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Author Archives: Sanjee Perera

The Hypatian Conundrum: the Estrangement of Science and the Church

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Last week on twitter,  Humanists UK, quoting their Vice President, Professor Alice Roberts argued, ‘We really don’t need more faith schools in this country. I wish the government would prioritise inclusive schools, rather than using taxpayer’s money to fund the Church of England’s indoctrination programme.’ Professor Roberts voices concerns of uncritical pedagogy she believes is found in  Church of England  schools, and the way the curriculum frames Science, History, Faith, and Theology.  And as a Bill to disestablish the Church of England had its first reading, Humanists UK are not the only voice to raise concerns of this kind.

The Church has had a historically tumultuous relationship with science, which has both shaped the course of science and the doctrines and theology of the Church. The church was undoubtedly a patron of the sciences, believing that the gift of reason was a divine providence and an instrument of theology, championing science, believing it would confirm Church doctrine. But when scientific findings did not match the Church’s doctrinal or even political stands, this relationship soured into inquisition and condemnation.

The early Church’s most infamous episode perhaps begins with Hypatia of Alexandria, the 4th century mathematician who was brutally attacked on her way home, dragged out of her carriage and murdered by a Christian mob. Hypatia was reviled for her influence on leading Christians of the time. But the attack on her reputation and the attempts to discredit her were incited by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and his allies, mostly due to her relationship with Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who they feared ceased to attend Christian meetings as a result. Nevertheless, Hypatia’s impact on the political struggles of the Church has been dramatized, discussed and diagnosed at length, but more importantly her teaching schooled at least one bishop of the early Church and influenced countless others. This was neither the first nor last struggle of the early church with science.

Almost a millennium later, Copernicus’s heliocentrism was the scientific paradigm of the day which seemed to undermine doctrine. Despite early toleration and even goodwill from Pope Clement VII, in 1616, the Roman Church issued a prohibition against teaching heliocentrism. This led to the persecution of Galileo who continued the work, and a papal Bill prohibiting heliocentric works. Nearly two centuries later, the weight of scientific evidence made the Church’s position indefensible, and the College of Cardinals finally revoked this prohibition. But it wasn’t until 1992, that Pope John Paul II formally conceded to Heliocentrism, and another 8 years before an apology (rehabilitation).

More recently there is John Habgood. Famously he arrived at Cambridge with a militant atheism and made ‘outrageous remarks about religious beliefs and the intellectual and moral qualities of those who held them’, only to convert, be ordained, and eventually become the Archbishop of York. Alister McGrath, in his deconstruction of Habgood’s legacy argues that, like Archbishop Frederick Temple (1896–1902) and Bishop Ian Ramsey (1966–72), Habgood ’acted as an institutional and professional bridge between the intellectual worlds of science and theology, and the church and a scientific culture’.  However, with the exception of the ECLAS project, funded by the Templeton Fund, I would see the Church of England’s engagement with science is sporadic at best, with lamentable levels of research available on the impact of scientific advancement on Church doctrine, vision, engagement, and growth. 

Listening to the Living in Love and Faith General Synod debate about same-sex relationships and scriptural interpretation relating to the nature of marriage, I was struck by the often-literal readings of scripture. And while some eminent scientists had earlier been involved in the biology and social scientist sub-group, their discussions were not a significant part of the synod’s discourse. The decline in Church attendance is often the throw-away evidence that almost every synod debate alludes to, with conservative members claiming that liberal and progressive churches are dying. And yet no recent discussion at synod has considered the significance of the impact of science on the church. The cognitive dissonance caused by moderating the disparate realities of a literal and fundamentalist reading of scripture in determining significant issues of doctrine has undoubtedly had an impact on this alleged Christian nation’s psyche in a post-Christian era.

In the 21st Century, many have responded to this dissonance by divorcing themselves from the religious establishment, leading to seeming irrevocable church decline. Linda Woodhead claims that the rise of ‘no religion’ in national surveys and census records has been swift in many formerly-Christian liberal democracies, with Britain located as a significant frontrunner. Her research reports that when asked how they make up their minds about difficult decisions, the overwhelming majority of British people, including many who report some religious engagement, say that they consult their own conscience, reason and intuition rather than relying on an external authority. Her research also illustrates that Church decline is often tied to the stark contrast between evolving liberal social attitudes and the prejudice and discrimination associated with established religion.

