We don’t want to talk about racism. By ‘we’, I mean white people, people like me. Rarely does the topic of racial discrimination arise in conversation unless a person of colour raises it. Then it usually provokes an awkward silence, an uncomfortable shifting of buttocks, and an intense interest in the colour of the carpet. Because it is usually only raised in contexts where victims and survivors are present, the attitude invariably becomes one of sympathetic listening or defensive pushback. That racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices are discussed seriously by potential and actual perpetrators is a vital step in the move to a more just, equal and better society is without question, but it is one yet to be taken by enough of us.
Twenty years ago, a group of researchers coined the term ‘unconscious bias’ to explain why societies and institutions that had legislated against discrimination nevertheless remained profoundly unequal. They even designed a test to show participants how unconsciously they tended to ‘stick to their own’ or only choose a certain sort of person for university places or jobs. By calling it ‘unconscious’, there was a hope that it would create the space to allow potential perpetrators to discuss their own actions, attitudes and motivations without feeling immediately guilty or judged. Twenty years on, and organisations like the Methodist Church, are beginning to incorporate unconscious bias training into their programmes of recruitment and deployment. Hence, recently, at a meeting to discuss the stationing of ministers, we were introduced to the Church’s own Equality Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit Module 1.4 Unconscious Bias.
At a basic level, I have no particular problem with the idea that we are all socialised to gravitate to our own because it is deemed a place of safety. I can see how my upbringing, my ethnicity and education, my social class and sexuality, can all influence me, sometimes unconsciously, to accept one person and reject another. But I do seriously object to the concept if it is simply a way denying the very real presence of discrimination in too many places and people in our Church. If we begin to address a problem - as we usually do - with a package of ‘training’, aren’t we really saying that it is just a case of confusion, miscommunication or lack of awareness at play, and not ‘real’ discrimination?
When first confronted with issues of child abuse in the church, many members simply would not believe it possible: ‘That couldn’t happen in my church!’ (Sadly, some still think that’s the case.) And because it couldn’t happen, then victims and survivors were simply not believed. Sadly, we are not transferring the painful lessons learnt from malpractice in Safeguarding to the realm of equality and discrimination. If we begin from the premise that no-one in the Methodist Church can be prejudiced, then the experience of the victimised will never be heard.
It is not enough for the church to assert that its processes “must be free of all wrongful forms of discrimination.” What I am talking about is not unconscious bias, but unacknowledged prejudice. Discrimination and prejudice in the Methodist Church are real and being experienced across the Connexion. But, too often, the assumption is that it can be sorted out by a ‘pastoral conversation’ meaning a non-directive, euphemism-drenched encounter, the outcome of which was always going to be ‘no further action needed’.
We cannot continue to have a system that investigates its own shortcomings and failures and has no duty to report. Trust and confidence is only possible where the voices of victims and survivors are properly heard, and reporting of incidents is actively encouraged. Like our Safeguarding procedures, no longer can we place all the responsibility on victims to raise the issues - it must be a duty of every single member to call discrimination out when they encounter it. That will mean a zero-tolerance approach for churches and Circuits who refuse the ministry of others on grounds of ethnicity or gender or sexuality or age or disability, meaning those ‘no-go areas’ that currently exist in the Connexion for LGBTQI+ ministers will no longer be policed by our leaders. Prejudice, left unchallenged, only festers.
If we have learnt nothing else from this current pandemic, the numbers of BAME people dying shows us how dangerous prejudice and inequality are. It is not Gospel to ask women and BAME people and LGBTQI+ folk to carry on accepting hostility, rejection, stereotyping and side-lining as part of the deal in living out their vocation. And it is time for all those who experienced the reality of prejudice and discrimination in our church to stand up and speak out - for the good of us all.
Two decades have passed since the Methodist Conference affirmed that part of Our Calling was to ‘challenge injustice’. That work must start with us, and it must start now!