Doing the right thing is often the hardest thing. Last Saturday’s stark televised announcement to the nation by the Prime Minister sent the Christmas plans of millions across the country into disarray. It cannot have been an easy decision to take, and it will not be any easier for us to follow the rules, and for many to spend this Christmas apart as a result. Yet, with infection rates rising alarmingly, and our hospitals once again feeling the strain at what is their busiest period of the year in normal times – if we can even remember those – we must all make sacrifices to protect the people we love, and the most vulnerable in our society, as we continue to fight this lethal virus.
It will be the first ever year that my children will not be spending Christmas with us. They will be with other people, they will be well-fed, they will be fine. It is not what they or we planned, of course. Others are much less fortunate. Christmas, for all its joy and hope, can be the loneliest of times for those without families, friends, a home, or a support bubble. For all of the scare stories of empty supermarket shelves and Christmas being cancelled, more than ever this is a time to look out for others, not just ourselves.
This is usually a time of comfort, and we have all been taking heart from those traditions which seem to have arrived even earlier in 2020, to offset how we have been feeling. Christmas trees going up, festive food, seasonal music on the radio, favourite television programmes – all reassuring, welcome comforts that nonetheless may seem a little hollower this year. It feels that it may take more than home comforts as we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis which has taken our breath away, which has taken away our ability to see and hug those we love, which has taken away our freedom to sing, and which has taken away lives, health, jobs, financial security.
Throughout this situation, our first priority as a church has been caring for our communities, offering light in dark times. I have seen what hope looks like in my own Diocese of London, and I know it has been mirrored right across the country. Earlier in the year, when our church buildings were closed, hope looked like St Dionis in Parsons Green, where volunteers were based, busily creating PPE packs for NHS workers. In the run up to Christmas, hope has looked like St Mary Hornsey Rise, busily preparing hampers for local residents, or like St Cuthbert’s in North Wembley, where their Memory Café has been helping to relieve the loneliness suffered by older people, caused by poor memory and social separation.
This year will have been difficult for us in so many ways. As Christians, we know that, into a world full of suffering, God chose to come and live among us in the form of a newborn child, and that sustains us. Now hope is not about optimism or about short lived happiness, it is about a deeper inner peace which endures in the dark places of our lives. The Christmas Story does not deny the difficult times, but God offers us comfort and hope right at the heart of them. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in an Advent message to the Church in the Province of South Africa, said, “It was precisely in the darkness, where it looks like there was no way forward, that the light which lightens everyone came into the world.”
There is more than a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Ten months ago, we did not truly understand the unique threat we faced. We struggled to tend to the sick, to protect the vulnerable. We struggled for answers – there was no end in sight. The start of the vaccination programme now means that we can go into a new year with fresh optimism, even if our daily lives will have to remain changed for some time to come.
We are no strangers to the light of comfort and hope at Christmas. This year, that light shines even brighter, amidst the darkness we face.
If racism is to be extinguished – and those plates of the earth’s surface to which I alluded earlier are to be levelled – there needs to be a restoration and reaffirmation of the human dignity of black people, which the dehumanising acts of slavery robbed. There needs to be a reversal of the degrading untruths about black people, of which the white slave masters must have convinced themselves in order to behave in the way that they did. These ‘untruths’ are still in many ways with us today. It is the case that the myriad permutations in variety of personality, intellect, and behaviours, which are taken ‘as given’ in white people, are not afforded to black people, who are still rated as inferior. Black people are classed as failures far more readily than white people and often have to be twice as good to demonstrate their capabilities.
I thank God for the many white people I know who are deeply committed to this restoration and reaffirmation of the human dignity of black people both in what they say and do; who live and work alongside us as allies. The sadness – and it is a deep sadness – which we as black people bear, is that there are numerous white people today who allow indignities which are said and written about black people to go unchallenged; and some who actually participate in fanning flames that promote them.
White people today can and should play a part in restoring and reaffirming the human dignity of black people which the degrading acts of slavery robbed. They should be stating clearly to the world that their forebears erred greatly. Black people are exhausted by white people ‘not seeing’ that they have a key and distinct part to play in this restoration and reaffirmation of our human dignity and in bringing about equality. This is what fighting the injustices of racism seeks to address. White people ‘not seeing’ the issues and effects of racism, and doing nothing about it, is not a luxury which black people have, who bear the pain that it causes.
Power of individuals to bring about change
As well as change taking place at organisational and institutional levels, it needs to take place, just as much, in the hearts and minds of individuals. What individuals do and think combines to create the atmosphere in communities and sets the tone for what is and is not acceptable. The composite effect can be tremendous.
In terms of the way forward, my hope is that there will be among white people, in companionship with black people,
A deepening of understanding – through reading, video clips, documentaries, discussions, and listening to black people’s stories and accounts. This is about wanting to find out more. Black people will have different stories to tell, not surprisingly. Some may reveal deep frustration and maybe even anger, but the question is whether the pain that lies underneath is being recognised.
The forming of relationships – with black people from different walks of life. This is about engaging first-hand by having relationships which are genuine, respectful, and manifest the love of Christ.
A willingness to challenge – questioning and taking action in relation to attitudes or situations which set black people ‘in a mould’, in a pejorative light, or at a disadvantage.
These arise from my experiences of life and my Christian faith of several decades. They are,
That white people – who are not already proactive – will become proactive in finding out more about black people’s circumstances, and in forming relationships, and so be able to speak and act with a conviction that is borne out of knowledge and experience.
