Lament and Action

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Lament and Action

Adventures in the Theology of Disappointment

There is a new report in the Church of England concerning how to address racism: ‘From Lament to Action’.

It is published almost simultaneously with the guilty verdict on the killer of George Floyd, which has been met with strong assent from many Christians in the Church of England. It will be interesting to see how the affirmation of this guilty verdict matches enthusiasm for taking seriously the CofE report.
It will be interesting because the case of the murder of George Floyd focuses on the actions of one white man who can conveniently be cast as a monster, quite unlike ‘us’. By contrast ‘From Lament to Action’ has as its focus institutional questions in which white people (in the church) have a stake, and a history of racism in which white people are complicit. In the report there are no comforting monsters, only inadequate structures and persons. The worst possible outcome, and the most predictable, will be rejoicing at the conviction of a murderer, and refusal of a report which aims to change a racist culture.

The report’s root claim is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s – “we [the CofE] are still deeply institutionally racist”.

Some philosophers would somewhat technically call this a vague claim. That doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with it, as if somehow it needed to be sharper or clearer. It means that the reader has to do some work, to supply some relevant extra material, to make it more definite. In this case the reader needs to know about the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: the source, for Justin Welby, of the language of institutional racism. (The report was released on Stephen Lawrence Day – the anniversary of Stephen’s death – although a version of it was leaked some weeks ago.)

The reader also needs to know about the nature of racism in Britain (as opposed to France or Germany). This is strenuous work, because this history is not typically taught in British schools. In Britain during the 1950s foreign workers were invited from the former British colonies of the Caribbean (known now as the Windrush generation) and the former British colony of India, from the part that became Pakistan after partition in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1972 after the War of Independence. British racism is historically and predominantly prejudice and stereotyping in relation to English-speaking African Caribbeans, Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking Pakistanis and Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis. (In Germany racism is predominantly focused on German Turkish families; in France it is often French Algerian families.) The whole mix is made more complex by the vital role played by non-white military personnel during both world wars.
All of this is baked into Welby’s brief claim about institutional racism. To debate it is to engage British history and the sociology of the different nations that make up Britain in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Church of England was at the heart of a lot of this, particularly in the colonial periods.

It’s a complex area for any Christian report into racism in the church today (as opposed to complicity in racism by the church historically) because the African Caribbean immigrants were often Christian, while the Pakistani and (later) Bangladeshi immigrants were often Muslim. Islamophobia since 9/11 amplifies racism against British Pakistani and Bangladeshi families in a way that is not true of British African Carribean families. But racism in the Church of England today disproportionately affects British African Caribbean members of the church – rather obviously because they are Christians.

The sociology matters. According to the 2011 census, as a proportion of the English population, British African Caribbeans made up around 1.1%. But as a proportion of the Church of England it is nearer to 4.5% (according the the Celebrating Diversity report of 2007). There are four times as many minority ethnic members of the Church of England than in the population at large. In this respect discussions of participation in the church differ from participation in teaching or policing or other areas: it is a particularly pressing matter for the church.

This is before one gets into any details of the report: understanding racism is the first task, and fruitful further discussion depends on honestly facing up to it.


‘From Lament to Action’ is organised in two overlapping ways: more formally into areas of enquiry and more practically into work streams for the future Archbishop’s Racial Justice Commission.

The more formal organisation is into participation, education, young people, and finally structures and governance.
The more practical organisation is into theology, slavery/monuments, history/memory, culture/liturgy, complaints, participation, patronage.

Organising principles matter: they are organically part of what is produced, and not merely a set of boxes into which ‘given’ materials are sorted.

We can discern several imperatives that guide both the formal and practical categories, as follows.

1. Changing the role played by ethnic minorities in the life of the church, including leadership roles.
2. Changing how church members,and especially its clergy, learn about its own history, its racism, its complicity in slavery (and how this is represented in the built environment).
3. Changing how young people (future leaders) are encouraged.

But organising principles matter less, I think, than the animating force that drives this report. Its title is a wonderful specimen of bleak English humour: the Church of England has been lamenting for 40 years and has done little – it is time for action. The English like to moan. Well: enough of that. Let’s repair what is broken. Let’s heal the sick.

The report is an exquisite performance of disappointment. There have been many church reports on racism over the years. There have been many recommendations. How many reports? More than twenty. How many recommendations? Too many to count. (Actually the report counts them – there are more than 160. Bloody hell.) Why is this a disappointment? Because it is all talk and no action (I summarise).

The role of the report is emphatically not to start from scratch and to dream about what might be possible. It is not utopian. Rather modestly, but also radically, it suggests that the Church of England do what it has until now merely talked about doing.

The recommendations are matters for senior managers to consider. They can implement them, implement them with modifications, or not implement them. The report notes that not implementing them has been the preferred mode of action until now – so any implementation would be a kind of progress.

What are these recommendations? They are predictable (and in any case leaked). Give more power, responsibility, and encouragement to non-white Christian leaders in the Church of England, and keep records of what is done. It says in other words: support non-white clergy and ordinands in various ways.

It is concrete in its recommendations for how to do that, as it was asked to be. There will doubtless be plenty of discussion, argument, disagreement, and discernment about the details. Who knows how the detail of things will pan out?

