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Author Archives: Chris Baker

About Chris Baker

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation and Senior Lecturer in Urban and Public Theology at the University of Chester.

‘I can’t breathe’: lifting the lid on institutional racism in the Church of England

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Professor Chris Baker applauds the recent From Lament to Action report, and challenges the church to create a community where all of its members can breathe.

Last week saw the publication of the latest Church of England report, published by its Anti-Racism taskforce, looking at institutional racism in its structures and hierarchies. I say the latest. The From Lament to Action reportis, by its own admission, the most recent in a long line of 20 reports during the past 35 years which have produced no less than 161 recommendations for action to tackle racial injustice in the Church. Hardly any have been met.

To the report’s credit, each recommendation is meticulously referenced in an appendix which, as you can imagine, runs for several pages. Each unfinished recommendation is not only an admonishment against any type of complacency but also a self-inflicted admission of guilt. It is akin to handing out free ammunition to those who would wish the church harm by giving them the wherewithal to blow this report out of the water before the new Commission on Racial Justice even begins its work.

For the secular and sociological left, this list is further proof of an outdated institution, hopelessly in thrall to a colonialist and constitutionally elitist past and struggling to connect with the present era. For critics from the right (and its many media cohorts) this report will likely be interpreted as a misplaced and dangerous form of ‘wokeness’ that positions the Church away from its role as the cultural and moral guardian of an English narrative of cultural superiority and Empire that is reassuringly dusted down from the 1950s whenever there is a threat to that hegemony. And then there are siren and insidious voices of discontent within the church itself, fearful of being accused of being seen to ‘take sides’ or appear ‘too political’. We had enough of this misplaced appeasement during the struggle to ordain women to the priesthood in the late 80s and early 90s. This report, to its credit, creates no such grounds for appeasement of tender consciences in this regard, with its clear commitment to tackling racial injustice as a whole and united body.

However, the report needs to be read in tandem with Clive Myrie’s Panorama programme which trailed its publication. Whilst the report focuses mainly on important policy changes—for example, changes around legislating for increased participation, racial awareness training, and representation—the Panorama broadcast rightly focused on human narratives and experiences of clergy from minority ethnic backgrounds who found themselves on the frontline of both covert and overt racism in the Church.

Their common experience, heartbreakingly and courageously relayed, was of having to ‘tone down’ their colour—their essential identities and personalities—and the insidious need to accommodate to the rules of some arcane game which they could not understand and which were never explained. They described how having to fit into this cultural system felt akin to having one’s creativity, individuality, and giftedness slowly squeezed out of them—of being suffocated by the system.

‘I can’t breathe’—the last desperate utterance of George Floyd whose life was slowly squeezed out of his body by a sadistic law-enforcement officer whose approach to citizen protection was sanctioned by a racist judicial system—are words that now haunt the world.  Since George Floyd’s death, I have become acutely aware (as a white person) that the extinguishing of breath, whilst at its most extreme in the sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies by the state, is also an experience that works in more invisible and insidious ways. It is a form of psychological attack, undermining a sense of belonging and contribution from within so that one feels like an empty shell, a wraith or shadow, in the domain of the living dead.

So, for all the commendable actions and creative ideas promulgated in this report, only one criterion should be used by those assessing the success of the forthcoming work of the Racial Justice Commission. Did we manage to create a Church of England where all its members can find room to breathe and revel in their God-given charisms, experiences, and identities—but especially and specifically those from minority ethnic backgrounds? Or did we fail?

I hope that in five years’ time, the Commission will have not only inspired the Church to change, but it will have successfully shared with the whole nation a better and alternative vision of what a truly diverse British society in the 21st century looks like. Publishing 161 reasons for your enemies to attack you for failed and broken promises is ultimately an astute move. At a time when our political masters appear to be engulfed in a tide of alleged corruption and off the record transactions, the commitment to transparency and a publicly accountable assessment of past failings immediately and effortlessly captures the moral and political high ground. It looks like proper leadership.

However, if we do not succeed in this task, then that part of the body of Christ that used to be referenced under the name of the Church of England will die for lack of breath, slowly suffocating under the inertia of failing to grasp the deep and inclusive change this moment in history demands—and perhaps rightly so.

