‘From Lament to Action’ and Acts 8.26-40

by Revd Ian Tattum

In 1966 two very memorable things happened to me.  I came within a few feet of the Queen when she visited the house of my next-door neighbours.  She was visiting Bletchley, and part of her itinerary included taking afternoon tea with a family on a council estate.  The other, and by far the more significant one, was the arrival into my life of my foster sister, Foluke, who lived with us for the next four years.  To me she became almost instantly my beloved sister Foluke.  I hardly noticed at the time that to other acquaintances of my parents she immediately became a figure of loathing.  My mother became ‘that woman with a black baby!’.  That is one of my bits of background experience that has shaped my attitude to racism.

Two years ago I had a cup of coffee in Olney with a retired senior police officer.  I didn’t know him well, although I certainly had an impression of the sort of man he might be from knowing he was a keen shooter of pheasants – I had first met him at a shoot; I was not armed!  During our conversation that day I discovered that he had been part of Lord Macpherson’s inquiry team that, in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, had defined institutional racism.

You might have picked up from the news that the Church of England has just published a report on anti-racism called From Lament to Action and that it references that ground-breaking report and apply it to the failures of the church.  I would like to quote the report, quoting Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.  It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discriminating through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people.

The Church of England is clearly not quite the same kind of organisation as the Metropolitan Police, but I can see the sense in drawing on this definition, because it acknowledges little as well as major prejudices – and I have witnessed both during my time as a member of the Church of England.

In my work as an independent advisor to the Metropolitan police and an ex-member of the stop and search monitoring group – the latter an initiative from someone who used to be a member of St Barnabas where I now serve, Theresa May – I have witnessed the police’s sincere, if not always entirely successful, struggle to put Macpherson’s wise and quite conservative insights into action.  I am glad that the Church of England is continuing to try to do the same.

The latest Taskforce was set up a year ago by the House of Bishops in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement but it does acknowledge earlier reports on the subject of racism, going back thirty-six years: in all, 25.  A substantial part of the justification for this fresh report is that many of the recommendations have been left undone.

In the media there have been a few predictable attempts to portray the report as being a typical example of the church falling for the latest cultural fashion and taking on the so-called ‘woke’ agenda.  Dire warnings that the church is going to become obsessed with quotas, is going to overturn all its theological principles and indulge in a riot of statue and memorial smashing, have been duly issued.  Well, I invite you to read the report and see if that is what you find!

What you certainly will find is a document that is rooted in Scripture.

The divine revelation that all human beings are made in the image of God is one of the first principles in the Book of Genesis.  Christ in the Gospels was notoriously unfussy about whom he treated as friends.  The Letters of St Paul outline a vision of inclusivity that modern political movements struggle to match.

The text from the book of Acts, set for the Sunday after the report was published is, in the light of our so-called culture wars, fascinating.  That beautiful meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which the author of Acts hints strongly was God-guided , was written centuries before the false and dangerous notion of race ever came into existence.

If you think about it, that Ethiopian was an extremely distinctive individual – not someone Philip would be expecting to bump into on the road between Gaza and Jerusalem, or indeed any road.  He was a court official in charge of the treasury of an ancient African kingdom – a kingdom which was ruled not by a person called Candace, as the writer of the Acts, like many of his educated contemporaries mistakenly thought, but a kandake, a queen who reigned through matrilineal descent, as in the neighbouring kingdom of Kush.  There is absolutely no trace of disparagement or concern in the text on account of the Ethiopian’s colour or even his foreignness.  Everything is overshadowed by his being a eunuch.  He had apparently just been up to the Temple to worship, which tradition had forbidden to anyone who had been castrated.  This man, who had a social status in Ethiopia equivalent to that of Joseph in ancient Egypt, was scratching his head over the book of Isaiah with great devotional attention when he meets Philip, who guides him to read the text as referring to Christ’s travails.  He almost immediately embraces Christian teaching and asks to be baptised.

Another fascinating element in the story is that it is reported within the middle of the part of the book of Acts concerned with St Paul, who immediately before this change of direction is persecuting church members.  Straight afterwards we hear of another conversion on the road – this time of Paul, on the road to Damascus.

The Ethiopian eunuch turns out to offer an alternative conversion story to that of St Paul.  He was an explorer of faith, who appears to have been deeply attracted to Judaism, which he found to be a staging post on his journey to join the movement then called the Way.  Not a hater, like Paul, who was dramatically and devastatingly turned around by a vision of Christ.

Here is biblical precedent for what Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said about dreaming of a day when a person would be judged by the quality of their character, rather than the colour of their skin.

Racism is absent from the Bible and has left no trace in the writings of the great theologians who shaped church thinking in its formative centuries.  There is some debate about its origins, as you would expect, but the notion that there were such things as human races, rather than one human family, and that one race – the one which happened to be white – was superior to all others, particularly those who are black, can be traced back to the era of slave ownership when it was at its height; in the eighteenth century.  It was later given scientific gloss in the nineteenth century by some European thinkers who distorted Darwinian theory to argue for a hierarchy of humankind with themselves, unsurprisingly, at the top!

This sort of thinking seeped into society and inevitably into the churches and is still causing harm today.  So, I beg you not to ignore the Taskforce report or dismiss it out of hand.

You might wonder about the way I have approached this.  I have, just as the people who wrote the report have done, tried to take a traditional Anglican/Church of England approach to doing theology.

You might have come across the formula of ‘Scripture, Tradition and Reason’ before – reason here not meaning mere analytical thinking but reflecting through personal experience and context on the revelation and wisdom of God revealed through the Bible and in the church.

For some members of our congregation and many members of the church nationwide the experience of naked and institutional racism has been a reality most of us can’t imagine.  Listening to their experience, lamenting and taking action where we can, has to be a fundamental of being a church; being Christian.

In the words of St Paul to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And to quote Kenneth Leech, who is also referenced in the report and was one of the priests and theologians who helped to shape the church’s increasing concern about racism back in the 1980’s:

Whatever happens in the future, it seemed clear that a central focus of any work must be that of confronting racism within the thinking and structures of the Church.  Judgement must begin in the house of God.

Download the Report here.

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