Racism and a Public Letter

Nineteen church leaders in Rossendale wrote to their local paper last month to make an urgent declaration. What has inspired Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and liberal to unite so publicly by co-signing a public letter? They wish to declare to the world that racism is bad. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, these august clergymen and women ‘have issued a joint statement expressing their determination to stamp out racial prejudice and injustice.’ Great. It’s 2020, and they have decided the time is right to let the world know that racial prejudice is not acceptable.

One minister, who appears to be the group’s spokesman, told local press: “In the church we are well aware we have been as culpable as anyone in adding to the problem; we have failed to live like Jesus calls us to.”

“Racism is a UK problem. Yes, it is a problem in Rossendale, and in the church.”

“We repent for the ways in which, both historically and presently, the church, in the actions of its members, has been complicit in perpetuating racism and other forms of discrimination.”

Racial prejudice was certainly a part of the British church’s past. However, this letter declares that it is still a problem. Racial discrimination has been a criminal offence since the 1970s, so these admissions are troubling indeed.

On one of the churches’ Facebook page, which links to the joint letter, the following invitation is made:

Do get in touch with any of our clergy if you want to discuss any of the issues raised in the article.

Great- I messaged them. I asked what examples of racism there are in the church right now. Ok, perhaps the invitation was really for people to share their concerns or to congratulate these reverend men and women for their valiant and radical pronouncement. A week later, the reply came. The problem, I was informed, was:

"institutional or structural racism. The Church of England, like any major institution, is beginning to wake up to the reality that racism is present within its structures. This manifests in things like lack of representation of black and ethnic minority people in senior leadership [former prelates of York and Rochester?], cultural norms in worship or shared life that aren't sensitive to people of non-white culture, discrimination against black or ethic minority clergy for job roles etc. etc." as well as "racially discriminatory and prejudicial actions or speech by individuals...Sadly, I quite regularly see this kind of behaviour from churchgoers as well as non-Christians; in Rossendale and beyond".

It might be that Rossendale Christianity really has been a hotbed of racial prejudice. Or, just possibly, there isn’t an acute racial problem after all; Rossendale is as tolerant a place as any other British borough, where people of all colours are protected by law and respected by the majority of the population. In which case, why was the letter penned and published? Not to merely signal some clerical virtue, I trust.

I might have been less cynical if this letter had been penned in the 1960s and 70s. Sending it even just a few months before the Black Lives Matter protests became hot news, might have added some extra credibility. Following on its tails, seeking to share its publicity, wishing to appear in full agreement with the loudest prevailing voices- this is where we might reflect on culpability and failure. The joint letters about the mass destruction of unborn children, the persecuted Christians festering in eastern prisons, the aggressive transgender lobby- these less fashionable protests must have passed me by.

I wished my anonymous Facebook correspondant well; racial prejudice is unbiblical and morally deficient. A sincere attempt to combat it is the duty of us all. Nevertheless, doing so in this manner at this time feels a little scripted. 

Anyone who has been affected by racist abuse, especially in Rossendale, might contact Stop Hate on 0800 138 1625. The helpline is also available by text message on 07717 989 025 and by email to talk@stophateuk.org .

Image by waldryano from Pixabay