That through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, those white people who do not already recognise the destructive effects of racism on black people – and on themselves through being distanced from the heart of the love of Christ – will receive the necessary insight and objectivity to do so.
That people will listen to God, and hear His still, small voice above the clamour of their own.
That God will be enabled to break into entrenched positions and speak into the well-worn furrows of our own reasoning.
That we will live our lives not on our own terms, but in a way that is open to being shaped by God; open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and so become the people God wants us to be.
That we will be prepared to step out of our comfort zones and take risks for God; that we will not allow our fears to dictate our lives and hem us in.
I look forward to the day when we don’t have to be referred to as ‘black people’, but just ‘people’. I don’t want people to be ‘colour-blind’ because colour is integral to who we are as people – but to be able to see colour as part of the richness of the totality of the person.
I commend to my fellow Christians a prayer to ask of God: ‘How are you wanting to use me Lord, or use me more, so that black people can be freed to gain the fullness of life that Christ came to give.’ I believe that the pernicious nature of the evil that racism is, and its grip – in all its subtlety and complexity – on the human race, means that its eradication can only succeed if our actions are initiated and sustained by prayer.
We journey together
I believe that God wants us to see that we are to journey together in our endeavours in tackling racism. I mentioned the story of the paralysed man being brought to Jesus by his friends at the start of this narrative. The story sends the powerful message of our need for one another. It also reminds us that we all stand before God in a state of humility, and with a need to be healed, forgiven, and set free.
I am very grateful to Monica for sharing her story.
University city, full-blown racism
An experience of blatant racism which I experienced, was at university when I was looking for accommodation in the city. I was basically told at the door of the place I had found, that although they did have a room to let, purely because I was black – and bearing in mind they knew absolutely nothing else about me – there was no way they would be renting the room to me. This felt like a penetrating wound, piecing my very humanity. I cried all evening.
My working life after university to the present day has almost entirely been with the Diocese of London’s central administrative office. My longevity there – of nearly four decades – has been because over the years, and even more so in recent times, the working environment has been one in which I have been enabled to flourish. I have found my colleagues to be really good to work with. This is because I have felt that I have been regarded as ‘a whole person’; being black has not in itself been a determining factor of my working experience. The level of racial diversity among staff in the past has been low, but has been rising in recent years. As regards the boards and synods with which I have worked, there is a wind of change here that is gathering pace on the need to address issues of racial awareness and injustice. Members have shown in the past that they can maintain a firm stand on matters close to their hearts, and my hope is that they will demonstrate the full strength of their righteous indignation over the sin of racism, and show their hunger and thirst for righteousness to prevail. I am very encouraged by steps that are currently being taken, and the fresh initiatives that are underway. After many years of seeing numerous good intentions expressed at national church level, my hope is that decisions made will be brought into effect, leaving no one in any doubt as to the significance and importance to our Church of tackling racism. There are now promising signs of work being taken forward. We should all pray for God’s wisdom and the boldness of the Spirit for all involved in carrying forward this work.
Marriage and motherhood
My husband, who is a white English man has, during our marriage of nearly four decades, been a deep source of understanding, strength, and love. He has been ordained for nearly three decades as a Church of England priest. We have journeyed together with joy and thanksgiving from pre-ordination days to the present. As mother of our two children – now in their 30s – I was all too aware that the world often does not recognise a 50/50 black and white heritage in the sense of giving equal recognition to both parts. My experience is that children in these situations are often simply referred to as black or other (notably never white! – although their heritage is from both parts in equal measure). This failure to recognise and embrace the dual nature of the heritage of these children would seem to me to stem from a deep sense of whiteness as being supreme, and that any black addition extinguishes that.
Use of analogy to convey experience
I find the use of analogy useful in helping to portray my experience of being a black person in this world.
Here, I use an analogy of a seesaw on which black people are at one end and white people at the other: It is as though our blackness is a burden – which we are made to feel it is, through so often being regarded as second class and inferior. This treatment, and the injustice it represents, exhausts us and weighs us down as black people journeying through this world. Our end of the seesaw is weighed down so that it touches the ground. At the same time at the opposite end of the seesaw, seeing us from their seat on high are white people, with a demeanour of effortless superiority. From their elevated position, they ‘call the shots.’ What takes place is at their instigation. We long for the seesaw to achieve equilibrium.
I have been searching myself for answers as to how it is I live, day in day out, year in year out, as a black person in the world, in the face of what I have tried to convey. And here, I find a further analogy using ‘grief’ to be useful. My beloved father died early last year. I think this analogy using my grief goes something like this: There is a mode in which by God’s grace, I am able to live remarkably effectively from day to day, week to week, and so on, which is my ordinary and usual mode. However, there is another mode which lurks in the background and is always ready to pounce; to rear its head, perhaps because of something said or done to me or someone else, or something I have heard or seen. This mode is like a brick wall that I come up against; seemingly immovable and deeply painful.
The limitations of this analogy are that with the passage of time – as is usual for grief – the depth and intensity of the pain eases. However, this is not the case with those of us who suffer racism. This is manifested by the fact that over the last six months I have experienced a greater heaviness of heart and shedding of tears than I have done in as many years. This points to the extent of the burden of racism which weighs us down as black people, and what it does to the human spirit. For over this time it is not that I myself have had acts of racism directed towards me – which nowadays, I thank God, are infrequent – but the pain I come up against resulting from what I continue to see and hear of the suffering of others in the world around me: both close by and further afield. This causes my heart to cry inwardly, ‘How long, O Lord, how long’. I can recall my grandmother (1917-2001) expressing the pain of the racial injustices she suffered, and I hear those same expressions of pain and anguish today. A second source of my sadness is from the seeming lack of awareness on the part of some white people of the reality of racism; its damaging effects, and of the part they could play in its demise. I have a deep sadness for the sense of the loss of opportunities.
