Eddie Green: Bypassing ‘Liberal’ for the Missio DeiApril 29, 2023
Lorraine Cavanagh: Bullying And The ChurchMay 24, 2023
Let me take you back to 1985. I am listening to the following words: ‘I find it hard to address you as my brothers and sisters in Christ today, and that pains me.’ This is my first experience of the annual Methodist Conference, my denomination’s governing body. The speaker is Sybil Phoenix, a community worker in Lewisham and founder of the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust, a supported housing project for single homeless young women. She was the first Black woman in the UK to get an MBE (in 1973), an honour followed by the OBE in 2008. Sybil Phoenix had developed a programme known as MELRAW, Methodist Racism Awareness Workshops. I cannot remember what report or motion she was addressing, but it clearly had something to do with institutional racism, and Sybil was not impressed with the church’s progress.
I do remember my response very clearly, though. I felt desolate and had to leave the conference hall once she had finished her speech. I felt a deep sense of regret and personal responsibility. Even though I was only nineteen, and could think of nothing I had done personally to deserve being on the receiving end of her disappointment, I did feel that it was justified, and that this insight would and should change my life. I resolved that day to find out what I had done to hurt this woman, and others like her, and to figure out what I could do to undo what I (and others) had done.
I learned that day that doing harm is a corporate thing. You may not choose it as an individual. Indeed, you may hate the fact that the harm is being perpetrated. But if you are part of the grouping (in this case White people) that has privilege without having to choose it, to the extent that you accept and do not question your entitlement to the power this gives, you are part of its misuse. You are a contributor and a colluder unless you consciously become a detractor. This felt like a huge realisation, and a life’s work to know what to do with it.
I had encountered Sybil Phoenix a year or so before, in a more intimate context, as a Methodist young person in International Youth Year (1984). My denomination took its young people extremely seriously. It gave us opportunities to travel the world, take responsibilities and learn leadership skills. Back then there was a famous annual event called the London Weekend, when 12,000 young people would come to the capital to take part in a festival, sleeping on church hall floors and attending events in theatres, Westminster Central Hall, and the Royal Albert Hall. It was decided that in 1984 young people should play a key role in leading the weekend. And somehow I got invited to co-host a discussion event called ‘Speakeasy’ for five or six hundred young people at Westminster Theatre. My co-leader was a young Black Methodist called Jeffers, and our mentor was a BBC Producer of religious programmes.
There were panellists whom Jeffers and I would interview – and the theme was Racism and Sexism. My interviewee was to be Paul Boateng, subsequently one of the first Black cabinet ministers under New Labour. Jeffers’ interviewee was Sal Solo, lead singer of 1980s pop group Classix Nouveau. It was terrifying. But I remember most clearly the preparation leading up to it. We were put through a programme of life-changing awareness-raising on the two themes. And it was equally enlightening for both of us. Jeffers and I were booked onto a MELRAW workshop. As it happened, there was a mix-up and it turned out that since I was the only White person there, Sybil Phoenix ran a Black Consciousness workshop and I was allowed to sit in.
A young woman was recounting a workplace experience. She was an administrator and had made a mistake of some kind. Her boss (a White woman), had become frustrated with her and declared, ‘That’s the last time I employ a Black person.’ Sybil asked how the woman felt about that. ‘Well’, she said, ‘I can understand it. I mean, I had made a mistake and let her down. I can see why she would judge other Black people by my performance.’ Sybil’s gentle response was this: ‘So tell me something. If a White woman had made that mistake, do you think your boss would have declared her intention never to employ a White person again?’ I watched as an awareness dawned on the young woman, and felt it dawn within myself. Of course that would never happen. It was a ridiculous suggestion. I saw the penny drop, and I am sure that her life, like mine, was transformed by that insight. I remember how forcefully it came home to me, as the only White person in the room, how little I knew of experiences of racism, and how much my ‘normality’ was a White normality.
I gained an insight from that workshop that I have carried with me ever since – the difference between individual feelings and structural power. All of us carry a collection of what today would be called ‘unconscious biases’ based on past experiences – good and bad. These are our prejudices. Racial prejudice is usually used to describe negative feelings of antagonism and activities of discrimination against those from a different ethnic group. Any individual can be prejudiced against another, and discriminate against them, but the extent to which this makes a difference is dependent on how much power the discriminator has. In a society which is structured to favour one racial grouping over others (in the case of British society, to favour White people over minority ethnic groups), prejudice plus power results in racism of an institutional kind. And unpicking that is extremely complex, as was subsequently explored by the Macpherson report after the murder of the Black teenager Stephen Lawrence, exposing as it did the institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police.
That was a long time ago. Fellow young Methodists of my generation are Professor Antony Reddie (a prolific scholar of Black Liberation Theology at Oxford University), and Rev Sonia Hicks – recently President of the Methodist Conference – and Chair of our forthcoming 2023 Modern Church conference, ‘Deconstructing Racism in the Church’. Paul Boateng – now a Lord – is Chair of the Archbishop’s Racial Justice Commission. That this Commission exists, and that our conference takes this theme – along with cultural phenomena such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, which swept the globe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, are evidence that racism is as virulent now as it was in the 1980s, taking ever more complex forms.
In a recent Modern Church blog, Al Barrett wrote, ‘I was born in 1975. I was around forty years old when I realised I was White. I am, for all my academic credentials, an embarrassingly slow learner.’ I would say that almost all of us who are White share this characteristic. We have not yet done the work we need to do. Theologically, our agenda must be to work as part of a diverse coalition of theologians and people of faith to decolonise our thinking and decolonise ourselves; to build a postcolonial theology which grapples with the horrific injustices of past and present, and works towards deep solidarity between White and Black, and mutual learning in that process. It is a huge challenge, which must be constantly renewed. But the end point is joyful justice and a diversity to revel in. Join us in July and be part of it.
Alison Webster, General Secretary, Modern Church.