Believers navigating the dissonance between the advancements of science and technology and our understanding of the historicity of sacred texts, alongside ontology, phylogeny and human evolution, often compartmentalise faith experience and literalist biblical discourse. But compartmentalisation is not a sustainable or a viable coping strategy and often creates disenfranchisement and disassociation which in turn lead to disengagement and decline. My own research assessing cognitive dissonance in faith communities, exploring indicators of identity distress, de-individuation, detachment, disassociation and  compartmentalisation in marginalisation experiences in church contexts, finds that these coping strategies are the threshold of church decline.

Too often the Church has responded to science with fear, defensiveness  and a self-imposed compartmentalisation and isolation, to its own detriment. The ecclesia, like many scientific bodies, is often a community strangled by wilful dogma, fallible to error, and yet enthralled by the mystery and enigma of the universe. And most significantly we are communities driven by existentialist questions with an appetite for revelation and reason, bewildered by serendipitous logic, design, beauty and grace. Amidst the looming prophecies of the extinction of the Church of England, perhaps it is time to seriously re-engage with science, to be challenged by its questions, to fund its research, to collaborate on its adventurous quests, if not unquestioningly be led by its tenets. This can only better equip us to navigate faith and doctrine, and perhaps even be nourished and course corrected by its findings.

Canon Dr Sanjee Perera is Cognitive psychologist specialising ethno-social identity, moral judgement and decision-making. She is a Honorary Fellow at the Department of Theology & ReligionDurham University.,Associate Fellow, Open University School of LawVisiting Fellow, Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations, Coventry University, Honorary Research Fellow, Theology and Religious Studies, University of Chester, and a Research Fellow at William Temple Foundation.

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On White Privilege

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In the second part of their debate about the church’s response to racial justice in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Professor Simon Lee (SL) and Dr Sanjee Perera (SP) analyse the concept of White privilege.

SL: What did you mean by ‘privilege’, Sanjee, when you rounded off your list of reasons why we might see #BlackLivesMatter differently with, ‘dare I say, privilege’?

SP: So perhaps an important part of this discourse should be about defining terms. The term ‘privilege’ comes from an expansion of the model of social privilege. In the 1980s, Peggy McIntosh started to unpack some of the ideas of turn of the century thinkers on race and gender, approaching culture and socialisation as an insidious, subliminal form of power. Of course, since then, the nomenclature of White privilege has developed into a more nuanced and complex paradigm. Often, when people debate privilege, they are debating at cross purposes, and discussing entirely different issues.

Professor Anthony Reddie describes this privilege by phenotype as underpinned by a theology of election and English exceptionalism. He suggests it is ‘the advantage of being able to walk into a room and not be defined or stereotyped by a set of ideas and concepts that automatically mark you out as being inferior’ by virtue of colour. ‘It is the privilege of not having to think about one’s identity as it is presented to the world’ (Reddie, Theologising Brexit, p. 17).

In psychology and the social sciences, this model of White privilege contends that Euro-centred or Euro-endowed societies create monological definitions of ethno-racial identification based on colour and phenotype. This means that the sociocultural standards, rules, guidelines and foundations of these societies make ‘Whiteness’ the norm, and everything else is defined according to how it differs from this norm. No effort is invested in understanding the diverse breadth of people of colour. What this means in practice is that a BAME person’s phenotype leads to their identity operating on a deficit model. (Though the term BAME is itself a product of the aforementioned phenomenon and is deeply problematic.) Everything from their qualifications, experience and expertise to their innate characteristics are problematised in a way that they would not be, if they were White. Because primary visual processing is usually the most dominant framing in human cognitive processing, second only to auditory and kinaesthetic information, phenotype becomes a rather powerful currency in socialisation.

SL: You seem to be endorsing the strain in this public debate which treats any human individual as either privileged or not. That’s binary whereas the general thrust of contemporary thinking in other spheres of life is to recognise the fluidity of our identities. Indeed, even Peggy McIntosh, who is mentioned positively by you and is generally credited with having led to this focus on ‘White privilege’, explained her views in 2014 in this nuanced way:

‘But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.’