My analogies convey that being a black person in this world, is as though the shackles of slavery, although physically gone, are in a sense still there. As though key elements in the dynamic between the white masters and black slaves have somehow been transmitted down the generations, resulting in present day white people as beneficiaries, and black people with a loss in dignity and fullness of what is means to be human. Being white is like a hallmark, meaning that humanity in all its fullness is to be found there. A white person enters the world into the supreme and superior group of people who are confident of their self-worth; who have the privilege of being immediately recognised as possessing what is needed in personality, intellect and behaviour to convey the fullness of being human. I think it is hard for a white person to recognise this state which is so deeply embedded in their experience as human beings. I believe that only the grace of God can make it possible to acquire the objectivity and insight that is necessary to perceive this.
Racism feels like a primary sin, in that we find as black people – that far from being seen as equals, as God intended when he created His children – aspects of our very humanity are called into question. We even at times suffer the indignity of being likened to animals. And so, as black people, we find that we often have to strive ‘to get to first base’, to convince people that we possess the feelings, intelligence, and overall capabilities which are taken ‘as given’ in a white person. The primary forces of power and pride are at the heart of racism and give it fuel, which the seesaw analogy goes some way to convey.
The injustice of racism and its gravity as a sin are due to its directness in contradicting God who created us all in His image. Racism clearly evidences our disdain and effrontery to God in portraying that although created as equals, we do not regard each other as equals. Sheer folly! Furthermore, Jesus taught us to pray ‘Our Father’ precisely because we come to God together equally as His children. ‘We are children together of the same heavenly Father’, is what we say in the service of baptism. I do believe that if, in humility, we do not of our own free will right the injustices of racism, then God Himself may in His displeasure, step in and do so. I pray that as opportunities present themselves for us to act both as individuals and at higher levels, we will not let them go. I am astounded by the ingrained nature, the tenacity and persistence of racism both in society and in the church, that in spite of gallant efforts this evil prevails. I believe this evidences the profoundly spiritual nature of what we are dealing with and the imperative that all we do is deeply rooted and upheld in prayer.
I write this narrative – which I am content to be passed to others – as a black woman. I hope that as a reader, you do not only feel sadness at what I impart of the pain and difficulties that arise as a result of the affliction of racism on black people. My hope is that, particularly if you are white, you will feel that you have a key part to play in the demise of racism. I do believe that we all have a contribution to make in this endeavour, and that in order for change to occur, it is as much about the efforts of individuals as it is about anything that happens at organisational and institutional levels.
My hope is that my story and insights that follow will inspire you as a reader, and lead you to seek out what your contribution might be, or give you fresh impetus in what you are already doing. I hope that my courage in writing this narrative might encourage you in the steps you take or are already taking. Writing this has taken several months, and during this time I could quite easily have said ‘It’s all too difficult!’
This narrative has turned out to be a kind of testimony, which is because my faith in Christ – who I came to own as Lord at the early age of 14 – is key to my life. A few years ago I discerned the purpose and mission of my life as being: ‘To serve God, to be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, and to be open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit’.
The well-known story of the paralytic brought to Jesus for healing in Mark chapter 2 has been a source of prayer and contemplation for me over many years. It conveys something of my demeanour in writing this narrative, and also portrays how I see others before God. In the story, Jesus prays over the paralysed man brought to him by his friends. Thoughts about ‘humility’, ‘knowing our need of God’,’ letting others minister to us’, ‘trusting God’, ‘allowing God in Christ to break through our fear, and release us from the things that bind us’ – have all resonated with me from this story.
I am very grateful to Bishop Sarah, Bishop of London, for inviting me to write this narrative. The challenges in writing it have been considerable and have involved a great deal of prayer: both mine and others’, which I have sought. These challenges have been due to the emotional upheaval involved for me as a black person looking deeply into racism and its effects, and also because I am writing with frankness about white people, which includes people with whom I live, work, play and worship. Basically, people I love and with whom my life in its fullness, is interwoven.
One might wonder why I bothered to write at all, as it has been such a challenge! It is because I have a profound sense that because of the person that I am, and the circumstances in which God has placed me, my story and insights is a ‘unique contribution’ that I alone can make to what has already been written and said about racism. My hope and prayer are that it might be used to God’s glory and for the furtherance of His kingdom.
A golden opportunity
I think that the current time presents a golden opportunity for us all to grasp at the roots of racism. I have been struck by how perturbed I have been by the events of 2020, surrounding the death of George Floyd in the US which reverberated around the world. I have been greatly affected, and I have wondered why. I think it is because I have now been in the world for six decades, and these events have heightened my awareness that the foundations of racism are still intact, and that its roots go deeply into our human life and experience. The pernicious nature of racism and its firm grip on humanity have hit me afresh. That racism persists in the face of black people holding high office, frankly, makes me shudder, for it conveys to me the deep complexity and tenacity which marks out racism.
Catastrophe on the human landscape
I am acutely aware that God created us His children in His image, as equals, and I believe that the enslavement, trading and dehumanising of black people (being chained like animals in the bowels of ships) by white people, is a catastrophe of seismic proportions on the human landscape. It is as though an earthquake took place which fractured the earth’s surface leaving one plate – white people – elevated, and the other plate – black people – depressed. How can we know that this atrocity does not remain, like a sealed container, in the past, but has a bearing on us today? How does what our forebears did (as white slave masters), or have done to them (as black slaves), affect us today? How can it be that we all have a part to play; a contribution to make to undo the damage and move forward? I hope that my story and insights go some way into shedding light in these areas.
