by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist
Like many others, I was dismayed when I read about an ill-judged tweet by a young cleric – but even more so by the official response by those in charge of the diocese where I live and worship. It felt like a heavy-handed reminder of the second-class status of those of us who are black and minority ethnic in the Church of England and belong to other minorities, as well as potentially discouraging attempts to address vital issues for Christians today.
The Diocese of London, while condemning racist abuse, gave a boost to those demanding harsh punishment, against a background of racial and homophobic bias locally and nationally. However this approach met with strong reactions from other clergy and laypeople, after which the bishop backpedalled and further statements were issued. There is much to be learnt, for Church leaders and members, about taking justice seriously.
From individual misstep to institutional blunder
Tom Moore became a household name in the UK when, before his 100th birthday, he walked 100 laps of his garden to fundraise for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic. A Second World War veteran, he originally hoped for £1000 but ended up raising £32 million and was knighted. He himself directed praise towards health staff: “They are all so brave because every morning, or every night, they are putting themselves in harm’s way. We have got to support and keep them going with everything they need”. Sadly he died of COVID on 2 February. There were numerous tributes and a call for applause, supported by the Prime Minister.
Jarel Robinson-Brown, a black gay theologian, has served as a chaplain at King’s College London (where I work) and been appointed to a curacy at All Hallows by the Tower, in central London. On 3 February, he tweeted, “The cult of Captain Tom is a cult of White British Nationalism. I will offer prayers for the repose of his kind and generous soul, but I will not be joining the ‘National Clap’”.
After a fierce mainstream and social media backlash, he offered “an unreserved apology for the insensitive timing and content of my tweet” but the Diocese tweeted a link to its own statement. This condemned his comments as “unacceptable, insensitive, and ill-judged. The fact that he immediately removed his tweet and subsequently apologised does not undo the hurt he has caused, not least to Captain Tom’s family. Nor do Jarel’s actions justify the racist abuse he is now receiving.”
It continued ominously, “A review is now underway, led by the Archdeacon of London” and warned, “As a Church, we expect clergy to ensure that all online activity is in line with the Church of England’s social media guidelines and built on truth, kindness and sensitivity to others. It is incumbent upon all of us to make social media and the web more widely positive places for conversations to happen.” Unsurprisingly, those calling for his sacking or worse renewed their efforts.
I think Jarel’s comment was indeed insensitive, and mistaken. Some people probably were drawn to the bemedalled veteran because they hankered for a bygone age when Britain was mightier and less diverse. But some fought in the war because they opposed fascism. And admiration for the late Tom Moore was probably more connected with valuing the era which gave rise to the NHS and putting public good above private gain, as well as hunger for good news and encouragement amidst the pandemic. Yearning for absent grandparents and channelling of grief maybe also played a part in the sense of loss some felt when he died.
Second-class Christians and neighbours?
Yet ever present reminders of actual white British nationalism, and enslavement or conquest of our ancestors, are plentiful in the diocese and far beyond. For instance, Archbishop Justin Welby has admitted that a trip to Westminster Abbey may seem to memorialise injustice. Trinidad governor Thomas Picton, buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, hanged several slaves and became notorious even by the standards of his day after the torture of a 14-year-old-girl.
This is not to say all such monuments should be removed or to deny the biblical truth that humans of all identities (ourselves included) often absorb prejudice and misuse power. But the forms which major injustice have historically taken have helped to shape present realities.
In modern times, churches in the diocese and elsewhere have sometimes been welcoming, quite often patronising and occasionally hostile to minority ethnic and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people. As an Asian lesbian and longstanding activist, my personal experience has mainly been of acceptance and willingness to journey towards greater equality. But, from my childhood until now, some have been less fortunate. There have been cautious advances; recently a former Bishop of Bristol was formally rebuked for overt racism.
The closeness of the Church of England to the UK state is a further challenge, so that it can seem part of an establishment which endorses nationalism and treats some people as if they were of less worth than others. On top of rising racist hate crime, the “hostile environment” which led to the Windrush and other scandals has devastated many lives. Public policy has contributed to disproportionate COVID deaths among minority ethnic, low-income and/or disabled people. And the killing of George Floyd last summer was a painful reminder of several local tragedies.
The social media guidelines fail to recognise that Jesus often had tough words for those treating others unjustly. Sometimes hard truths pave the way for forgiveness and healing. Also, it is easier to communicate in “positive” ways if one has little about which to complain (in contrast to many people of colour, LGBT+ and disabled people and survivors of abuse). Having one’s views or cultural norms questioned can be uncomfortable but does not compare with attacks on one’s bodily safety or basic rights, especially for those facing frequent or constant threat. Even so, the scales are weighted towards those perceived as holding the keys of power.
For instance, a vacuous tweet by St Helen’s Bishopsgate dismissing Black Lives Matter appears to have gone unchallenged by senior clergy. In December, that church’s open defiance of the House of Bishops (for not punishing people for merely supporting LGBT+ equality) was received mildly by diocesan authorities. General keenness to placate “conservatives” strongly opposed to equality made the heavy-handed official response to Jarel’s tweet even more jarring.
Yet encouragingly, amidst widespread criticism, reported by national and Christian media, diocesan leaders backtracked to some extent. The Bishop stated that “immediate pastoral support in the face of the most appalling racist and homophobic abuse” was her top priority. She also recognised that the Diocese’s response had contributed to minority ethnic clergy and ordinands feeling less safe.
The (independent) Anglican Minority Ethnic Network have said that the voices of those who speak “prophetically to the Church and to society” should be “protected and not silenced.” Significantly, the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce condemned Jarel’s “social media lynching”, calling for the Diocese of London to review its own response, which it accepted.
Hopefully Church leaders have now learnt that, even on pragmatic grounds, harshness to or abandonment of minority members to placate those opposed to equality can backfire. Occasionally they have boldly sought justice, despite opposition: perhaps that spark can be rekindled and the way of the cross (Matthew 10.34-39) more consistently followed, into newness of life?
For those of us from often shabbily-treated minorities and our friends, can we get better at communicating justly and wisely, despite the hurt and anger we may feel, so as to achieve the change for which we strive? Though unlikely to happen in my lifetime, I hope that one day, in the Church of England, there will be no second-class citizens but rather members of one body sharing joys and sorrows and witnessing to God’s inclusive love.