Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Church

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” so wrote Charles Dickens in his epic, A Tale of Two Cities.  Dickens begins his story drawing a contrast between human prosperity and human despair during the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Dickens’ quote speaks to the truth of current events. We live in an era in which information technology connects people in all corners of the world, making it possible for our global economy to thrive.  Yet, we find ourselves at the mercy of a microscopic virus that is indiscriminately infecting and eliminating a large percentage of the world’s population, forcing us apart through social distancing and wreaking havoc on the world’s economy.  Superimposed on the Covid-19 pandemic is the worldwide outrage against systemic racism, ignited by the brutal murder of George Floyd in the USA. 

Although technology allows us to be connected, social distancing is taking its toll. Despite laws affirming the equality of persons, systemic racism* continues to create and reinforce social divisions.

As we witness the deadly ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the injustice resulting from systemic racism, people of all races, classes, nationalities, and political ideologies are affirming that all lives matter. There are promising signs of a strong collective resolve to work together to create a better world.

Institutions in every sector are examining the ways in which they have contributed to the creation of social divisions, particularly racial divisions, and the consequent marginalization of ethnic minorities, even when there has been no conscious racist intention.

*Systemic racism occurs when systems (e.g., education, health), institutions (e.g., banks, corporations, public service, the Church) and structures/structural practices (e.g., organizational charts/career paths, financial performance metrics) disadvantage and disenfranchise one group based on their race, leading to disparities in outcomes (e.g., success/failure academically, in business, health, social mobility, financial success, access to community services and places of worship, etc.).

Systemic racism in the Church 

The ‘Black Church’ in North America and Europe has emerged to counter the adverse effects of systemic racism in the ‘mainstream’ Church. Some of these effects are exclusion from positions of leadership and decision-making, lack of respect for cultural diversity, overt and unintentional racial discrimination and stereotyping. Black congregations in traditional Christian denominations have been and still are considered to be safe places where their members can give full expression to their talents and feel empowered and dignified. 

Guided by Jesus’s teachings on inclusion and respect for all people, the Church cannot justify the more recent practice of creating segregated ethnic groupings under the guise of respecting ethno-cultural differences and fulfilling special needs of ethnic minorities and immigrants. It is quite acceptable for the Church to create safe places for those who are vulnerable to racism. It is equally important that cultural differences are respected and celebrated in the Church. However, when creating safe places and respecting cultural differences, the Church must ensure that it does not alienate ethnic minorities or overlook the representation of its non-White members in the leadership and decision-making bodies of the Church.

As social institutions take steps to dismantle systemic racism and the divisions it has created and perpetuates, the Church must also embark on the difficult journey of self-examination to determine how it has disenfranchised groups based on their race, and how systemic racism is perpetuated whether intentionally or unintentionally, within its structures and structural practices.

As a Black person and member of the Anglican Church in the West Indies and in Canada, my assessment and comments in the remainder of this article will focus on the history and legacy of racism in the Anglican denomination and the steps that are being taken in the Diocese of Montreal to eradicate anti-Black systemic racism.

The Anglican Church

The shameful history of racism against Black people in the Worldwide Anglican Church is well documented. **  The Anglican Church was part of the oppressive colonial government institutions and made no attempt prior to the early to mid-19th century to declare abhorrence of slavery and racial discrimination. 

There was a time when the Anglican Church in Canada upheld and perpetuated racist beliefs, relegating Black Anglicans to their own congregations where they were prevented from receiving sacraments and denied leadership roles.  That history has left a legacy, to this day, of ethnic divisions and the real and perceived marginalization of persons of Black African descent and of other ethnic groups.

The Diocese of Montreal’s response to ethnic diversity in the 20th century

In his article ‘The Evolution of Ethnic Diversity in the Montreal Church’ in the Fall 2020 edition of Anglican Montreal, Rev. Stanley Brooks wrote:  

By the mid-70’s, pockets of Anglicans from the Caribbean had diffused to most of the churches in the city. Given the white, Anglo-Saxon culture prevailing in the Montreal Anglican Church at that time, a relevant question is how did the Montreal Church respond to the unavoidable growth of ethnic diversity and cultural differences in worship and expectations these migrants brought to the Church?

It is important to note that in 1978 Bishop Reginald Hollis recruited the Rev’d John McNab, a Caribbean priest and educator from Jamaica to become Rector at St. Paul’s, Cote des Neiges, which was rapidly becoming majority Black. In 1982 Bishop Hollis recruited another West Indian priest, the Rev’d Anthony Jemmott of Barbados. Fr. Jemmott spent one year at St. Paul’s with Dr. John McNab before being moved to St. Lawrence, LaSalle, to be appointed their Rector. In 1991, Fr. Jemmott became Rector of Trinity Memorial Church in Montreal, also the home church of many Caribbean worshippers. When the Rev’d Dr. John McNab was appointed Director of Pastoral Studies to the Montreal Diocesan Theological College in 1983, Fr. Jim Bennett was recruited to come from Guyana to Montreal with responsibility for the ministry of leadership at St. Paul’s. Following in the footsteps of Bishop Hollis, his successor, Bishop Hutchison, in 1992, on the sound advice of the lay leadership at St. Lawrence, recruited the Rev’d Peter Fenty of Barbados.

Even though Brooks stated that ‘pockets of Anglicans from the Caribbean had diffused to most of the churches in the city.’ the Diocese adopted the practice of hiring Black priests to minister to congregations that were predominantly Black. It is evident that the Diocese was willing to address cultural diversity, but the result has been the creation of ethnic enclave congregations. Even though the Church no longer upholds the racist beliefs that prevailed its early history, there remains a lot of work to be done to build mutual understanding of cultural diversity between Black and non-Black Anglicans and to establish formal processes to integrate ethnic minorities in the leadership and decision-making forums in the Diocese.   

