a special effort to keep October as a time of listening to and learning from the Black members of our communities.

At St Mary’s Primrose Hill we will be hearing Black speakers every Sunday in the month. We will read and discuss this book and other writings by Black authors. We will ask ourselves some penetrating questions and commit ourselves to being part of the transformation that is so badly needed.

Ghost Ship will upset many of its readers. We will want to deny that things are as bad as France-Williams paints them. We will pick holes in his analysis and question his judgments.

But we cannot avoid the silent accusation of the many “ghost ships” that sank in the Atlantic carrying slaves as cargo, and we cannot pretend that racial justice has been achieved in 2020 Britain or in the Church of England.

An “alternative future history” closes the book, with a hopeful vision of how things could have been and may yet come to be. The point is not to despair but to repent and change.

Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England. By ADA France-Williams. SCM Press, £19.99
Revd Prebendary Marjorie Brown is vicar at St Mary’s Primrose Hill.

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