by the Very Revd Rogers Govender, Dean of Manchester
This was a reflection shared by the Dean of Manchester at the Protest and Prayer event organised for the Diocese of Manchester
I want to begin by reminding us that we need to be very aware, very conscious that these issues are very painful experiences for the black community.
Prayer meetings in the context of protests can sometimes seem a little dubious. It is very important that we pray – we should pray for the victims; we should pray for all those in the black BAME community struggling with racism in our society, in our world.
However, if you – like me – have your origins in Africa, you’ll know that we have a saying that goes something like this:
“When the white settlers came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land… they said ‘let us close our eyes to pray’ and we prayed… and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land”
And that is the truth of so much of our African experience of colonialism.
I have a little photograph which I keep on my telephone. It’s from the city of Durban where I come from and it reads: “The city of Durban, under section 37 of the Durban Beach Bye-laws, this bathing area is reserved for the sole use of members of the white race group.” It’s a very sharp reminder, to me again, and to all of us, of the legislated discrimination and racism that so many have lived with, and I certainly have lived with.
This form of legislated discrimination continued right up until 1994 when freedom came to us black South Africans after Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years incarceration. So, keep in mind that as we pray we are reflecting on very painful realities today, and our praying must not attempt to mask that, and that we are also being reminded of historic racism that exists in the world and that continues in our minds today.
Let me continue by reflecting on what’s going on right now…
The senseless killing of George Floyd in Minnesota USA has rightly caused deep anger in that country and indeed in much of the world. I was absolutely horrified and outraged when I saw the video of George pleading for the chance to breathe as the officer had his knee on his neck and his hands in his pockets looking smug and powerful while George was literally dying on the street. When bystanders protested and asked that this be stopped they were prevented by the other officers who stood by. I have to confess that I have not in a long time seen such awful cruelty in public; it will be a picture forever etched in my mind.
Floyd’s killing has become the image that reflects the pain and distress that black people suffer on a daily basis in the United States and around the world. It brings to mind for me the pain and struggle for equality, respect and inclusion in virtually every sphere of life. The United Kingdom and the USA may have ended legislation regarding racism and discrimination as far as I know, as we did in South Africa, but BAME folk still experience it on a daily basis.
Racism in the Church
Ask any person of colour even in a liberal city like Manchester and they will tell you that it is difficult to find equal opportunities, and that we have to work doubly hard to get into senior jobs and positions of leadership. In the Church of England too this is very common, and I shall say something about that in a short while. Part of the challenge of racism and discrimination that we as BAME people experience, also hinges on the fact that we have experienced so much discrimination in the past that we have tended to internalise our oppression. So, we often do not apply for senior jobs because we know we won’t get it.
There is a serious notion amongst many of us in the BAME community who believe that in the church white bishops already know who they want in senior vacancies and it is generally not a black or BAME candidate. The fact that BAME deaths to the coronavirus is higher in the BAME community says a lot. Even the government is reluctant to discuss this at the moment citing research that is ongoing around this subject. The issues of poor health, diet, poor opportunities, high levels of poverty etc are reasons that add to these increased numbers of deaths in the BAME community. This has since been highlighted again with the issues of poverty in Leicester where a further period of lockdown and isolation has been put in place.
I have done numerous interviews and radio broadcasts and postings on social media over the last two weeks at least on racism. And I have to say George Floyd’s death has made my blood boil because he brought back all the painful memories of my time when I lived in my native South Africa throughout all those apartheid years. As a young student I came to understand and then experienced the pain of discrimination and the violence that was used by the white minority government in South Africa to enforce racism. As an ordinand in training and later as a priest I witnessed overt blatant racism in my country where the lives of black folk were treated with a disdain, disrespect and even hate as they were treated worse than dirt. I have seen the abject poverty, lack of state provision in education, housing, job reservations, and the like, experienced by the black citizens of our country. I was not surprised when the Soweto uprising took place in 1976 and engulfed the country. Rather sadly it was the counter violence of the African National Congress to the violence of government that eventually brought the white minority government to the negotiating table. Moreover, economic sanctions that was encouraged by Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought the government to its knees. I am a supporter of on non-violent direct action to oppose racism and discrimination. That was the reality that I grew up in and George Floyd’s death has brought all of that once again to the surface in a very painful and stark way.
