Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship -

Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England – A.D.A. France-Williams

“The church has a decision to make as to which path it will take. The path of power, privilege and prestige – the way of the Crown, which is the way of the predator. Or the path of pain, people and paying the price – the way of the Cross.” (p.33)

This is the question at the centre of Ghost Ship, published in July. A book I have taken to describing to others as “if you read just one book in response to Black Lives Matter and the church, make it this one”. (But you *do* need to read more than one book…)

Before I say anything more, some disclaimers:
I have had the privilege of calling the author a friend for a number of years. He brought me into a team teaching a BA module; I was a visiting preacher at one of his churches; I even had the privilege of reading extracts from this book last year, so I knew ahead of publication how key it was going to be to the conversation that has deepened and become even more raw this year. (We also managed to sing in the same gospel choir for several years without becoming friends!)

I also have to acknowledge my own privilege within the Church of England. I am a white, middle class woman with two Masters degrees. I sound like I fit in within ‘the club’. I may not have been born on this island, but I am basically British. Women certainly still face discrimination in the church, and there are many places where I feel out of place and looked down upon, but I am in a privileged position regardless.

Azariah – A.D.A. –  is someone who I consider a prophetic voice within the Church of England, who has been kept quiet by the institution for too long. This book is the culmination of years of research, lived experience, conversation and challenge. It is not an easy book to read, it is meant to confront within the reader their own experience of the church, and present them with the experience of those different from themselves. The prophetic voice is speaking truth to power.

I use the word “confront” quite deliberately. A number of times in the text, the author speaks of being warned not to be too confrontational in his writing, or is accused of being so. One incident relayed in the book includes an email from a bishop replying to an email raising questions about the representation of non-white people within an act of worship, in it he writes:
“It took me some time to disentangle the important points you wanted to raise from the rather combative tone in which they were expressed, and the emotional response that it created.” (p.141)

When you read the history of the Church of England and racial justice over the last 75 years, as laid out in Ghost Ship, you recognise that an emotional response is not enough. Emotion hasn’t effected much change in policy or institution. Confronting the reality of this is necessary for the church to progress beyond this point. The tone of writing is frequently strong, but when you’re writing about consistent failure over a 75 year period, strength is necessary!

One element of this book is history – who the key figures have been (names that shamefully I was unaware of, until the more recent history of the 21st century); events & landmark reports; and failed attempts at moving beyond tokenism (did you know that the 2008 Lambeth Conference could have been held in Johannesburg?). But amongst this history are the experiences of many black clergy and church members – the reading of which should be and is uncomfortable. There is also a creative style to the writing that incorporates poetry and allegory alongside the grim reality of the church.

From my personal perspective, this book is helpful on a number of levels:
1.     It gave me an insight into a part of the church’s history that I have simply been unaware of. Or at the most, only dimly aware of. I should not have been. It makes me wonder how/why this is absent from theological education.

2.     As a priest to a congregation that is black-majority (with the islands of the Caribbean strongly represented), I needed to learn and what may have been their experience – and also to listen to their own stories. I don’t know how much of this history they are aware of, but they deserve to hear it and to be heard, so that it is clear that they are valued by the institution that they love dearly.

3.     The church needs to change, and this book gives concrete ideas for what is needed – the suggestion of something akin to a Truth and Reconciliation commission feels particularly helpful. One of the most practical chapters comes near its conclusion, and sets out the difference between “token” and “minority”. The CofE likes to talk about BAME, but it hasn’t actually managed to move much beyond token in terms of numbers. It hasn’t got to minority yet.

4.     We need to change. The institution needs major change, but that is only going to happen if the members of the institution change too. As you read it, what is the response that you need to make? What changes can you be a part of?

Back in February, I sat in the public gallery of General Synod and watched as the Archbishop of Canterbury tore up his pre-prepared speech in response to resolutions on the Windrush Generation.  I heard his heartfelt apology for the institutional and systemic racism within the Church of England.  (This is also the theme of the book’s afterword.) I counted the number of non-white faces in the chamber who were part of the decision making body – there were seven. I heard willingness in the room to put energy and money into facilitating real change. I heard similar murmurings when Black Lives Matter resurged within the public consciousness in May. But the Church of England is facing unprecedented times. It would be easy to push racial justice from the agenda in the face of massive financial challenges that are resulting from Covid-19.

But is there any point trying to help this institution to survive if it’s going to perpetuate the journey along the path of power, privilege & prestige? How can our established church be a church of the people if a significant number of the nation’s population is discriminated against within it?

My prayer and hope is that the church – from grassroots church members, to clergy, to bishops and beyond – take this book seriously. That it learns from what has gone before, and sets the church firmly on the path of pain, people and paying the price – the way of the Cross.

After reading – dog eared & annotated. May your copy be also…