by Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow in Medicine at Girton College Cambridge and ordinand at St Augustine’s College of Theology
‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24)
Justice is a fundamental facet of the Christian life, and the past summer has once again brought injustice into the light of day. As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the globe, the Church of England did, indeed, make its voice heard – recognising not only the chronic injustice done by white people to black people for generations, including in our churches, but also calling for real change within society and within institutions. Whilst it is shameful that it took these protests to call too many white people to action, this is a narrative that neither will nor should go away, and one that is not optional for Christians to engage in. On the surface, then, it is quite right for our bishops and other leaders to highlight the BLM campaign – yet something doesn’t quite feel right.
A key thing about Black Lives Matter, and many other organisations that stand up for the oppressed, is that they understand not only the role of structural oppression, but also the importance of intersectionality. These two concepts should sit at the heart of what we as Christians believe – the former well studied and lived out in liberation theologies, and the latter a key example of living the Christian life in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Yet intersectionality barely gets a mention in church discourse, and likewise the Church of England routinely misrepresents structural oppression in its own dialogues.
The Church, of course, is exempt from the Equality Act. Yet this very simple fact seems to be overlooked by many church leaders who constantly complain that nobody is taking them, or the church, seriously. Black Lives Matter is unashamedly pro-women, pro-queer, pro-disabled, pro-black. Organisations like it understand the reason that the protected characteristics in the Equality Act exist, and rather than pitting one group against another, recognise the complex interplay between them and the interconnectedness of privileged oppression. The substantial moral strength of BLM as opposed to the Church is that there is no ‘but’ involved in their struggle for justice. Oppressed groups work together to liberate each other – it is a struggle together, not a struggle in opposition.
This is where the Church of England falls very short indeed. A good example of this would be the dialogue on LGBT inclusion. Countless times, when pushing for equality in the Church, I have been told ‘but Africa’ – a blithe, yet despicable remark, which suggests that Church hierarchs would delight to have more LGBT inclusion but can’t because it would upset ‘the communion’ (or sometimes, more crassly and revealingly, ‘the Africans’). Not only is this offensive and simplistic, but it is an insidious attempt to silence one oppressed group by reference to another. We might seriously reconsider the imperial origins and character of the Anglican Communion and review its effective working in the twenty-first century. We most certainly should not sanction a narrative of blaming black people for white laws imposed during imperial conquest (and encouraged to this day by white conservatives) and consequently point the finger of blame for LGBT exclusion at ‘Africans’, as though that is a homogenous group of people. Yet ‘but Africa’ is the go-to response by far too many bishops. Putting it bluntly, black Africans should not be the bishops’ shields.
Yet when church leaders promote Black Lives Matter, they either don’t bother to find out what they are supporting, or they are hypocritical. As Christians, we are called to stand up against oppression, not against some types of oppression. We are most certainly not called to oppress. When Church leaders spoke up against the Orlando killings in an LGBT nightclub, they appeared surprised when very few people bothered to listen, particularly within the LGBT community. That might just be because LGBT people don’t want pity – they want solidarity. A Church with an ambivalence on equality is not a church of solidarity.
Similarly, the furore over the recent participation of Church Society in the Church of England’s Sunday worship shows quite how deep the problem is. Much was made of how difficult it is for those of ‘conservative’ mindset to find their place in the church. Likewise, in a theological college discussion on equal marriage, we were told that ‘both sides’ needed a safe space – these ‘sides’ being LGBT people and those with a theological opposition to LGBT rights. This is absolute nonsense – these two are not equivalent! For someone to disagree with your theological position is, of course, difficult – but if you truly believe it, then you should be able to defend it. This is self-evidently not the same as being attacked for simply being who you are – for expressing love towards another individual of the same sex, being told that ‘pride comes before destruction’ and that those who merely support LGBT people are ‘surrendering Christianity in favour of a completely different gospel, which is divisive…and endangering to the soul’ (as the Director of Church Society stated). This is not theological disagreement – this is a direct attack, prejudice against and persecution of LGBT people. Not to see this is to show a wilful disregard for the reality of power dynamics.
The scary reality is that victim-blaming forms a fundamental part of church dialogue, including ‘good disagreement’. In the facilitated conversations a few years ago, even mention of the word ‘homophobic’ to describe actual oppression was considered ‘hurtful’ – quite literally silencing the voice and experience of the oppressed. The word ‘painful’ has been grossly overused by those in positions of power when their theology is challenged, yet all the while, LGBT people are expected to just take their vilification as part of ‘theological discourse’. It smells of the same attitude that led the British state to pay compensation to slave owners and not slaves. It is the height of hypocrisy and the apogee of privilege used for repression.
This is why the Church of England is structurally oppressive.
Bishops and clergy who cannot see this do not need more air-time – they need education. Our theological colleges should be giving voice to the oppressed, not the oppressor – yet how many of our colleges take liberation theology, black theology or queer theology seriously? Our entire religion is based on solidarity with the people on the margins, yet our entire institution is prejudiced, structurally, against those who remain on these very margins.
Those of us in oppressed groups need to model this solidarity. Those of us who have privilege need to acknowledge it. We must call out lazy and false thinking, and we must change. The secular world is leagues ahead of us already, once again. Until we recognise our institutional prejudice, we would do better not to bother with the warm words, thoughts and prayers far too easily sprinkled.
Acts of omission of solidarity are acts nonetheless – and until our actions reflect out words, we will remain a church all too silent in mission, silent in ministry and silent in letting the oppressed go free.