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Embracing the new normal

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Chris Baker reflects on two recent reports addressing faith and policy in a post-pandemic age.

At the start of last week, some good and tangible news emerged of an imminent rolling out of an effective vaccine against COVID-19. After a long and terrible year, the reckoning of which will take several more years to understand and reconcile, people are once again beginning to re-imagine life coming back to some sort of normality. Indeed, a new phrase has entered the English lexicon because of the pandemic—the ‘new normal’. Despite the many vicissitudes faced by local communities, there is an emerging consensus that certain changes that have been forced on us are perhaps positive; more home working and less commuting; valuing the simpler things in life like family, friends and the beauty of the environment; prioritising the importance of resilient health and social care systems; some awareness that the deep social inequalities magnified by the pandemic must be finally and strategically addressed.

Last week also saw the publication of two key reports which speak directly into this debate about the new normal. Both addressed the shifting role of religion and belief in the time immediately before, but also the time since, the pandemic. Growing Good: Growth, Social Action and Discipleship in the Church of England, published by Theos and Church Urban Fund, highlights the huge growth in social action by the Church of England as a response to the growing social inequality and need that has emerged over a decade of austerity.

It makes the connection between public expressions of ethics, compassion and justice and a growing sense of participation and connection that people outside the church now identify with, and which allows both church and local communities to grow social and spiritual resilience, as well as a renewed sense of belonging. The mission of the church (and religion in general) is now once again being recognised as a public good for the flourishing of all, rather than a privatised one—a view which, until recently, had been the default expectation of a policy world still working to the rather rigid norms of a 20th century secularism.

Meanwhile, a report called Keeping the Faith: Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic, commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society, and produced by the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, looked at the experience of the pandemic response from a local government perspective. Nearly 50% of the 408 local authorities in the UK engaged in the research and the results are highly revealing.

As expected, there has been a heavy reliance on faith-based resources to meet the immediate food distribution and mental health needs of communities impacted by the lockdown. 67% of local authorities reported an increase in working with faith groups since the pandemic, and 60% involved faith-run foodbanks as part of their pandemic response.

This increased activity has led to a hugely positive response from local authorities, with 91% describing their experience of partnerships with faith groups as ‘Very Positive’ or ‘Positive’. There is evidence that this positive experience arising from co-working in the pandemic is also feeding into a commitment from local authorities to strengthen deeper and more authentic ways of working in the future: 76% of them expect these new partnerships to continue after the pandemic and 47% of them want this on a changed basis. The agenda for this changed basis is exciting. 93% of local authorities considered the wider sharing of best practice in co-production with faith communities as ‘Very important’ or ‘Important’. 83% applied these categories to support the idea of ‘safe spaces for honest discussion about differences and difficulties in relation to religion and belief’. In short, partnerships previously envisaged on the basis of what a faith-based respondent to the research referred to as being seen as a ‘junior partner’ are now imagined as more creative, authentic and egalitarian.

These shifts in experience, attitudes and response ask a series of probing questions around what a new normal might look like. Can religious and secular worldviews coexist in a more pragmatic and mutually accepting way beyond mere tolerance? Can faith now be faith without proxy or subterfuge? What has emerged for many in this research is the insight that ‘faith’ is no longer something alien or different, but rather something already present and deeply rooted in our society and which motivates the way we all act in the public space. It also shapes and animates our institutions and structures of governance. Does a new engagement with beliefs, values and worldviews (both religious and non-religious) convey a new respect and authenticity, placing ‘what matters’ alongside ‘what works’?

The policy and theological task to be addressed going forward is this: what new forms of praxis, imagination and leadership from both local authorities and faith groups will be required to sustain the new normal for the sake of a just and flourishing post COVID society, and what new policy frameworks can emerge to support these necessary shifts?

More blogs on religion and public life…

On White Privilege by Sanjee Perera and Simon Lee

Review of ‘Race, Space and Multiculturalism in Northern England’ by Shamim Miah, Pete Sanderson and Paul Thomas by Greg Smith

Is the climate really beyond politics? by Matthew Stemp

TikTok, Pastoral Care and Lockdown Britain by Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts

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Cummings and the Church: An opportunity to grasp?

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Professor Chris Baker reflects on the Bishops’ contribution to the debate about Dominic Cummings and wonders whether it heralds a more sustained vision for our national future.