My life’s journey
I was born in London to black parents of the ‘Windrush’ generation, who came to England in the mid-1950s from St Kitts in the Caribbean. The hostile environment which greeted them included signs for accommodation stating, ‘no blacks, no dogs, no children’. A bus driver once refused to drive the bus because my father was on it. Tough decisions had to be made for any headway to be possible in England, and so, I was sent to spend a few of my early years in St Kitts with relatives, later returning to England. These proved to be fruitful and memorable years.
I have been blessed with parents who conveyed to me what the equality of God’s children truly means. In spite of their difficult experiences, racial prejudice was an alien concept in our home. My parents taught me about the love of Christ by their words and actions towards other people. My mother was always quick to point out behaviours in others that it was worth learning from and emulating. My parents also instilled in me a sense of dignity, pride, and confidence in being black. This prepared me well for my encounters and relationships with white people from early on in primary school through the rest of my life. That I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, as my favourite Psalm 139 states, has been with me throughout my life.
In the practically all-white school, which I attended from the age of 12, I recall feeling like a kind of ‘ambassador for black people’. I had a close friend with whom, as teenagers, we would share conversations about our parents both being post-war immigrants to England. Hers seeking refuge from a non-English speaking country, and mine responding to the UK’s calls for labour from the Caribbean. We would often discuss the disparities in the way in which the world beyond school saw us and treated us: she as a white person, who as such was indistinguishable from other white people in the population, and me as a black person.
The experiences which my friend and I compared, included when I would be asked on numerous occasions in my life outside school – both at that time and in fact also later into adulthood – by white people, ‘How is it that you speak so well. Where did you learn to speak?’ My white friend was never asked this. It was as though black people were, for some reason, inherently incapable of marshalling their thoughts and delivering clear speech. The awful irony was, of course, that my parents were from an English-speaking country, whereas hers were not, and so had to learn the language. Another question I would be asked was, ‘How come you have such good manners?’ A question which, again, my white friend, was never asked. It was as though black people were by nature unruly, and not in command of themselves, so it was a surprise to come across a black person who did not match those expectations. I would also be asked, ‘Where are you from?’ When I would answer ‘London’, this would be followed by, ‘But where are you really from?’ For my white friend, it was invariably sufficient for her to simply say she was from London. The painful reality for me was that these people saw being black as incompatible with being from England, however deep a black person’s roots here might be (and for some it is hundreds of years). My thoughts were that the people who asked me these questions, were not ‘bad’, but in a state of profound ignorance. My sincere hope was that they would not be complacent in their ignorance.
My introduction to Living in Love and Faith at The London Diocesan Synod
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
O Holy Spirit, Giver of light and life, Impart to us thoughts higher than our own thoughts, And prayers better than our own prayer, And powers beyond our own powers, That we may spend and be spent, In the ways of love and goodness, After the image of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
As the chair of the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, I recognise that this is a difficult time to be releasing the Living in Love and Faith resources.
Our first priority at this time as a church needs to be caring for our communities, offering light and hope in what are dark times. However, this work has been in the making for over three years. We need to honour the time and commitment those involved in its creation have given.
As we live in the midst of a pandemic, we have heard much of fear. I wonder when we have been afraid in our lives? I was afraid when, a few days before my son was due, I found myself in my bath alone in the house, with the absolute realisation my son was about to arrive. Fight or flight kicks in. I was afraid when I saw my husband coming towards me in a supermarket with blood down his clothes – and with the realisation it was my son’s which was pouring from his head. Again, fight or flight kicks in. I was afraid when at a family event and one of the guests collapsed, and I realised that everyone turned to me to save his life. Our flight or fight response is there for a reason.
However, that response was not so helpful when I was afraid, standing at the top of Canterbury Cathedral after my consecration, or in the Pulpit of St Paul’s on the day of my installation. And I admit that I am still afraid as I go into some meetings, open some emails, or look at my Twitter feed. At those times, fight or flight is not the appropriate response.
Isabelle Hamley, the Archbishop’s Chaplain, spoke about fear in a recent Thought for the Day. She commented that fear is a strange thing. On the one hand it is essential to survival – yet on the other hand, it threatens to overcome us. We all face a battle between good and bad fear.
Whilst President Trump came out of hospital and said that COVID was not to be feared, as a long-COVID sufferer Isabelle said she fears the virus which for her has been destructive. She wears a mask when she is out and washes her hands so that she doesn’t put others at risk and she does this not out of fear but out of care and reasonable evaluation. To hear the words of Jesus ‘do not be afraid ‘is not to pretend that fear is not there but to carry on living in an appropriate way.
To hear the words of Jesus ‘do not be afraid’ is to hear what comes next – ‘I am with you’. It doesn’t deny fear, but it says that God walks with us.
I have reflected over the last few weeks since the publication of LLF that fear is the emotion that maybe holds the biggest risk in preventing us listening to each other. I wonder what it is that we fear because of the process? We may fear not being listened to, we may fear being marginalised, we may fear being misunderstood, we may fear for the future of the Church of England, we may fear abuse or bullying. And our flight and fight response can so easily turn to getting in our pre-emptive attack, as a form of defence, before we are attacked.
The pastoral principles have been developed to help us have difficult conversations, not just about sexuality, but they can be used for all our interactions. They help us to improve the quality of our interactions and relationships in addressing not only fear but prejudice, hypocrisy, silence, ignorance and power.