The Cries of BAME Clergy
Over these past 20 years that I’ve lived in England, I’ve heard the cries and pleas of many BAME clergy and laity in the Church of England who have experienced discrimination and exclusion because of the colour of their skin or their cultural backgrounds. I’ve listened to BAME clergy tell me that they are only offered junior positions as assistant curates and are rarely offered incumbencies in local parishes. I’ve heard the complaints of BAME clergy who say they were never considered for senior posts because they were deemed unsuitable culturally or even racially; you’ve seen some of that on social media in the last week or two.
I have a very good friend who is a priest formerly from South Africa now living in the United States; keeping in mind that we’re talking about apartheid South Africa, he once wrote to a local newspaper in South Africa suggesting that perhaps the Holy Spirit was racist, which is why the leading of the Holy Spirit seemed not to lead to the appointment of black clergy to so called white parishes or to senior posts; he was severely reprimanded for that, however, I think it did seem to suggest a very moot point.
Personal Experience in the Church of England
At the February 2020 sessions of General Synod I shared a personal story of how a retired Bishop told me not to put my name forward for a diocesan bishop post because he said that that diocese did not, to quote his words, ‘’did not have lots of BAME people…’’ so I speak from personal experience. I can tell you numerous experiences of being a parish priest and being mistaken for the local gardener or cleaner, especially when I was without my dog collar. This is not to disparage in any way the work of cleaners or gardeners! Its just the notion that a black person could not possibly be the vicar of the parish!
I have so much more to say to you about the experiences of BAME people in this country, never mind the United States and South Africa. Many of you who are on this zoom call or on Facebook perhaps have had similar experiences where you have been overlooked for positions of leadership or seniority in the church or in society.
Speaking up against racism
There is also a conversation that I had with a white friend, who now lives overseas – who complained that I was pushing the racism issue very strongly over these last few weeks on social media; this is this is what he said to me, and this is what we often face as BAME clergy and laity; he said: ‘’Rogers you seem to be pushing the race issue a lot recently on Facebook, which is not the Rogers I remember from South Africa…you were always a rational unbiased person I admired but you don’t seem to be like that these days’’. My response to him was as follows: we have a major racism problem; I chair a national committee that deals with this for the church; it is my responsibility to challenge racism today as I did in South Africa; it is a shame that this makes you uncomfortable; if you experience some of the things that I and my black colleagues do then you too would feel as passionate about it as I do… and that is the kind of typical things that we hear from many of our white colleagues and in my case friends. And this chap and his family are regular Anglican worshippers. I have since asked him to block me on social media if he didn’t like my posts. He has now blocked me!
I believe that there ought to be a radical shift in our thinking about people of colour. This includes colour prejudice in places like India where dark-skinned people are regarded as less important and inferior. We need to teach the history of slavery, racism and discrimination in our schools and in our universities; as priests and theologians we need to include African and BAME history in our theological colleges and universities.
Addressing Racism in Sermons
We must not be shy to speak about racism in our sermons. I once preached about this in my parish sermon and later that week a white member of my congregations shared with me that she suffered terrible racism from fellow white people in her community for going out with a black man in the 1960’s. Racist and vile language was regularly used towards her. She did marry her black Beau and they both have wonderful children and grandchildren. I had the joy of ministering to this mixed race family! However, she suffered terribly and never spoke about her pain for decades, until I preached about it. Suddenly she felt that she had ‘permission’ to speak about this terrible time in her life.
Solidarity to Action
We need to see change and we need to move from statements of solidarity to action. And I’m very grateful to Bishop David Walker (Manchester) for his stance on inclusion in our diocese. He’s always seeking to ensure that diversity is visible in our public events and services. It makes a huge difference because this models a different way to be and to serve our community. I plead, let us not wait for the next murder of another black person for us to get our act together to provide leadership and an alternate vision of inclusion for all people and especially of black people in our very divided world that is crying out for respect, equality and justice.
A Prayer by Desmond Tutu
Let me end with a short prayer offered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
‘’Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, victory is ours through God who loves us. Victory is ours, victory is ours through God who loves us’’.
God bless you as you pick up the fight for equality; for an end to racism in our society and in the Church of England. Thank you very much for listening to me.