Rt Rev Wilfred Wood was the curate at my church before he went to become Bishop of Croydon in 1985, and the first black bishop in the Church of England. His Bishop’s cope was kept for 11 years and then passed on to the second black bishop in the Church of England. This was Rt Rev John Sentamu who was appointed as Bishop of Stepney in 1996. It would be another twenty years before Rt Rev Wilfred Wood’s original bishop’s cope could be passed on again to the third black bishop in the Church. Bishop Karowei Dorgu was appointed in 2016 as the Bishop of Woolwich.
When Bishop Karowei licensed Rev Edd Stock to be the minister at Holy Trinity Sydenham old and new came together in the dance of the Holy Spirit across the generations. Rt Rev Karowei Dorgu had the cope from a previous curate of our church. Half a century later we had been Edd’s sending church, putting him forward for ordination.
Three black bishops, in 30 years, do not reflect the debt of gratitude that the Church of England owes to BAME communities. We are yet to integrate church leaders from the black communities as a natural part of our DNA. All three of the Church of England bishops grew up outside of the UK.
The Church of England has appointed a national minority ethnic vocations officer to tackle the issue. BAME has become BAMER [Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee] but the questions remain unanswered. People of African and Caribbean origin make up 2% of the UK's population but account for more than two-thirds of Sunday church-goers in London and 7% of worshippers nationwide. Figures from the Christian Research Association show that, over a five-year period, black church membership has grown by around 18% compared with a 5% drop for churches nationally. Where is the proportionate increase in black church leadership? Might there be a Black British born bishop as the next but not in the timescale we have seen!
Is the Church of England now ready to learn from the mistakes of previous generations and welcome people from BAMER communities into church leadership? Canon Francis-Dehqani, who has recently been appointed as the first bishop of Loughborough, reckons so. She thinks that the Church of England is beginning to shake off its legacy of hostility to foreigners and ethnic minorities. Are the mistakes made in Shepherds Bush when Rt Rev Wilfred Wood was curate and people from the newly arrived Caribbean communities were asked not to come back to Anglican churches beginning to be addressed? Our ability to speak as a national church depends on our ability to do so
Canon Francis-Dehqani’s father’s prayer when his son [her brother] was murdered has shaped my ministry for a number of years. Her father, the late Hassan Dehqani-Tafti was the first Iranian Anglican bishop, and the first President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. He prayed for his son’s murderers because [as he said] through their crimes we now follow your footsteps more closely in the way of sacrifice. “The terrible fire of this calamity turns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us. Its flame reveals the depth and depravity and meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature. It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love as shown in the cross of Christ and his resurrection. Love, which makes us free from, hate towards our persecutors. Love, which brings patience forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity, and greatness of heart. Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the church and for the world”.
The Church is not alone in needing to welcome and learn from leadership from among the BAMER communities. Thankfully we have the example of an itinerant Middle Eastern, convicted criminal called Jesus to guide us in our way
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, carrying some 500 settlers from Jamaica. With Bishop Wilfred Wood, hailing from Barbados, as a previous curate of my church, I am especially conscious of the contribution of the Caribbean community to the post war settlement.
Of the three ethnic groups from that period African-English people will still talk of Africa as home. Asian-English people will maintain an extended family structure across the world. Caribbean-English people came and dwelt in the land and made the UK their home. A part of the reason for them being able to do so this is that they have a history of cultural and social dispossession from when they were taken from one side of the world to the other and sold as slaves. The Caribbean community have absorbed the wickednesses of history and have come up laughing, playful and profound.
Do not be taken in by right wing press reporting that the Notting Hill Carnival is out of control and should be moved to a park. Two hundred arrests, as happened this year, out of a total of two million people attending is not a high proportion.
The original carnival emerged out of a race riot , and a murder [Kelso Cochrane 1959]. These events became the catalyst for the idea of holding a carnival to showcase Caribbean arts and culture. To hold a carnival rather than to retreat into suspicion and mistrust, following such a sequence of events, shows the stature of the people involved.
The carnival continues to teach us how to be in a society together. This year the music stopped playing and the procession paused for 60 seconds outside North Kensington fire station, half a mile from the Grenfell Tower, remembering the people who had died in the fire. The firemen lined up, removed their helmets and bowed their heads. The moment was concluded with the firemen being cheered, clapped and thanked for what they had done.
Last word should go to a Caribbean lady who asked a question from the floor at an evening, hosted by St Mellitus in London, looking the question, ‘The Parish: Has it Had its Day?’ After an evening spent discussing the value of traditional and other forms of church, she said, “I am not from the Church of England and I don’t get you. Why have none of you talked about prayer?” Her question evidenced the natural sense of transcendence from among the Caribbean community, which was not reflected in the answer she was given by the panel, which was that prayer had been assumed. If the Church of England were to pray more and assume less, ladies such as she would find themselves more easily able to ‘get us’.