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Black Lives Matter - Sermon and Suggested Reading

In his sermon on Sunday 14th June, following recent worldwide protests, the Rector addressed race. The sermon is below. There are many books available on the subject, but he has chosen three to read himself and would like others to join him in reading at least one. There will be the opportunity to join together to discuss these issues at a later date. If you are interested in joining such a group, please contact the Rector or the Parish Office.

The three books, along with links to Amazon, are:

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You A Terrorist (Edinburgh, Canongate, 2018)

Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race (London, Bloomsbury, 2018)

A Sermon on the 1st Sunday After Trinity

We need to talk about race.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25th May triggered a wave of protests not just in the USA, but across the world, including our own country. I very nearly talked about race last week in direct response to what is happening but rather than jump in at the deep end, I hesitated. I hesitated because I am very aware of my own situation. I am very aware of the background of privilege that I come from. On the one hand, I am privately educated, have degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, as well as several other qualifications. In this respect, whether I like it or not, I am a symbol of privileged power. On the other hand, I am also very aware of my privilege that comes from simply being a white man. My colour and my gender mean that some doors in life are far more likely to be opened for me than for others. Speaking about race from this position of privilege is, therefore, very difficult. It is difficult because I cannot understand what it is like to be in another position. And it is difficult because it makes me part of the problem myself. I am, though, going to have a go at talking about race. Please forgive me if I don’t get it right. But I am seeking to understand.

The USA is a long way away. It is a country that has long been divided by racism. It’s easy to think that their problems of racism are a long way away as well. They are not. Let’s start with some statistics about our criminal justice system – taken from an easily accessible BBC Reality Check webpage. Compared to white people, black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched. Three times more likely to be arrested. Five times more likely to have force used against them. Twice as likely to die in custody. A quarter of our prison population is from BAME backgrounds, rising to half amongst young offenders. The 2017 Angiolini Report into deaths in custody says, ‘the stereotyping of young black men as ‘dangerous, violent, and volatile’ is a longstanding trope that is engrained into the mind of many in our society.’ The 2017 Lammy Review, commissioned by David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, points to the criminal justice system being stacked against black people.

Let’s look at other issues as well. Today marks the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which disproportionately affected those from BAME backgrounds, highlighting serious housing issues. The Windrush affair of 2018 revealed that many of the Windrush generation, who were born British and were entitled to remain in the country, were threatened, falsely detained, and even deported. In August 2011, Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham – a catalyst for riots across the country. The effects of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993 and the various reviews that happened – including one which concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist – are still being felt. The recent report into why those from BAME backgrounds are over-represented in the current pandemic statistics drew no firm conclusions. But it did point to grave inequalities in our society – in education, employment, health, language, and so on. If we think that racism in our country is not a problem, we need to think again. If you from a BAME background, especially if you are black, then our society is structurally rigged against you.

The news last Sunday evening was dominated a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol. The statue of Edward Colston had been pulled down by protesters and thrown into the harbour. Until then, I had no idea who Edward Colston was. It turns out that he was an important cog in the seventeenth century slavery trade. He rose to be Deputy Governor of the notorious Royal Africa Company. Many tens of thousands of people were brutally transported from Africa to America under his watch. Many thousands of them died on the journey, whilst those who survived were terribly treated at the hands of their owners. Colston grew rich from the suffering of others. He bequeathed his wealth to charities – funding churches, hospitals, alms-houses, and a school in Bristol. There is a stained glass window dedicated to him in Bristol Cathedral, and streets are named after him as well. His statue was put up because of his philanthropy. A plaque on its side says that it is a ‘memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city’. Words which whitewash – I use the term deliberately – the fact that Colston, and indeed much of Bristol, was built on the back of the slave trade.

In recent years, the statue has caused growing disquiet. There was an attempt to put some new wording on a plaque, acknowledging Colston’s dubious past, but nobody ever agreed on what it should say. The way in which the statue was removed was wrong, but the sentiment was right. Colston may well have been generous, but we cannot have statues which glorify people and aspects of our history which have caused so much trauma. To have removed the statue in a proper way would not, as some have said, been an act which papers over our history. It would have been an act which accepted culpability and offered at least some degree of apology.

Those who were taken as slaves by Colston’s Royal Africa Company were branded with the letters RAC. A scar which each would have carried for ever, showing that their lives were somebody else’s property. Many black people will talk of how the scars of the slave trade are no longer carried physically, but continue to be carried in their collective consciousness. As a white person, statues and memorials to people like Colston mean little. But to black people, they are a constant reminder of how their ancestors were so terribly abused. And they are a constant reminder of how hard it is for them to access the world of white privilege.

What do we do? What do we do as a church? What do we do as a church here, in a predominantly white area? We start like today, by talking about race. We must accept that racism is a structural problem – in our country, in our society, in our culture, in our institutions, and most definitely in the national and local church. The first step in seeking redemption is to recognise the fault in the first place. We then need to act. I have spoken before of my passion for us to become an inclusive church. By this I mean becoming a church that treats and looks at everybody in the same way, just as God loves us all in the same way. After all, St Paul writes that, ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus’. But listening to and reading some work of our black sisters and brothers, they talk of this ‘all are one’ approach as ‘colour-blindness’. This is because it glosses over the challenges of race and all the uncomfortable truths of slavery and privilege that lie behind it. To be black carries with it a background of difference, even if that difference is unjustifiable. So if at first we must recognise the problem, so second we need to work to understand it, carefully listening to the voices we need to hear, the voices that experience this first hand. Only when we begin to understand it can we even begin to think about addressing the endemic structural racism in our country. A racism in which white people are culturally complicit. A racism for which we must seek amends, seek forgiveness, and seek a solution.

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