I struggled with the title for this blog, as I digested the headline from yesterday’s Guardian: ‘Bishops turn on Boris Johnson for defending Dominic Cummings’. My gut instinct wanted to go with ‘Too little too late?’.

I wanted to signal my relief at the belated arrival of a Church of England perspective to cut through the current Dominic Cummings framed narrative of national crisis affecting the whole of the UK, but particularly England—the worst we have faced in 100 years. But yet, if I am to be honest, I was rather underwhelmed by the Bishops’ tweeted statements.

For one thing, this intervention has come rather late in the day. There have been over 60,000 excess deaths resulting from coronavirus since the first death was recorded three short months ago. Yet religion has apparently contributed very little to the contours of the debate about the future of our society.

Second, there was a lack of penetrating perspective. Rather than a statement of considered critique that set the news agenda, it was a series of what felt like hastily coordinated individual tweets that rode on the back of the moral outrage generated by the likes of Piers Morgan and normally loyal Conservative voters.

Third, a tweet doesn’t always convey the appropriate tone. An intervention such as ‘Johnson has now gone the full Trump’ by the Bishop of Willesden comes across as a clever political slogan rather than a powerfully calibrated statement conveying a political yet also theologically grounded critique that most of a nation can rally round. Let us never forget, for example, the disproportionate devastation this disease has had on our BAME communities and those already living within the grim orbit of austerity-induced poverty.

That being said, there were some punchy tropes that were picked up yesterday by the national media. These highlighted the perceived lack of moral integrity and compassion in the political life of our country at the time of its greatest need (one rule for you, one rule for me), and the inability of those in power to publicly apologise and accept the consequences of their actions. These factors, as the Bishop of Sheffield reminded us, undermine the trust and accountability that is required for public health campaigns to save countless lives. ‘The PM & his cabinet are undermining the trust of the electorate and the risks to life are real.’

But a salvo of tweets into the public realm is no substitute for a sustained, purposeful and national series of conversations that have religious, philosophical and secular ideals at their core. What should a new settlement between the government and its people look like? What are the social (as opposed to economic) priorities that the English nation should address that would allow for the flourishing of all? What is the role of the church, and religion in general, in helping to shape the brave new post-coronavirus era in the West in particular? What sort of leadership can the church offer in setting policy as well as spiritual agendas?

Luckily, these sorts of conversations can be curated quickly and cheaply by a series of regional or local webinars and co-produced workshops that can all be facilitated digitally and on a range of social media platforms. The rate of coverage and engagement will be much wider than traditional conferences. The Church of England can also commission its own data, and its own polling, as a key contribution to the debate. Faith groups undertake a huge amount of skilled social and community care and development. Much of it is also deeply prophetic. But does society understand this—or even care? At present, the dots are not joined up, and a coherent story that the public can understand about the nature of English society and the place of the established church and religion within it has yet to emerge.

Thus, alongside shaping the national agenda for adaptation to a post-coronavirus world, the Church of England needs to listen honestly to what people think of it, across regions, localities and sectors. What are positive attributes citizens associate with a national church? What are the negative ones? What would they like to see a national church do and stand for in the future? This information needs to not only set a policy agenda, but also a theological and missional one. Too often we in the church reflect from an internalised bubble and this leads to a distorted view—either an exaggerated sense of our own importance or an exaggerated sense of our own decline. The reality is, and will be, far more subtle and complex. Like all sectors of society, we need to radically re-imagine both the nature of our society, and what a church looks like that contributes meaningfully and insistently at its core.

So, I return to my unease at the implications of ‘Cummingsgate’ for the Church of England. Twitter fame emerges in 24 hours and dissipates just as quickly again. The Church must reflect urgently on how, and with what narrative, it intervenes in the public sphere. If not, then my alternative title will have been tragically accurate. It will have been too little too late.

Image (edited) from Flickr by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0).

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘The Place of the Parish: Imagining Mission in our Neighbourhood’ by Martin Robinson

Pandemic & Pestilence: When We Almost Notice That Black Lives Matter Less by Sanjee Perera

On the Unfairness of Life, Death, and COVID-19 by Edward Hadas

COVID-19, Christianity and human dignity by John Loughlin

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