SP: Of course. Privilege in a particular socio-cultural currency, be it racial appearance, sex, gender, ability or class, doesn’t make you invulnerable or unlikely that other intersectional characteristics are subjected to the deficit model. A White woman may not have to experience the same ignominies that a Black woman might on the grounds of ethno-racial identification, but her gender may make her subject to similar losses of privilege. As you said earlier, this is a more complex, fluid and nuanced reality than Twitter rhetoric might suggest. And it is not an equi-distant, points-based system where one dominant trait might cancel out another; there is no algorithm that might sum up one’s ‘privilege’. Power is an extraordinarily complex trait, based on an ecology of a myriad qualitative whims.

SL: I would like to think that we could agree on duty, if not on privilege. I regard us as under a duty to use our talents, such as they are, to the full, to strive to make a difference, and especially to promote social justice by supporting and encouraging the inclusion of those less privileged than ourselves. The fact that William Temple was one of the most privileged white men ever did not stop him from coining the term ‘welfare state’ and helping to make it happen. He was not responsible for his privilege. He was responsible for using the opportunities he had to promote the common good. He is not defined by his whiteness or his privilege. Nor, for that matter, is he defined by his age. He was ahead of his time.

Image: “Unlearn racism, unlearn your white privilege I” by aesthetics of crisis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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A Pedagogy of Hope: Anti-racism, Inclusion and Diversity in the Church

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A conversation between Dr Sanjee Perera (SP) and Professor Simon Lee (SL).

This is a conversation of hope in an age of turbulence, when the symbols of an ignominious past are being torn from their pedestals. Sanjee Perera’s recent blog post for the Foundation and her research for the Minority Anglican Project have been influential in causing church people to reflect on the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, we are delighted that Simon Lee has just joined our board of trustees. They first met at Liverpool Hope University College towards the end of the last century and they are now both working at the Open University. What follows is a glimpse into a candid conversation, as they collaborate on an interdisciplinary paper across psychology and law on Black Lives Matter, exploring the evolution of civil justice movements and its cognitive catalysts.

SL: Do you think we react differently to the toppling of statues and Black Lives Matter, both in the Church and in universities?

SP: I think we do. Even if we share very similar values, ideologies and even opinions on these issues, our differences in race, gender, life experience and, dare I say, privilege means we are likely to process these turbulent times differently and navigate establishments like the Church and the academy differently. However, I also believe that our shared values and perspectives come from an intellectual and ideological heritage that has been influenced by the Church and our salvific hope. Of course, this is also shaped by everything from the early church fathers to the enlightenment and it is often patriarchal, heteronormative, ableist and racialised. Nevertheless, the asymmetry in our relative experiences requires us to navigate these shared ideologies differently.

I am not optimistic about the Black Lives Matter movement; I can already see the rise of a multi-pronged backlash. Established power does not give in easily. But I am hopeful. Among the many lessons I learnt outside the lecture theatre, at the university where you were Vice-Chancellor, was the anatomy of hope. Hope, unlike optimism, is not static. It is a wounded creature in an inhospitable space, which is organic, changeable and transformative. It is a cognitive experience that learns and adapts with new experience but stays true to its pedagogy.

SL: I am interested in what leads to real change. Bishops virtue-signalling, taking the knee and issuing abject apologies are understandable, but critics will note that leading church clerics will mouth whatever is the politically correct thing to say without matching their words with actions. The Church is routinely accused of hollow or hypocritical words. I would like to know from the bishops if they could point to any constructive elements of past practice in church institutions or if they would acknowledge and apply anything the laity have ever contributed on these matters—even though we could always have done better and done more? Could they not find inspiration in the best practice of the more radical or progressive Church colleges or Church schools?

Plenty of examples come to mind. When you and I were at Liverpool Hope twenty years ago, Protasia Torkington and Diana Neal had this conversation about ‘The Black Woman in Church and Society’. Before then, Victoria La’Porte (now Baker) and I had written separately about British Muslims and the churches in the wake of the Salman Rushdie saga. Another colleague from those days, David Torevell, wrote powerfully about racism last year. Ian Markham, then Foundation Dean of Hope, left to serve as Dean of a Christian-Muslim institution, Hartford Seminary, only days before 9/11 and is now Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopalian institution which has led the way on slavery reparations. My successor at Liverpool Hope, Gerald Pillay, was the first vice-chancellor of a UK university from a BAME background.

