Q&A with Azariah France-Williams
In July, SCM Press released Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England by Revd Azariah France-Williams (Trinity 2012). The book has started a conversation among many within the Church of England about its history and how we might do better. Below, Azariah shares his thoughts about the book’s reception and where the church might go from here.
Q: In the book, you quote Canon Eve Pitts saying, ‘It will be in the best interests of all of us if the church begins to speak the truth’ (p. 47). Was this a difficult book to write, or did it feel therapeutic at all, trying to speak the truth?
A: Both difficult and freeing. When you fail to take stock of the internal churning and yearning for better treatment and Christian responses to your personhood, you may begin to collapse mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically. When you speak up and speak out you can collapse socially and vocationally as your private angst is now a source for public debate. The seeds of the book arrived over a decade ago when I was based in Trinity and wrote the research which undergirded the concepts. The therapeutic benefit comes through the drawing alongside of others suffering and/or those dedicated to relieving that suffering.
Q: What kinds of responses have you had to the book?
A: A full range of responses from white, black, and brown people. The dominant feedback has been gratitude for articulating something of a history many were unaware of. The book is more of an invitation than a confrontation. It is an invitation to be more and see more of the impact of systemic racism’s work within society, and particularly within the Church of England context. The negative feedback I have received most regularly has been from people who have not read the book, and they are attacking what they imagine I am saying.
Q: In the book you ask the question, ‘…on virtually every scale, black people of African descent are at the bottom. It need not have been so: what if the church had played its part when given the opportunity to demonstrate that it hears and heals?’ (p. 95) Are there particular groups or initiatives you know of or are involved with currently that you see trying to do this?
A: I think that God will work out his purposes with those who are responsive to his call to ‘act justly’. If this happens to be the church, great, but if not he will call others in other sectors of society to stand. In East London there is The Centre for Theology and Community (www.theology-centre.org). They do great work through community organising patterns. In the Episcopal Church in North America, they are quite far ahead in this journey, and offer resources through their website (e.g., https://episcopalchurch.org/racial-reconciliation/resources.)
Q: You point out in the book that the leadership of the Church of England needs to learn to hear lament, to hear voices that challenge or criticize, as well as truly share power and provide adequate resources. What do you think the leadership of the Church of England needs to do to re-earn trust within BAME communities?
A: The trust has been broken over many decades by successive waves of senior leadership. But I argue that the structure does not support people of good heart to thrive, and help others thrive. This is because the template for who a minister is and how they operate is very limited. Saying that, clergy in communities can do a lot of good and do to demonstrate God’s love and liberating power. These priests have to assess and audit their own biases and work counter to the culture and exclusion generated by structures which can harbour racist presuppositions.
Q: At the close of the book, you write, ‘Black and brown people are not asking for white protectors, but they are asking for partners who see, hear and speak up for the full human flourishing of black and brown people…. White people who will speak up, listen up, and look up, whether or not those people of colour are in the meetings’ (p. 208). It’s the shift from thinking about racism or ‘diversity’ as only relevant to black and brown people to seeing that this is a critical concern for white people as well as critical to the health of the church.
A: I agree with your analysis entirely and would respond by saying it is about head, heart, and hands. Can those of you who are white and desire to be allies get out of your preoccupation with your ‘heads’? Your thinking can override the feelings of the black and brown friends you have who may disclose challenges they face. Listen with empathy not with scepticism as they describe a situation you are not familiar with. Then open your hearts to black and brown people. Move beyond meeting in public and social settings, to the personal and the story sphere. Finally, stretch out your hands so that now you are alongside your black and brown friends if and when they need you.
Q: Do you know of any anti-racist initiatives happening right now (within or outside of the CofE) with which Trinity alumni can become involved or get their churches involved? Or perhaps they need to find creative ways to educate themselves and start their own anti-racist initiatives within their church and community?
A: My diocese in Manchester has recently launched this resource which I commend to you: www.manchester.anglican.org/Racial-Justice/. Can I ask that you don’t just proposition the first black or brown person you see to ask them to help you? Work out what budget you are willing to invest and invite a specialist to come and share with your group. A curate I know regularly attends her local Black Lives Matter protest in her dog collar, and after a few weeks she was asked to close in prayer. She is learning with and from that community. Walter Brueggemann says you put your body in the places, with the people that you are committed to. So budgets and bodies, I think, are a way forward.
A.D.A. France-Williams is an Anglican priest based in Manchester, and a member of the HeartEdge Network. You can find out more about his book or purchase a copy at bit.ly/HopefortheChurch.
Posted November 2020 as part of the Autumn 2020 Trinity News.