I was reminded recently of the talk I gave at last year’s Parliamentary breakfast where I reflected on the growing narrative in our society where we are either on the “right side” of the argument or the “wrong side.”
The news is framed in terms of whose political ideas are “winning” and whose political ideas are “losing”. We see it in the Punch and Judy of politics. The division means that there is little incentive to cooperate and it’s depressing because there is a constant expectation of denigration by those who oppose you.
There are ripples in wider society and community. The belief that I am right, and you are wrong can so easily slide into being, “I am good and you are bad.” Hate speak can so easily move to violent isolation of those who hold different views.
We hold the tendency to hunker down with our own and, in consolidating our sense of belonging within our own communities – of whatever kind – we differentiate ourselves from others, setting ourselves apart.
The Church is not exempt. We have sometimes been quick to form different Christian tribes. We have too often shut our doors to those we should have flung them open to. And as we do, we draw explicit and implicit categories which indicate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Who is right and who is wrong; who is good and who is bad.
At the Parliamentary breakfast, I mentioned Nick Spencer’s remark that “ perhaps the single most influential text in Western political history” has been The Imago Dei.
It is within this concept of the image of God – with the equality of humanity at the centre – that we find that we can disagree with our ideological or theological positions with care and respect.
Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air, if the tone of our conversations focussed less on showing people how right we are but on how to care for those most vulnerable or those most likely to be hurt?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could avoid a culture in which we demonise each other for dissent?
Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air if we allowed each other the safe space we need for all views to be expressed and discussed in an atmosphere of compassion and respect?
With the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the equality of humanity at the centre, that true love casts out fear, we have a stable base for those who hold to these views and for those who hold to completely different ones – to flourish.
LLF will not succeed without love, grace, kindness and compassion. We must ensure that what we are embarking on is a safe process for everyone.
This will not be like a Government consultation or a political focus group. It is an invitation and a process of listening, where we are seeking to hear where God is leading his Church. That means that ultimately this will be an act of faith. And we place our hope in God to lead us as a Church where he wants us to go.
The LLF resources are intended to help all of us, whatever our theological convictions, to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how to live in love and faith with one another as the Christian Church in this land. No one has to take part. Let me be clear on this, no one has to take part in a conversation they think is not a safe place and there are many ways of engaging with the material.
The LLF material has its roots in the pastoral principles, there are commitments which those involved in group work need to sign up to for making the spaces safer and which are based on the St Michaels protocols and there are detailed leaders groups. The LLF Next Steps Group is also working with the National Safeguarding Team to review what steps could contribute to a safer environment but let’s not step away from our responsibility to speak and act with love, grace, kindness and compassion – even on social media.
Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
I am grateful to Charnelle for this powerful, personal guest blog piece, following Georgina’s earlier in the week. We must listen and learn from these experiences – and above all, we must act.
Learning to find my voice. My reflections on George Floyd’s death
Yet again another black man has been senselessly killed. But this one hit me differently, I think it hit my community differently this time too. Year after year, decade after decade and century after century we have been experiencing racial injustice. I think about my dad, an upstanding man with integrity, getting stopped by the police because he was wrongly identified because he was a black man with short hair and glasses. My mum who tells me stories of the racism she endured at school from her teachers. How half of her lesson was spent taunting her because of her hair. Her teacher calling her crude names because of the colour of her skin and was not true of who she is and her character.
My own stories of being told ‘you look like poo’ at school. Not sharing my opinion or voice in the public spaces for fear of being labelled an ‘angry black woman’. Knowing that I have to work three times as hard as my white counterparts just to get the same recognition. Finding it hard to bring my whole self to work, because in society and the media I have been told that the entirety of my identity isn’t welcomed. Family members having to deal with overt racism in university today. People I call brothers being stopped continuously by the police.
I do not share this for pity but for an awakening. As Christian people, we have been given a blueprint to radical and counter-cultural living. We are told that to love God is to love our neighbour as ourselves. We are told in Micah, what the Lord requires of us, that is to ‘do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.’ In Isaiah 1 v 17 God says, ‘learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.’ We are not perfect, and God knew this and sent his son to die for all of our sins so that we could walk in power, with no condemnation and do right.
To the black girls and boys, women and men that might read this. I want to tell you that your voice is valuable and can, and should be heard. I want to tell you that the bible is not silence on racial injustice. As Isaiah 61v1 – 4 & 8 – 9 says:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the broken hearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed. 2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the Lord’s favour has come,
and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. 3 To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins,
repairing cities destroyed long ago.
They will revive them,
though they have been deserted for many generations.
“For I, the Lord, love justice.
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
and make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants will be recognized
and honoured among the nations.
Everyone will realize that they are a people
the Lord has blessed.”
I’m finding my voice too, let’s find our voice together.
I am grateful to Georgina who, over the past week, has written this heartfelt guest post for my blog.
Who am I to write this piece, when I am sure that hundreds of thousands of words have been eloquently and emotionally written since the very public murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day/Bank Holiday Monday propelled the systemic injustices that permeate the life of black people into the public consciousness and forced the powers that be to take notice. Who I am is a first generation Black Briton, whose parents arrived on the shores of their Mother Country sixty years ago expecting maybe not quite streets paved with gold, but at least not what would become known eight years later as rivers of blood.
Who I am is a black woman who withstands the drip, drip effect of death by a thousand cuts of daily micro-aggressions, who frequently avoids playing into the narrative of the few tropes available for a black woman (loud, late, licentious and of course angry!) Yet, who I am is also someone who has learned to navigate the hate, maintain hope and to paraphrase Maya Angelou, still rise.