SP: I agree that we need to learn from these constructivist writers and organisations. While I have worked with, in or for a number of institutions, my thinking has been particularly shaped by my time both at school and at Liverpool Hope. The former, a missionary school on a little island in the Indian Ocean, steeped in the traditions of her suffragist founders; the latter, the gift of the resilient endeavours of two, progressive 19th century, women’s teaching colleges—from Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions—in a working class port city made rich by the slave trade. The pedagogy of these institutions, enriched by some extraordinary thinkers from the enlightenment to contemporary educators, had much in common. They celebrated the best of the past and had the courage to learn from its ignominies. And most importantly they attempted to embody a pedagogy of faith, hope and love, and aspired to a better world.

SL: Your examples, Sanjee, are fascinating in that they are both ecumenical institutions—in their own ways breaking the mould. They show that the Church knows about multi-faith cultures. The Church also knows about iconoclasts and about statues. It might not know as much as it thinks it knows but it does know something. For example, the churches were sensitive, I thought, in helping to move the law forward from a focus on blasphemy to a wider prohibition on incitement to religious hatred. Along the way, people mostly categorised by the media as British Asians became seen as British Muslims. But now the shorthand of media debate about BAME and Black Lives Matter reverts to excluding the faith dimensions of people’s identities and senses of belonging. Much as complexities can be recognised in questions of identity with LGBTQIA+, I would like to see the Church bringing the pluses of faith, not just the Church’s own minuses, into the public square.

SP: While I am deeply encouraged by the progress made by various Churches and Christian traditions across the spectrum, not least the Church of England, part of the problem is that most Church traditions are still playing catch up and don’t have a clear grasp of the complexity of the issues that have a stranglehold on church culture. This means that many of us are often frustrated by what seems like the lack of progress. I believe we must be patient and compassionate, and yet drive the change we want to see in the Church. I believe this transformation needs to come from the ecclesia, not because it is keeping up with secular culture or because it is responding to some form of political correctness, but because it is a scriptural calling to penitence and transformation. Understanding contemporary church culture and its roots and formation in our history is a necessary part of the solution. I believe this is the moment, and it really feels like there is change on the horizon. I am excited to see how the Church might transform and be more fruitful at a time when society needs to hear the gospel most.

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Pandemic & Pestilence: When We Almost Notice that Black Lives Matter Less


In this extended post, Dr Sanjee Perera reflects on her research with the Minority Anglican Project and what the BAME death toll in the current COVID-19 pandemic reveals about how far both church and society still have to go.

(Note: this article was composed before a number of Church of England Bishops signed the recent letter calling for an independent public inquiry into the BAME COVID-19 death rate.)

Two months ago, in the February of this year, at the Church of England synod, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged his deep shame at the institutional racism in the Church of England, and its failure to be an urgent voice against racism. Pondering on the events that led to the Second World War he reflected:

“I’ve often wondered how the German church in the 1930s managed to ignore what happened to the Jews. I think they just didn’t really notice … and perhaps that’s what we’ve done in the way we’ve behaved since Windrush.”

The accompanying reflections, analysis and commitments from Bishops, Archdeacons, clergy and lay members of synod were equally heartening. I wept warm tears as our Primate committed that we would do better; it seemed an appropriate synopsis to the year I had spent researching racialised micro-aggressions and their consequences in the Anglican Church. As the crushing silence that has haunted the cold corridors and ante-chambers of the Church of England was lifted, many of us ‘of colour’ sensed a new covenant with our Church, a promise that it might repent and transform.

The Church of England had long been steeped in a racialised agenda. Its theology, and its framing of biblical hermeneutics, have justified slavery and Empire within the folds of its missiology. Its Bishops have historically benefitted from and defended this racialised ecclesiology, and Christian theology has colluded to make Black lives worth less. This dark legacy of belittlement and disregard for Black lives continued with its profiteering from apartheid in the 70s, [1] and its ongoing resistance to the disarm Church House campaign today.

