A few years ago, Father Azariah France-Williams answered a knock at the door. A woman stood before him, asking to borrow space in the church car park for a removal van. They chatted, France-Williams gave permission, and she thanked him.
The next day there was a note on the doormat addressed to the vicar. “It said, ‘I came to see you yesterday and I’m sorry I didn’t meet you, but a lovely young man helped me.’ I was surprised because I’d been wearing my [dog] collar and standing at the vicarage door, but her imagination was infused with what a vicar looks like – and he didn’t look like me. I’d had a lovely exchange with her, but actually she didn’t see me at all. I felt like a ghost.”
Now, says France-Williams, “All of a sudden I’ve become Mr Popular.” In the past few weeks, a number of clergy colleagues have consulted him on their responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’ve had panicking bishops wanting me to write their statements,” he tells the Observer.
Next week, almost 10 years to the day since France-Williams was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, his book on his and others’ experiences as black and minority ethnic clergy will be published. Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England has “the potential to be a bit of a wrecking ball, to make a crack in the wall of racism that surrounds us,” he says.
The book reflects numerous conversations that France-Williams, who is now at a parish in Manchester, has had with clergy and churchgoers. “So many people told me stories, but then said, ‘Please don’t put this in the book.’ If you speak up [about racism], you’re categorised as an angry person, so many suffer in silence.”
Before he became a priest, France-Williams was asked to conduct a survey among BAME people attending the church where he was a youth worker after some asked why their experiences were not reflected in services. He presented the vicar with the results and some recommendations.
“He glanced at them, dropped the paper in his in-tray, and said ‘now is the time for unity, not diversity’. That was the end of the conversation. We’re asked to share our stories over and over, to pour out our thoughts and pain, and it never goes anywhere.”
As a trainee priest and then a curate, he became increasingly aware of unconscious bias within the church and the barriers in the way of BAME clergy. “There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance – you don’t want to believe that racism is real. But I began to realise that there is a culture that seeks to box you in.”
The last few weeks have suggested to him that “white friends and colleagues are starting to listen. I’ve had a number contact me to apologise for the times they’ve been complicit.”
The recent suggestion from Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, that the church should rethink the portrayal of Jesus as white was welcome, says France-Williams. “He acknowledged coded cultural norms that are oppressive. Now there is talk of re-examining statues and images in churches and cathedrals – of holding up a mirror to the church.”
In the past two weeks, C of E bishops announced a new commission to “drive forward ‘bold changes’ to ensure racial equality – a move greeted with scepticism by some who have seen previous task forces and inquiries come and go with little actual change.
France-Williams would like this commission to have guaranteed and generous funding, and to involve people from outside the church. “It needs to have the freedom to challenge the church not to be a private members’ club. It needs agency and to set its own agenda.”
White friends and colleagues are starting to listen. A number have apologised for the times they’ve been complicitFather Azariah France-Williams
Efforts to increase the number of BAME people entering the priesthood has had good results, he says. But, he adds, “You can have as many as you want, but unless the structure is such that they can flourish, where their black lives matter, it’s just more people who are going to be suffering.”
He talks of “a game of snakes and ladders” played with people. “You roll the dice, take a few steps, you have the exhilaration of mounting the ladder, then you roll the dice again and you slide back down. And this happens time and time again.
“This current wave of racial awareness feels like a massive ladder – we’ve gone right up there. But the realist in me says, does this just mean there will be a longer snake slide down?”