Until the age of four, my parents and my sisters and I lived – like many black people at the time – in one rented room in a house of rented rooms. We shared a bathroom and toilet down the landing and punched the light switch to turn on the dim overhead bulb timed for a period not quite long enough to reach wherever you were trying to get to. When we moved to the place we would spend our formative years, we were the only black family on the street, but also one of only three families that owned a car. The nearest school was five minutes away but when my sister and I tried to enrol, we were told there was no space. Funnily enough, when our white neighbour also approached, space was found. So each day we trod on little legs the half an hour to the school that did allow us in, the school where you could count the number of black children on one, maybe two hands.
I was acutely aware of my differences to my white school friends. Not least because when the dinner lady called me the ‘N’ word and I told the teacher on playground duty, she looked me up and down and said well you are aren’t you. Even at five, I knew that was wrong. And not only because of the inane and insulting questions fielded with a smile, but consumed with rising bile – is your uncle called Sambo? Is there something living in your hair? Why do you eat green bananas and what is yam? Epithets were unimaginative but cruel – ‘rubber lips’, ‘blackie’ and the like, and ‘is that your brother, you lot all look alike’. But mainly because what was obvious all around me, in TV programmes, on advertising hoardings, in books, comics and magazines, was nobody who looked like me did anything good.
They say what does not kill you makes you stronger, but I am not sure. I think that often you just learn to internalise the pain. I chose to become a chameleon, fitting into whatever situation I found myself and for a long while carrying a self-appointed mantle of being an exemplary representative of all black people to all white people. But that role was suffocating, because I needed to be all of me, not just the bits that were palatable to whoever I was with. I could not breathe for fear of not being accepted, for the fear of being pre-judged, for the fear of being too black for white people’s comfort, too … [loud, late, licentious, angry].
Fortunately, my parents gave us roots and wings and exposed us to a variety of activities that would cast my sight-line to horizons far beyond what would be expected for a girl like me. It was an education that knitted together our rich history with our then present reality and one which fostered a sense in me that in my future anything was possible, despite the stranglehold black people often faced: we saw Tommy Steele in Hans Christian Andersen at the London Palladium and countless other theatre productions, we listened to Reggae Time on Radio London on Sunday afternoons after singing Canticles in our Methodist Church on Sunday morning, we got lost and found in Hampton Court Maze, we loaded up the car and visited coastal resorts near and far, we climbed Box Hill and celebrated Jamaican Independence Day at St Martin’s-in-the-Field, then tentatively held out our hands to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. We learned about Marcus Garvey and read Macbeth, we read Black Beauty and learned about Nanny of the Maroons. I grew to love Beethoven and Bob Marley, we watched Benny Hill and Benny in Crossroads Motel, I could sing by heart two verses of God Save The Queen and quote Martin Luther King Jr. I had a sleeve full of badges from Girl Guides and learned Morris Dancing, Maypole Dancing and Maori Dancing too thanks to my supply teacher from New Zealand. I loved Ackee and Saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica, and every Friday we had Fish & Chips from the local chippie. We were hybrids, but always implicitly aware that to be good was not good enough. There was never enough knowledge, or wealth that could cover the colour of our skin.
And the decades passed, punctuated by atrocities and enquiries but never permanent change. From the New Cross Fire to the Brixton Riots to the asphyxiation in custody of Joy Gardner and the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it seemed lip-service was paid to justice when the victims were black and the perpetrators were not. Trevor McDonald read the news, but the measure of the Britishness of immigrants was in which cricket team they supported and the question ‘but where are you from?’ did not refer to which part of the Capital you hailed from, because blackness and Britishness could not be equated. And me and my peers saw our lives mirrored in that of our American cousins – Rodney King, LA riots: we did not have to go back to Emmet Till or Medgar Evers, but viscerally recognised the lack of value placed on black lives, everywhere.
So for a few hours, I am sad to say, George Floyd’s name was just exasperatingly added to the long list of black men and women whose lives had been snuffed out either at the hands of those appointed (and self-appointed) to uphold justice and peace or eradicated by a system that was set up to fail them. At a moment in time when COVID-19 ravaged the lungs of hundreds of thousands and took away the very breath of its victims, at a time when it was acknowledged that this novel virus, as if though a cliché, disproportionately affected black people, a black man lay prostrate on the ground under the knee of a white man, who saw fit to take his breath away. Permanently. As if a cliché. As if the hundreds of years of black bodies being publicly abused and cast aside like mere chattels, of black bodies worth solely their weight in labour, being afforded only the status of sideshow, sexual object or slave was not enough – we were all, the privileged and the dispossessed, witness to what black people have systematically endured for so long.
White privilege suffocates black lives. But privilege is myopic, so there are those who refuse to believe that they benefit in any way from their colour, or that others face a disbenefit because of theirs. There are those who refuse to see that when we tacitly acknowledge but do nothing to change a situation, we become complicit in perpetuating that situation. And suddenly George Floyd’s name became synonymous with struggle and resistance, and the ironic need to fight for justice, because George Floyd’s compliance did not serve to save his life. Frederick Douglas, the renowned abolitionist, social reformer and former slave, said “Power concedes nothing without a demand”, and the demand now is for all to see and act, because Black lives matter.
But you’re a Christian, I hear people cry, so surely you believe all lives matter? Of course all lives matter, but denying the lived experience of a people and dismissing their pain does not speak to all lives mattering equally. Black lives have not mattered, they have been undervalued: under-represented in the powerful and over-represented in the persecuted. It is not an either or, it is saying black lives matter too.
