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Clergy speak out over 'racism in Church of England'

Clergy speak out over 'racism in Church of England'
Dr Elizabeth, who stood down as the Church's race relations adviser last year

April 19, 2021

Some ethnic minority staff who made complaints of racism within the Church of England have been paid off to "buy their silence", BBC Panorama has been told.

Dr Elizabeth Henry, the Church's former adviser on race relations, said some of those who received compensation had had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Some clergy have told Panorama about the racism they have suffered.

The Church of England is set to publish plans promising to address racism.

Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, admitted that the Church had failed to tackle racism in its own ranks.

After seven years in her job, Dr Henry retired last year due to feeling disillusioned. "I felt frustrated by the lack of progress with issues of racism," she tells Panorama.

She says one incident from 2019 particularly stood out.

"A really shocking incident was a young black man who received a picture of a banana. But that banana had his head superimposed upon it - and underneath it said: Banana Man. That is a deeply offensive and deeply racist image.

"He took it to HR [human resources department] and he did file a grievance. And the decision was that it wasn't racist.

"That person left, and he received a very small compensation - however he was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement."

That agreement means the BBC cannot say where the incident took place. The total number of non-disclosure agreements is also unknown.

The Church told Panorama that while it can't comment on individual cases, "any [racist] behaviour of the sort described by Dr Henry is unacceptable".

It added confidentiality agreements are only used "in exceptional circumstances" where open processes "may not have reached resolution".

The Church has no single system for recording complaints of racism - which has left some clergy feeling unheard and angry.

Peterson Feital had high hopes for his career when he moved to London in 2011

Brazilian-born Peterson Feital was a trainee vicar when he was hired by a church in London with a mainly, white middle-class congregation.

His task was to reach out to diverse communities who don't normally attend church. And, for a couple of years, Peterson thrived.

But when the vicar who hired him left, Peterson says his life became very difficult.

He says he was told by his new manager "your English is not very good. I don't like your preaching, and you are too Brazilian in your compassion, you're not very coherent. People of my kind, of my colour, are just not clever enough".

He says one day the manager came into his office and told him: "Peterson, you've got to find a job with people of your kind.

"If the London Diocese is going to give you a job, it's going to be for a diversity show. They're going to give you for a short period of time and they're going to drop you like we always do."

Over a period of seven years, Peterson says he repeatedly complained to senior staff at the Diocese of London about the racism and bullying he experienced.

He says he was told to "keep his head down, no-one is going to be able to prove there's any racism", and that if he created a problem, "you're not going to get a job anywhere".

In March 2021, after 10 years in the Church of England, Peterson's contract wasn't renewed. He was given a £2,000 redundancy payment. He's now out of work and claiming benefits.

The Diocese of London says "we are appalled at what Peterson has experienced. We have spoken with Peterson regarding the process for bringing formal complaints against those involved".

Michelle Delves enrolled at Cranmer Hall in Durham in 2016
In the Church of England, 1 in 25 serving clergy come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Michelle Delves is of mixed race heritage and a curate in Hartlepool. But when she enrolled in 2016 at Cranmer Hall, a bible college in Durham, she says she wasn't prepared for the reality of life within the Church of England.

"When I got there, I've just never felt as black and poor. I felt like I'd landed on an alien planet," says Michelle.

Michelle says she was frequently ignored and treated differently, which she believes was due to racism.

After being frustrated by lack of action when she complained, she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury - as, she felt, no one was listening.

"The thing that really scares the pants off me about this institutional racism is that you don't know it's happening to you," she says.

In response to her note, the Archbishop's office told Michelle of their "anger" on hearing about her experiences, saying, "much more needs to be done about institutional racism in the Church".

Cranmer Hall told Panorama it's "deeply sorry and saddened" to hear Michelle's story.

It says that because Michelle didn't make a formal complaint while at the college, they weren't able to investigate. But if she's willing to talk to them now, they'll "explore her concerns thoroughly".

Over the past 35 years, there have been 20 reports examining racism within the Church of England, between them making more than 160 recommendations.

Stephen Cottrell - the Archbishop of York, the second-most senior bishop in the Church - says while some changes have been made, there is still a lot more to do.

"It is simply the case that ethnic minority people are underrepresented and disadvantaged in many of the structures and systems of our church.

"That has a terrible knock on for our mission in the wider communities we serve."

For Dr Henry, that admission is not enough.

"It's almost like 'OK so the job's done'. But the confession, it's not a new phenomenon, or a new awakening or a new enlightenment in the Church.

"Based on the racial reckoning of the church, I'm afraid they've abysmally failed - and it's not fit for purpose."

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