“The truth is that, as is the case with society, the Church still has a long way to go when it comes to race.”
It’s time to kick racism out of the Church!
Rev David Shosanya argues that it is time for the mainstream church denominations to confront the issue of race effectively, and to eradicate racism within its own structures and processes
Last year, I wrote an article about racism and the Church. The BBC subsequently invited me to Broadcasting House to record a radio programme that was syndicated across the UK. The article was the second in a trilogy addressing the subject. The first article, ‘Black Faces in White Spaces’, was written some years ago, and explored the pressures Black leaders faced when exercising their ministries in mainstream White-led denominations.
Despite the misguided rhetoric of a ‘post-racial’ society, the realities of race still continue to spread their tentacles with detrimental effect both within the Church and wider society. Sport currently appears to be the public arena where the race discourse is most pernicious, and serves as a forceful reminder that racial discrimination is so deeply entrenched in British society. The allegedly hallowed apolitical platform of sport has been recently tainted by this evil, as seen by the very public fallout of two of England’s most high profile footballers. Ex-England international, Sol Campbell, intensified the debate about racism and sport, and even warned English fans not to travel to Europe for the Euros. The chanting of monkey noises at Black players by locals during the opening game of the European Championships was disgraceful. Sadly, racism is still a major issue – despite protestations to the contrary.
Many White-led denominational structures and leaders can often demonstrate the same attitudes as footballing governing authorities. The apparent commitment to anti-racism and inclusion enshrined in policy statements, and posturing about how we are ‘one in Christ’ is often anaemic ‘when the rubber hits the road’. This is especially true when justice that requires the sharing or relinquishing of power, or proactive and un-coerced foresight when strategic decisions are made.
Some may consider an article of this nature, written by a senior Black minister, who exercises his ministry in a predominantly White-led denomination, to be tantamount to washing one’s dirty linen in public. I would simply draw their attention to the fact that such individuals are very comfortable reading the text of the New Testament, without appropriating the same sentiment to Jesus, who also offers penetrating critiques of the culture and faith by which He was shaped and from which He emerged. What is often overlooked by such individuals, who are disapproving of the public nature of our dialogue as Black leaders around the issue of race within our denominations, is the sense of dis-ease we sometimes feel, as we seek to ‘defend’ or explain the unhelpful decisions and actions of our denominations to ecumenical friends, who are often shocked by what they hear through the grapevine. One must ask whether such objections to public dialogues, which transcend the constraining and controlling powers of denominational infrastructure, are motivated by a deep and misplaced desire to keep face in the midst of shameful actions and attitudes that fail to live up to the ideals of the Gospel concerning the equality of all human beings.
Sadly, even liberal White leaders, who appear to be vociferous advocates of the inclusivity agenda within mainstream structures can, and do, readily collude with denominational power structures. African and Caribbean communities willingly accept the contribution of White sisters and brothers in the fight for racial justice. At the same time, experience has taught us to exercise caution to such individuals. We have discovered that champions often harbour covert aspirations that are ingeniously deployed to secure positions of power for themselves – at our expense. For one reason or another, there is a perverse sense of pleasure derived from speaking on our behalf, rather than actually listening to us when we speak about our own lived experiences.
This is particularly true when positions of influence are conferred upon ‘advocates’ within the very same structures they are enamoured with, by virtue of the power and privilege it bestows. Their advocacy is therefore often predicated on the hidden aspiration for visibility and significance that cannot be attained in and of themselves, or on a spurious desire to have power over oppressed communities and to become our spokesperson. Their Whiteness means that they are readily recognised and embraced by other White leaders as the ‘civilised’ and ‘reasonable’ voice(s) or perspective(s) of the race discourse!
A note of caution needs to be sounded, which those of us in institutional positions should take seriously. We should not allow a sense of denominational loyalty or misplaced personal allegiances to prevent us from standing in the prophetic tradition of our faith; naming our structures for what they are, and calling denominational leaders to account and ensuring that our structures are beyond reproach with respect to institutional racism.
It would be easy to point to the Archbishop of York as a Black church leader, who has broken through the glass ceiling and attained one of the highest ecclesiological offices in the land. However, that would be the weakest form of argument against racism in mainstream denominations, as it is based on the premise of an exception rather than a norm.
Sadly, despite significant advances in legislation that informs and seeks to regulate society’s behaviour around race, gender and disability, some mainstream denominations appear to have made less progress than one might have reasonably expected, given their respective histories. The truth is that, as is the case with society, the Church still has a long way to go when it comes to race.
Rev David Shosanya is a Regional Minister & Director with the London Baptist Association