What I do believe is that Jesus Christ was a disturber, counter-cultural and not one to uphold the status quo. His righteous anger was frequently aimed at those who wielded power unfairly, and he often stood up and stood in for those who were voiceless, disenfranchised and othered. The gift that Jesus left us after His Ascension was the Spirit, ruach, pneuma, breath. So surely until we can all breathe equally, there is no equity, there is no justice, and that should not be seen as the cross black people have to bear. Our faith is not to be used as a promissory note to be cashed in heaven and not before.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Prophetic Imagination wrote “Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion… On the other hand, hope is subversive…daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”.
I remain embarrassingly and subversively hopeful. Why? Because after the fury and the grief have subsided, the world will have shifted a little, and the trajectory must be shalom – a universal flourishing, a return to wholeness, inclusiveness and restoration – when the image of God is identified, protected and cultivated in every person or situation. We will not achieve this by being colour-blind, but by being compassionate, recognising our differences, naming and deconstructing our privilege wherever on that continuum we stand and then changing the behaviours that fossilise and normalise injustice. Yet no one group ‘owns’ righteousness or can always claim the high moral ground.
Brueggemann also spoke of compassion as a radical form of criticism, one which “announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness”. So with compassion in our hearts let us remain hopeful as we model justice, which as Dr Cornel West, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and author of Race Matters, says justice is what love looks likein public. With compassion, justice and love we can all breathe, we can all rise.
The Domestic Abuse Bill returned to the Commons for its second reading this week, a timely reminder not to forget those who during the COVID-19 restrictions are in lockdown with the very people who may cause them harm. The report by the Home Affairs Select Committee on Covid-19: domestic abuse and risks of harm within the home made harrowing reading:
There has been a 49% increase in calls to the national domestic abuse helpline run by the charity Refuge with visits to its website trebling in March 2020 compared to the same month last year.
Researchers at the Counting Dead Women project (@countdeadwomen) told the Select Committee that 14 women and two children had been killed in the first three weeks of lockdown. The figure is the largest number of killings in a three-week period for 11 years and more than double the average rate, they said
In London, the Met Police have reported 4,000 arrests for domestic abuse offences – an average of around 100 a day – since 9 March, when people with coronavirus symptoms were asked to self-isolate. They are calling on victims and family and friends to speak out.
But Church has always been a voice for the voiceless and a sanctuary for those in need. Domestic abuse in all its forms is contrary to the will of God and an affront to human dignity. Our current times should be no exception – our buildings may not be open but the Church’s work goes on. Out of sight must not be out of mind.
Melissa Caslake the Church of England’s national director of safeguarding says this: “We all need to play our part in preventing or halting abuse and if you are concerned about someone, through one of your church’s activities, or a friend or family member, do follow this up.”
Our parish churches are in every community and through their work will be aware of the most vulnerable and those they have particular concerns about. Women’s Aid reminds us that in the majority of cases (there are men’s advice lines), domestic abuse is experienced by women and perpetrated by men, seriously affecting the children if there are any.
Again, Melissa says: “Get advice from your Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor and of course if you think that someone is in immediate danger, call the police on 999. For victims knowing they not alone, particularly during these restrictions, can be the first step. There is a lot of advice out there and the National Safeguarding Team has put together a helpful guidance note on its COVID-19 pages.”
I was struck by a particularly horrific item of news this week about the fatal stabbing of two very young children. We should continue to pray for all who live in fear, but we should also act if we have any concerns. Let us continue to follow God’s example, walking in the way of love, just as Christ loved us (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see – Mark Twain
During 2018 we marked the centenary of the end of World War One and I spent time reading the account of nurses during the World War.
Emily Mayhew in her book Wounded (The Bodley Head 2013) gave an account of the extensive research she had undertaken using public and private archives to produce an account of the men and women who struggled to save lives among the horrors of the Western Front. In doing so she has created a comprehensive account of the medical care and recognised the courage and determination of the men and women who saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The book is a vivid mix of the horror of war and the determination and kindness of humanity.
During the horrors of war, we saw nurses, medical staff, drivers and support staff take on roles which had not previously been theirs. There was courage and kindness.
In another nurse’s account I read the vivid image of mustard gas which hung in the air at the London railway stations where injured men were received off trains before being taken by ambulance to a London hospital. In one such account a nurse placed flowers on the pillow of the soldier seeking to take away the smell which added to his agony – an act of kindness.
Nurses, medical and healthcare workers find themselves again on the front line and we see this time the horror of a virus alongside the determination and kindness of humanity.
The government’s Chief Nursing Officer Ruth May has reassured us that while people cannot be with the ones they love when they are dying no one will die alone. In the midst of personal protective equipment and ventilators it is a reminder that the art of nursing is in the application of the science and that at its heart nursing is about kindness.
Mayhew in her book speaks about how the nurses in the First World War would place each soldier’s uniform and belongings into a bag, carefully pulled together the drawstring and then labelled it for the mail office to send it home. In the bag she would place a letter because it was up to her to hold each ending memory, for as long as she could, so that the families would have more than a drawstring bag and a tattered tunic as the last remnants of their loved one – courage and kindness.
In Dorothea’s War edited by Richard Crewdson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013) there is an entry for Good Friday 1918 which speaks of it being a time of dust and ash where the past week had been an anxious one, and for the first few days, one’s heart sank pretty low.