The Eurocentric church was not simply guilty of institutional racism; it had helped to build a globally colourised, racialised paradigm where Black lives mattered less. The nuanced theology and aesthetics of Whiteness, truth and beauty imposed by the early modern Eurocentric Church, have left a legacy of an apartheid world that has allowed the easy commodification of Black lives. While Black theology and lamentation literature have long called the Church to acknowledge and repent its part in this unequal, parasitic paradigm, where White privilege is sustained by Black labour and suffering, the Church of England’s crippling silence on racial issues at a structural level was in itself a kind of abusive ‘insidious trauma’. [2] And while it has recently apologised for its part in slavery, many Black theologians and clergy have long felt that these gestures were empty, without intentional action and transformation.

Even as the Archbishop apologised, another pestilence was stalking the planet, exposing the fault lines of poverty and the vulnerability of the marginalised. Much has been written about the disproportionate BAME death toll in the current COVID-19 pandemic, and descriptive statistics have been bandied about to either muffle or emphasise its significance. Suggested reasons for this disproportionate tragedy have included: poverty, overcrowding, urbanisation, cultural practices, genetic predispositions and comorbidities, unequal access to healthcare and even inequitable access to PPE equipment.

In the UK, the British Medical Association has urged the government to investigate the disproportionate death toll among BAME doctors and NHS staff. Furthermore, responding to the latest Office for National Statistics’ data on COVID-19, suggesting Black men and women are over four times more likely to die than their white counterparts, the BMA council Chair has called for an urgent intervention; many other public agencies have similarly called for a public inquiry. Yet the messaging in establishment mainstream media, describing the BAME death toll of NHS medics, was telling. On the 4th April, BBC news ran an article on the deaths of BAME doctors entitled ‘Coming 5,000 miles to die for the NHS’. The implication that immigration demanded a price and a sacrifice, even unto death, was not lost on most immigrants and people of colour, and sparked outrage. Given the scandals of Windrush and Grenfell, COVID-19 is merely reiterating the ugly truth.

Despite the growing disquiet from public and politicians alike, the Church of England is still silent on this racialised disparity. The problem, as Black feminist Reni Eddo-Lodge describes in ‘Why I am no longer talking to White people about Race’, is not merely that Black people experience overwhelming and traumatic dissonance, but also that the White majority display wanton ignorance, a crushing systemic disregard and a denial of structural racism. And while the British establishment has now gone through its performative paces of puzzlement about the BAME death toll, social media reverberates with the outrage of Black academics and commentators who remain cynical about the extent to which civic culture recognises its culpability in the ‘material conditions for this gratuitous exposure to death’.

As I attempt to work during lock down, writing up the various findings of the Minority Anglican Project, I realise my hope that things might improve after synod was naïve. The statistics illustrating significant indicators of cognitive dissonanceidentity distress, deindividuation and disassociation—paint a grim picture and an extraordinarily debilitating ecclesiological reality. While much has been written about this kairos moment, Minority Ethnic Christians are looking to the Church and its leaders. I keep hoping the Mother Church might embrace this grief in an anguished Pietà. Given the Church’s collusion in Black suffering through the centuries, it now has the opportunity to readdress this. As our touchstone mutates, changing colour, a new dawn offers the Church an opportunity to reimagine her kinship to the vulnerable. As Black liberation theology contends: ‘Hermeneutical neutrality is impossible in a divided world – either you are part of the solution or you are going to be part of the problem.’ [3]

Dr Sanjee Perera has just completed a large scale multi-modal research study on how the Church of England navigates race and the ecclesiological burden of its racialised history, at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, in the School of Philosophy, Theology & Religion at the University of Birmingham. She is currently researching the impact of COVID-19 on faith-based organisations at the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations at the University of Coventry.

Image (cropped and edited) from Wikimedia Commons: by Stanislav Traykov (CC BY 2.5).

[1] Chandler, A., ‘The Church of England in the 20th Century; the Church Commissioners and the Politics of Reform, 1948-1998’. (2006), Boydell Press; Suffolk, pp. 273-278.

[2] As conceptualised in psycho-pathology by Maria Root in: Root, M., “Reconstructing the Impact of Trauma on Personality.” Personality and Psychopathology: Feminist Reappraisals in Eds. Laura S Brown and Mary Ballou. New York: Guilford, 1992.

[3] Sugirtharajah, R., “The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations.” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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