New book from Trinity alumnus on the Church of England and racism

An Anglican priest based in Manchester, Revd A.D.A. France-Williams is the author of Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, which is available beginning today from SCM Press. Below he shares some thoughts about an ambiguity that exists in the country and the church for its black and minority ethnic members.

So there is a myth which the historian David Olusoga helps put pay to. The myth that black West Indians were invited by the U.K. government after the Second World War to rebuild the shattered landscape and step into the personnel gaps.

The truth is we were never really wanted. David Olusoga documents how the government was not willing to have members of the West Indian Islands come over. In fact, they sent government emissaries to the Islands to explicitly pass on the message:

“England is not open for business, thank you for your interest we do not need your help.”

The problem was Islands like Nevis had incredibly high literacy rate coupled with an availability of English newspapers. The classifieds were clear England was bleeding and needed labour to staunch the flow of blood. So, although the government did not want us, the businesses did. There has been an ambiguity over the black presence ever since. I think this ambiguity lives in the church too.

A nineteen-year-old girl boarded the Italian Grimaldi brothers’ boat, the Lucania, refitted in 1951, and sailed until 1962. This young woman boarded with her British passport as a full citizen in 1955 with that myth in her mind, that she was wanted, and with that lie in her heart, she was coming to the mother country. That young bright-eyed teenager aboard the Lucania was the woman who would become my mother. She came to bring her strength and her love. In Vicious Circle, Wilfred Wood describes how those who travelled from the West Indies felt it should be as simple to relocate as someone from Birmingham might move to live in Bristol. A different accent and lifestyle but the same people group.  Full citizens, with full rights, bringing their full selves.

The Church of England has given at best a mixed message to former British subjects and historical slaves. It was actually business leaders who had sent to the West Indies for West Indians, not the government, and so was established a: ‘s/he loves me s/he loves me not’ seesaw effect. A real ambiguity as to whether citizens were citizens, and whether Mother England was mother to all. This is expressed in the Church of England with a desire to have black and minority ethnic clergy, but then leaving us redundant and restless. The message of ‘we don’t need you’ is a strange headspace of thinking that a recognition of someone’s else’s strength could be seen as an admission of your weakness.

To some extent Mum was coming to find some purpose and identity. As a ten year old when the Second World War had finished, she was now part of the ongoing rebuilding enterprise. It was a big journey with companions along the way and the thought was always that she would head back to Nevis after she had done her bit, seen the world, and saved up some money to cultivate her land and return and settle down. But she encountered a constant message of ‘she wasn’t good enough’ and what she had was unacceptable, whether it be qualifications or skills.

In the book Ghost Ship I document stories of a lukewarm reception to me and my black and brown peers and clergy within the church we serve. May this new wave of interest in race and racial justice be one we can all ride wherever it may lead us. It may just bring us closer to God and to each other.

A.D.A. France-Williams is the author of Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, which is available beginning today from SCM Press. He is an Anglican priest based in Manchester, and a member of the HeartEdge Network. More information about his book at: https://bit.ly/HopefortheChurch.

Posted 10 July 2020

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