Profoundly uncomfortable times

Bishop John reflects on what God might be saying to us. 

"The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class.
Father, forgive."

From the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation

These are profoundly uncomfortable times. We are being disturbed and we need to be disturbed. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. The truth is often uncomfortable but it is ultimately our friend. Those of us who are white need to see what many of us have – unwittingly perhaps – resisted seeing. We need to see both the reality and the extent of racism. More uncomfortably than this, we need to see that it is not simply the problem of other people but that we too are part of the problem.

In religious terms, Peter and Paul, and all the first disciples were part of the majority culture.  It was for them a painful learning curve to discover that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10.34). There was perhaps for those first disciples a sense of entitlement and indeed a sense of privilege in being the ‘chosen’ ones. Again and again, especially in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus challenging their ‘insiders’ complacency by pointing them to the real faith of the ‘outsiders’, for example, the Roman centurion, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan leper.  Similarly, it is the outsider 'good Samaritian' who shows the insiders, from the religious establishment, what love of neighbour really means.

To be an ‘insider’, part of the majority culture, is so often not to see or understand the experience of those who do not have the advantages of insider status. The insulation it brings – if we are not careful – can deafen and blind us to the pains, the hurts, the rejections experienced by those in our communities and even in our congregations as a direct result of racism.

As Christians in a white majority culture, it may help us to remember that when the Holy Spirit came in power at Pentecost, it came upon Asians and Africans and Arabs and Mediterraneans. As far as I’m aware, there were no white Anglo-Saxons present! It may also help us to know that today the average Anglican is black, a woman, an African, living in Sub-Saharan Africa and earning less than four dollars a day.

It is the way of the world, in which we so readily collude, to make insiders and outsiders, ‘us’ and ‘them’. In Christ there are no insiders or outsiders based on any of the world’s divisions

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches through all this?

Jesus said to Nicodemus ‘No-one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (John 3.3). The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see more truly, to see more as God sees. Most of us wear blinkers of one kind or another to confirm us in our own perceptions and prejudices. Perhaps we need first to take them off and to recognise that God is speaking to us personally and corporately through what is happening across the world since the murder of George Floyd. Perhaps we need to face and acknowledge the plentiful evidence of racism operating at so many levels in our own society.

Bim Afolami, a black Conservative MP, said last night on Radio 4 ‘I am 34 years old and I don’t think there’s any black person of my age who can say they wouldn’t have experienced racist behaviour.’  The Prime Minister yesterday also ‘recognised that Black, Asian and minority ethnic people face discrimination in employment, education and the application of criminal law.’ There is so much evidence for this and so many examples of this, and yet I – and perhaps you might join me in this confession – have not sufficiently challenged it. Some of the banners at the demonstrations, e.g. ‘Silence is compliance’ or ‘Silence is violence’ call us out on this. As Burke, famously wrote, ‘For evil to succeed it is only necessary for good people to do nothing.’

In all this is the prompt and the call to educate ourselves more fully about the reality and extent of racism in order to challenge it more effectively. We will be providing a wide range of resources to help this to happen. This is one of the tasks and challenges to which, I believe the Spirit is calling us at this time.
 As a Church, I believe we have, thanks to God, engaged widely and effectively in the area of social welfare. There are, I believe, some 33,000 social welfare projects stemming from C of E parishes. We are less effective, it appears, in the area of social justice, in fulfilling the 4th of the Anglican Marks of Mission, namely to ‘transform unjust structures’.

Alongside this educational journey, I believe that we would do well to engage in a season of proactive listening. We need especially to listen to the life journeys of our black, Asian and minority ethnic sisters and brothers and to hear the painful experiences. This education and this listening, I believe will bring us, especially those of us who are white, to a deep repentance.

Having lived and ministered in multi-cultural parishes and congregations, I have heard, personally, accounts from Jamaican friends from the Windrush generation, sharing stories of rejection by Church of England in the 50s and 60s. Fast forward to here and now, we have the Windrush scandal and the deportation (actual and attempted) of those same people who have made their home here, much to our enrichment. This has brought huge numbers of us, including many in Parliament, to a sense of outrage and indeed shame.

We are called to deep repentance. When we truly see, with our blinkers off, we cannot but repent.

But repentance of the heart, true repentance, is the place of deepest hope. It is the crucible in which God changes us and as changed people we can become instruments of change. Out of true repentance will flow deeds of repentance, as we become ambassadors of reconciliation together with people of every race and nation seeking first the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of justice and peace.

We are not to do this defensively or ‘on the back foot’, nor do we do it out of any ideological compulsion. We do it because it is a gospel mandate, as God in Christ calls us to grow the Kingdom of God in its rich diversity, on earth as it is in heaven.

The Holy Spirit of God is the Spirit of unity drawing us into the fulfilment of God’s purposes for us and all peoples.

Our humanity is one in its rich diversity.

‘After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white and with palm branches. They cried out in a loud voice saying ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

Bishop John

John Stroyan is the Bishop of Warwick

First published on: 9th June 2020
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