Guest blogger Azariah France-Williams writes about his experiences of racism within the Church in his new book, Ghost Ship.
There is a model of a priest in the Church of England which dominates and eliminates anyone who who does not fit into the centuries-old musty mould. The mould was founded in the forge of white supremacy and pervades our collective imagination.
For the last ten years I have been an ordained priest in the Church of England. I am a male priest. I am a black, male priest. There is a world of difference between those two descriptions. I can experience a sense of cognitive dissonance from people when they see a black man in a black clergy shirt and a dazzlingly white (dog) collar. I feel my smile has to be of equal white brilliance to offset the discomfort some feel.
In my book, Ghost Ship, I describe the relationship between the Church of England and institutional racism. A feature of this racism is to make the ‘other’ a novelty, devoid of authority. The common imagination is infused with a bumbling, understated public schoolboy with a heart. This spotlighting of white, male particularity leads to gaslighting of my desire to include my heritage and individuality within my ministry.
I am not what people expect. I represent a church which has a straight, male, English elitism at its epicentre. I am doing what I can for the church to be truly representative of all who call her mother. The Church of England is attempting to recruit more black and brown clergy, but only really as labourers, not as leaders. We need a new movement, one from from the grassroots. You may feel my claims are overblown. The story below happened a few years ago. Although extreme, it is not untypical.
There was a knock at the vicarage door. It was 8pm. I had gone off duty. My young children sprinted to answer the door but were silent in the presence of the stranger. I followed on in T-shirt and jeans to see a smartly dressed white man in his late fifties. His grey hair was slickly combed back in a solid, immovable block.
He asked for the vicar in a clipped RP accent. I accepted the title. He then asked the question: “Where are you from?”
When I said ‘Yorkshire’, he asked again, then followed up with, “Where are your parents from?”
I answered: “The Caribbean.”
“I have never met an Anglican clergyman of West Indian extraction before; at least you don’t have one of those hideous Bob Marley accents. I’m not being racist. You’re just quite well spoken.”
His curiosity continued: “Where is your wife from?”
I didn’t answer, feeling a little defensive and he filled the pause with: “Is she white English?”
As I reflect on this incident now, the words ‘They take our jobs, and they take our women’ drifts though my mind. He spoke about growing up in Mayfair and having travelled the world, before demanding I provided him with good accommodation for the night, but not a hostel.
I accepted the status shift; my position meant little to him. I admitted I had no authority to provide accommodation but could help him with a bus ticket and a meal. I got my coat and we began to walk around the neighbourhood. He eventually switched from belligerent pest to life coach. He asked me to study the Empire to see how my ancestors had been robbed, and spoke about the illegitimate wealth of the monarchy. I nodded along, appearing interested.
Throughout my life the most consistent term which would appear again and again in work appraisals was this: ‘He is very teachable’, but never ‘He’s a good leader.’ If I am deferent to the white men in authority around me and above me I feel I can survive. In this instance it was the white man who had come to me for help who was asserting dominance, and me replying with deference. Through writing my book, ‘Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England,’ I have learnt that that conditioning is widespread.
A number of people of colour within the Church of England feel intimidated by oppressive, white norms, so we suffer alone, and in silence. My book is, in part, lifting the lid on some the recent historical and wider global roots of black and brown clergy and laity being treated as second class citizens. The old, musty mould must be demolished.
Writing my book was empowering. I met people in the struggle and felt a great sense of solidarity. So now I hope when whiteness comes knocking again, I will tell it where to go.
Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England by A.D.A France-Williams is published by SCM Press and was launched on July 10th
Fr Azariah France-Williams is Pioneer priest at the Ascension Hulme, a member of the HeartEdge church network. He has been a priest with the Church of England for 10 years. Fr Azariah France-Williams holds a MPhil in theology from Bristol University, a Masters degree in Mission, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology. He is a visiting scholar in Bible for Sarum College based in Salisbury. His first book ‘Ghost Ship’ was published in July and it charts institutional racism and the Church of England. He enjoys true life storytelling, has had some training in mime, and enjoys singing and writing poetry.