I can only imagine that at times those working on our front line of our hospitals today will feel anxious, at times sink pretty low, and this Good Friday has been a time of dust and ash. I am grateful for their courage, kindness and determination in the face of such adversity. Which is why I took the very hard decision last week to ask clergy not only to continue the closure of church buildings but also to stop living streaming services.
It feels extremely hard to ask that of clergy in Holy Week, of all weeks, to do this. But if being in our churches to stream, even if it is accessed by a door in your home, is seen as encouraging others to want to travel to their church, and for others to ask for churches to be open to the public we had to stop. We would not want to encourage any laxity in the requirement to stay indoors, because this will save lives, and protect the NHS.
For this season church is not in our buildings and Christ in the words of the poem Easter 2020 by Malcolm Guite is away from church
‘To don his apron with a nurse: he grips
And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands
The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,
Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.’
This year is the Year of the Nurse and Midwife – and what a year! We are seeing the care and compassion of nurses which has always been there, we have heard stories of nurses determination and humanity and we are seeing nurses put others before themselves as they have always done – it is just that we are now paying more attention.
The First World War saw women in medical teams, on hospital trains, driving ambulances, but there were also large numbers of women recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. Some will argue that it was this contribution which resulted in the passing of the Representation of Peoples Act 1918 which gave the first votes for some women and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. But others argued that after the war women returned and where not valued in their new roles.
I hope that we have learned that lesson and after the storm is past, we will continue to value those who have shown determination and kindness in the face of such adversity.
Reflection by The Rt Rev and Rt Hon Sarah Mullally Bishop of London
Alleluia! Christ has Risen
He has risen indeed. Alleluia!
Some years ago, I needed to have a small day case operation. Having spent almost 3 decades in the NHS you may have expected me to be claim and confident, I wasn’t. I had never been a patient and I had never had an anaesthetic. And maybe, I knew just enough to know what could go wrong and things do go wrong – although I had no reason to think this on this occasion.
As I lay on the operating table waiting to be put to sleep the one thing, I longed for was for someone – anyone just to hold my hand. I know that it wouldn’t have made things better or reduced the risk but it would have told me that I wasn’t alone.
I was encouraged to hear last week both the government’s Chief Nursing Officer and the head of the Royal College of Nursing telling us that nurses won’t let patients die alone.
Throughout the bible there is recognition of the importance of touch to human beings – both pleasure and reassurance and yes, the pain it can bring.
The combination of kiss and embrace is not unfamiliar in the Christian tradition. It is used in the prophetic statement about the union of the earth and heaven. The psalmist tells us’ Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ (Psalm 85.10)
Here the divine and the human touch. Easter reminds us that God has touched the world in Jesus Christ.
Touch is central to Jesus relationships. Filled with compassion Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper, a women who has suffered a great deal with a bleeding disorder, came up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, Jesus took Jiraus’ daughter by the hand and said to their little girl get up, he took the man who could not speak or talk and put his figures into his mouth, he took the blind man by the hand and put his hands on him, people brought little children to him for him to touch, the betrayer kissed him, and there on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread the touch of the presence of Jesus made their hearts burn.
Touch brings reconciliation, reconciliation to a community and to God, it brings restoration of relationships and healing.
Which is why we are in grief at the lose of our freedom to touch. It is counterculture not to touch, to the mother who wants to hug a child in pain or how we welcome with the clasp of hands or an embrace. Touch my not make things better but it does tell us we are not alone.
John’s gospel tells us that in the garden that first Easter morning Mary is in the midst of grief and the darkness of death and Jesus tells Mary ‘do not touch me’ – ‘do not to hold on to me’. This feels like a hard ban and it has become the inspirations for a number of pictures not least Titian Noli me Tangere (Touch me not).
In Titian’s picture Mary knees in humility, with the oil in one hand, a reminder of her anointing of him with oil poured out, for Mary had held Jesus by his feet and she worshiped him (Matthew 28:9) Mary’s other hand is seeking to touch Jesus. But the shroud lies between Jesus and Mary like a veil which hides the living from those who have died. A barrier to the touch which Mary so longs for.
Do not touch or hold me is explained by Jesus Christ. ‘for I am not yet ascended to my father to my God and your God’. “I have not yet sent you The Spirit, who will reveal to you who I really am.”
Mary was holding on to who she thought Jesus was with all her misconceptions. It had been Mary’s sad searching for Jesus’ body that had led her to mistake him for a gardener. The picture portrays the tension between the love of Mary for Jesus and his love for her and Jesus’ desire to lead her into deeper truths.
It was only once Jesus had ascended and the Spirit had come that Mary would understand of who Jesus really was.
In the place that we stand this Easter Sunday we find ourselves in a place of grief, grief for those who have died and are suffering, grief for what could have been, grief for the loss of many things which defines us, grief for the loss of what maybe we thought the church was and is. Hear the words of Jesus do not hold onto me for he longs to lead us into deeper truths.
And although Mary like us cannot touch Jesus, she in her grief glimpsed the hope that he spoke of and Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.
In a sense we have no more or less than Mary for we like her have glimpsed the hopes of Easter – death does not have the last word. The promise of a new creation without pain and suffering.
Now hope is not blind optimism. It is with hope that we can with eyes open to see the suffering and yet believe in the future.
Let us this Easter day not deny our grief, be open to let go of who we think Jesus Christ is for us and allow the spirit to lead us into a deeper truth.
Let us like Mary go a tell that we have seen the Lord and by the hope we have be motivated to touch the lives of others maybe not physically but by phoning people, staying at home, giving to the food backs and by praying.
Let us know that the message of Easter is that God has touched the world and that we are not alone.