It’s not often that I read a theological book of over 200 pages in just over a day. So Ghost Ship: institutional racism in the Church of England, by Azariah France-Williams (London: SCM Press, 2020) must have something very special about it to belong to that select handful of tomes. Like many people, this summer for me has been the summer of COVID-19 and the summer of Black Lives Matter. The death of George Floyd, and the sickening video of his murder, made something inside of me snap. I’ve always hated racism, but now I felt I was morally bound to do something about it. But – for me as a white, privileged man – what can I do?
This question has been the start of a new journey for me, and I need guides. I am lucky to have friends – people of colour – who love me enough to help me as I stutter and stumble to learn what it means to answer that question. This summer is about education. The education of me.
Like most white people in Britain, I am appallingly ignorant of Black History. It should have been in my education as a child – but wasn’t – and to omit it from the school national curriculum now is inexcusable. So I’m playing catch-up from an education point of view. But this book is only tangentially about that history that can easily now be accessed from a good range of books and resources. This one’s about the Church of England — something that I know rather a lot about, or thought I did.
Azariah’s book took my white take on something I thought I knew, and messed with my head. He is a poet, a teller of stories and an adept theologian. He is exceptionally good at using metaphors, characters, stories and symbols to make the familiar look strange-yet-familiar. The portrait of Church of England he paints is still the Church of England that I know, but through a different set of eyes – and – as far as institutional racism is concerned – guilty as charged. The mask removed. The reason there could be a question is that, from the white experience point of view, ‘we’ wouldn’t know institutional racism if it slapped us across the face. We are white. We are never slapped like this – it’s out of our experiential vocabulary.
Yet I do know enough to recognise that the way that Azariah calls out the means by which power works in the Church of England is correctly and accurately described by the book. The power, privilege and class structures are all there and undeniable. However, for most white clergy, ordination can bring a way of skipping into circles of power and privilege that – in other circumstances – would be closed to us. It’s a quick trip up the establishment ladder for the white middle-classes. But to get there, requires signing-up to the system. As white, middle class clergy, all we need to do is either to erase our local accents, or make a play on them. Then it’s a case of playing our cards right, and we have access. It’s a different story with race.
Through his storytelling and wry characterisation, Azariah helped me to feel what it is like to be in a different Church of England, ethnically-speaking. I realised how racism messes with all our heads, but particularly if we are of black or brown skin. So strong and powerful were the stories and descriptions, that I found myself anticipating things which he then went on to say – like a psychological slow motion car-crash. This is theological testimony at its most powerful, so compelling are the book’s descriptions and arguments.
But beyond testimony and description, there is critique. The critique of how institutional racism is ‘mediated’ by interaction with power is one of the strongest aspects of the book – and the author knows he will be ruffling feathers. In the process, various books and interactions are cheerfully eviscerated. Azariah has given up trying to be a good boy and is now saying it like it has been. Justin Welby’s opening section of Reimagining Britain is dismantled in a way which is genuinely funny. But the author’s experience at the hands of a large London-based charismatic evangelical church, while told with similar humour, is genuinely disturbing. The current regime of the Church of England will have to look carefully at its credibility if theologians such as France-Williams are allowed to tell their experience like it is. White members of the Church of England, especially young adults, will need to do a rain check on what ship we’re in the process of boarding if the death of George Floyd made something in us snap. The current configuration of power politics in the Church of England comes across as particularly in need of interrogation and calling to account, for swapping a declining place in the English Establishment for a ‘vision’ built on models of commercial power instead (when both are, directly or indirectly, beneficiaries of power build upon the slave trade).
Of course, there is history too. The tail of woe whereby the General Synod has consistently attempted to dull the critique of its own institutional racism, or resisted changing it, is told in sorry detail. The missed opportunities are seen, not merely as failures of an ideal, but a failure of mission and vision. Indeed, Azariah convincingly gives an account of two visions: of gospel and of empire. In this 30-year history, the CofE leans towards empire, with its attendant slave-boats, every time.
This is a book filled with stories, sorrow, experience, metaphors and poetry. And, as it did for me, it will ‘mess with the head’ of any white reader who seeks to become more involved in the struggle against racism. To be partners, white would-be partners have to educate ourselves, reform our ways, turn our hearts and have our thinking changed. The book amply demonstrates that racism is more than the antics of head-shaved, tattooed morons, or ‘I’m not racist but…’ ignorance. It is a poison which is wrecking our society and our church. Black voices, such as Azariah’s, are near exhaustion from ‘crying in the wilderness’. Like all sin, racism also enslaves the perpetrators (institutions and people). As I came to the end of this book, it felt as though I could hear the sound of one loosening padlock from the chain of my own mental slavery.