Trinity Memorial Church

The Trinity Memorial Anglican Church, a predominantly Black congregation, was abruptly closed in 2017. There may be sound arguments to justify the financial reasons for the closure of Trinity Memorial. Although those arguments are moot at this point, it is the way in which the Diocese handled the closure that needs careful examination. The abrupt closure reinforced the perception among former members of Trinity that the Diocese does not regard ethnic congregations with equal importance as predominantly White congregations. Furthermore, parishioners expressed the view that the Diocese’s actions demonstrated the lack of respect of their needs, concerns and their ability to participate in the decision to close the Church, which was for many West Indian migrants, a significant community space.

“I know the building is old, it’s a lot to keep going, but the manner in which they did it hurt. They forgot our feelings. In October, they just came in, said ‘that’s it,’ ” noted a parishioner who asked to be identified only as Cynthia.

Montreal Gazette Newspaper. December 12, 2016

Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in the Diocese of Montreal

Amid the anti-Black racism demonstrations in summer 2020, a multi-ethnic group of concerned clergy and laypersons met to discuss ways in which the legacy of racism in the Church could be addressed. The group submitted to the Synod, a motion to adopt the Anti-Black Racism Action Plan that resulted from the group’s deliberations. 

The Action Plan calls for the acknowledgement of racism in the Diocese and the engagement of our congregations and the wider community in a year-long process of dialogue, redress, and atonement. The objective of the Action Plan is to equip the clergy and people of the Diocese of Montreal with the skills and awareness necessary to create and foster healthy, vibrant multi-cultural, multi-ethnic parishes which can support the spiritual growth of all God’s people.

The text of the motion and Action Plan are presented on pages 14 – 19 in the Convening Circular of the 161st Synod on the Diocese’s website. 

As a member of the group that developed the proposed Action Plan, I made an intervention during Synod in support of the motion.  The key points of my intervention are presented below, along with some additional points that were not presented at Synod.  The views expressed are mine and do not necessarily represent those of the members of the working group.

The way forward: working together

What has emerged from the legacy of our Church’s history, is the creation advocacy groups, which serve as the means of having the voices of marginalized groups heard and their needs met.  A case in point is the Black Anglicans of Canada with a growing membership of 600 persons in the Diocese of Toronto. This group has justifiable reasons for its creation and the necessary work it does.

That said, I would like to consider two questions.

Do we in the Diocese of Montreal envision a Church that enables the creation of advocacy groups to fight against ethnic marginalization? 

Or,

Do we have a vision of a Diocese that makes the courageous decision to work on the dismantling of systemic racism together?

Need for a new vision and identity

The motion puts forward an action plan that offers clergy and laypersons, Black and White, to work together, to create a new vision of a truly united, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Church whose prevailing identity is the love of God and for one another.

The following points should be deliberated as we examine the ways in which the Diocese can create the new vision of a Church that is committed to do the work of gaining a unified understanding of the diverse groups within its membership and treats all groups with respect and as equal partners and stakeholders.

  • Cultural sensitivity training in the Diocesan Theological College so that clergy and laypersons, regardless of their ethnic identity, can formally and competently minister to congregations whether comprised of predominantly one ethnic group or multiple ethnic groups
  • The formal integration in the liturgy of elements that reflect the cultural diversity of our church. These elements should not be restricted to special celebrations such as Black History Month.
  • The creation of protocols to address cultural diversity when churches are being merged.  

While there have been several anti-racism initiatives in local congregations that are praiseworthy and should be encouraged, I respectfully challenge the leadership of the Diocese of Montreal to declare its recognition of the history of systemic racism and insist that both the leadership and lay persons will definitively address and arrest the legacy of racism in all its forms through the implementation of the action plan outlined in the motion. 

I encourage the Diocese to respect various ethnic groups, by addressing their issues separately as the histories and experiences of ethnic groups are not all the same nor are their relationships with the Anglican Church.  The process outlined in the action plan in the Anti-Black Racism motion can be used as a template to address the dismantling of systemic racism against other ethnic groups.

The motion Dismantling Anti-Black Racism affords the Diocese of Montreal a glorious opportunity for all stakeholders to work together to courageously address and eliminate the legacy of racism and its intentional and unintentional effects on all of us.  I genuinely believe that by working together, our Diocese will become a leader by example in the Anglican Church in Canada and in the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

Next steps

Following the adoption of the motion by Synod, the Diocesan Council has requested that a Working Committee be established to implement the Anti-Black Racism Action Plan. 

I truly hope that the group moves forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to do the work needed to fulfill God’s will for His disciples, whose one, true identity is based on their love of God and for one another.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” 

The words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to St. John, Chapter 13:34-35

Christ in us, the hope of glory. That’s why glory matters.

*Further reading

VISIT

@glorymatters

camilleisaacsmorell.com

Published by Camille Isaacs-Morell

Enabling businesses and people to be successful. This is my mission, my life’s work. It’s always been what I have done wherever I’ve been employed, called to serve or to volunteer. An experienced business leader, my core values are truth, integrity, and respect. I believe that values-based leadership is critical for organizational success that is enabled by an engaged and empowered workforce. Working over the years in several senior marketing, communications, and executive leadership mandates for global, financial, healthcare, and non-profit organizations, it has been through times of transformation and difficult change that I have done my best work. In my blog posts, I share my perspectives on leadership, marketing and strategy that are based on my key learnings and observations over the years, all with the objective of helping others reach for success. In my spare time, I enjoy the beauty of nature which I reproduce in my pastel paintings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: