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‘Woke’ should not be used as a negative, warns C of E’s first black female bishop

<span>Right Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Her recent remarks were made to C of E’s General Synod, which voted to create racial injustice action plans.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Right Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Her recent remarks were made to C of E’s General Synod, which voted to create racial injustice action plans.Photograph: Reuters

“Woke” should not be used as a negative term, the Church of England’s first black female bishop has said, in a stinging rebuke against government ministers and others “who are threatened” by the social justice movement.

Such people want others to think it was a “sin created by the left”, the Right Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the bishop of Dover, told the C of E’s ruling assembly, the General Synod.

It decided by 364-0 votes that all parishes should develop local action plans to address racial injustice and dioceses should collect relevant data on race and ethnicity.

Related: C of E urged to nurture working-class clergy amid concerns of prejudice

Hudson-Wilkin, who was appointed as a C of E bishop in 2019, said: “When it comes to the topic of racial justice, I have heard the word ‘woke’ being bandied about by many people, including government ministers, certain radio presenters and those in the media. And in every case, they’ve used it incorrectly.

“The term woke originated in the USA and it was a black terminology, speaking specifically and directly to black people regarding the need to wake up and stay alert, to be consciously aware. So it is not just a mere word, it is a movement.

“Those who are threatened by the authenticity of this movement want to scare us into thinking that being woke is a sin created by people on the left. But as the people of God, we should never be afraid or embarrassed of being called an advent people, always in the business of preparing and staying alert.

“So I want to address the elephant in the room … in case there is anybody nurturing those incorrect thoughts and mumbling under one’s breath or to your neighbour, ‘here we go again’, negatively using the term woke.

“We must remain awake to the reality that the church’s commitment to racial justice is not the church attempting to follow the world’s direction of travel regarding inclusion, equality and diversity, but instead it is a given. It comes from a deep desire to follow the lead of Christ.”

She added: “The racial justice mandate flows not from identity politics, but from our primary identity in Christ. The gospel calls us to prophetically address head-on the evils in our society, indeed in our world, which leave some parts of humanity dehumanised.”

The issue of racial justice was not an “optional extra that we can choose to address if we feel like it”, she said, adding that “lip service will not do, and neither will ticking boxes”. Rather, the “church’s feet must be held to the fire”.

A report presented to the synod meeting said progress on racial justice was “moderate at best”, and only 14 out of 42 dioceses had done extensive work on the issue. “The entire church community must actively engage in this process and see it as a long-term endeavour,” the report said. “This means consistently examining and challenging our biases, dismantling systemic barriers and fostering an inclusive environment where all individuals are valued and respected.”

The C of E has sought to address racism within the church over recent years. In 2020, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said the church was “still deeply institutionally racist”. He added: “I’m ashamed of our history and I’m ashamed of our failure … I’m ashamed of my lack of urgent voice to the church.”

It has encouraged more black and minority ethnic church-goers to consider ordination, and pledged to nurture and promote black and minority ethnic clergy. But a study published in 2022 found that the church remained a “hostile and unsafe place” for many minority ethnic clergy, and a “white (specifically middle-class) English culture” must be challenged.

Last year, the C of E said it was setting up a £100m fund for communities affected by historic slavery after a report found that the church had benefited from the trade. Welby called it a “shameful past”.

The church has also reviewed thousands of monuments in parish churches and cathedrals that contained references to slavery and slavers. It has apologised for racism towards people of the Windrush generation of migrants from the Caribbean, many of whom were rejected by parish churches.