The proposals for theological education are of particular interest to me as a teacher in a university. They are modest in extent and content. Ordinands should receive anti-racism training; they should have at least one ‘module’ in which theology appears in a context which takes the global scope of religious life and thought seriously (which can include studying Black Theology, although this is optional). Beyond this, institutions should diversify the curriculum: this is not a new idea produced for this report; it is common practice in universities and – crucially – this is quite rightly left up to institutions to determine. Finally, records should be kept: institutions should audit their ethnic diversity and participation (both in personnel and teaching materials) and these should be monitored.

There is quite a lot of monitoring. Monitoring in educational institutions deserves its own analysis as an adventure in disappointment, for sure. My view is: if certain courses of action to combat racism are agreed, it makes sense to find out if they have been followed. If there is a good alternative to monitoring it, let’s hear it.

In essence the report makes an assumption, asks a set of questions, and gives a set of answers.

The assumption is that the Church of England is institutionally racist.

If you don’t share that assumption, or wish to contest it, then this report is not much use to you, and you are perhaps not much use to the church when it comes to tackling racism.

The questions are: should more power be given to non-white church leaders; should more responsibility be given to them; should more encouragement be given to them; should theological education include non-white voices; should it include the history of colonial violence in which the Church of England is implicated?

To each of these questions it gives the same answer. Not merely ‘yes’. The answer is ‘This has been discussed for 40 years, and we already decided, repeatedly, to do various things. They have not been done. Let’s do them. Last chance.’

Last chance: the report is open about this. If this report is permitted to suffer a death by a thousand discussions, with no action, then the authors and those they represent say this: we’re done.

I believe them.


‘Participation’ is a core category in the report, and this does quite a lot of complex work.

Some background. If you want to annoy a particular kind of white person in an educational institution, it is quite effective to say the following:
‘Let’s teach non-white stuff’.

This is a variation on a slightly older theme: ‘let’s teach stuff written by women’.

This suggestion is often given a rather exalted name: ‘diversifying the curriculum’. But really it means: let’s teach some other stuff. And if we’re teaching a bit: let’s teach some more.

There is resistance to such proposals. Quelle surprise. The ‘argumment’, if it can be called that, is roughly this: you want us to stop teaching Plato/the Bible/Shakespeare/ and instead teach work by people with black skin and/or vaginas. This is most charitably interpreted as a lament for a discipline’s canon, whatever it may be. The canon is the expression of a set of historical institutional settlements, and as those settlements are revisited, so is its canon. Canons form, canons change: historians are often surprised (or dramatically perform their surprise for effect – they are not really surprised) to hear otherwise educated people talking as if canons are timeless truths with no history. But that is what happens when otherwise educated people refuse to think historically. It’s a widespread problem. Interestingly, after many years teaching other stuff we are still teaching Plato, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

(I am an energetic diversifier of curricula, but I also teach Kant and Hegel at Birmingham. There are people who foolishly insist that I should stop, but these people – interestingly – tend to be white. They are often surprised to learn that as well as Hegel I teach Marx. Indeed, I help students understand Marx’s critique of Hegel, although I do not teach Hegel merely as a foil for Marx. I plan to continue such canonical complexities.)

Diversifying the curriculum, or ‘let’s teach some other stuff’, is commonly conceived as a matter of representation. That is, there are various communities, and they need to be represented. The canon, in whatever discipline, represents the interests (in both senses) of a powerful majority, and excludes others. Its heavily policed borders can be challenged so as to include representation of a wider variety of constituencies, including those who have been silenced or marginalised.

This is where ‘From Lament to Action’ makes its noteworthy move. As well as speaking of representation it also speaks of participation. A report of this kind has limited opportunities for theoretical subtlety, but here is the paragraph where attention is drawn to this practice:

“There are two foundations for the recommendations surrounding young people in the Church of England. The first has been the phrase “participation instead of representation” which has been important in our discussions as a Taskforce. The second comes from Bonhoeffer, who claimed that a Church cannot be a Church if it does not care for a child and does not see the child at the heart of the congregation.” (p.43)

As a matter of textual detail, from this point onwards in the report there is no talk of representation without talk also of participation, and there is a lot of talk of participation without talk of representation.

The report is called ‘From Lament to Action’, but it could also be called ‘From Representation to Participation’. There is cause for lament, but what’s needed is action. There is a requirement for representation, but what’s needed is participation.

This is not a complex matter. The root idea is that the future we might hope for is not only one in which non-white voices are represented, but a vision of community in which everyone can be fully involved -together.

This is a generous ecclesiology. There are genuine questions of power, of voice, of representation. These are addressed directly in the report. But the last quarter turns a corner. There also questions of community, of life together, of shared action, of participation.

Questions of representation involve proportions, quotas, distribution of limited resources, allocation of time. If a committee has 12 members of which one is non-white, and it is proposed to have two who are non-white, then either it will lose a white member or it will increase to 13: there will be fewer white voices, or white voices will have less time to speak (because that time must now be shared among 13). It can be easily understood as a competition for resources (prestige, time, money). That is not the whole story. I have many tales to tell of misery in committees, or disappointments in professional life, but I cannot think of any whose cause is greater representation by non-white colleagues. I think the narrative of competition is often overdrawn, and I also think this has something to do with the pervasive and corrosive effects of capitalism on shared life. But for all that, resources are often scarce, and decisions need to be made.

Questions of participation are of a different kind. They involve an abundance of goods: time together (more than time by the hour); shared projects (more than delimited goals); richer discussions (more than mere assertion of arguments); new perspectives (more than entrenched positions). These do not replace representation, as if some perfect alternative life can come magically into being and dispel the old. They coexist, more or less uneasily, alongside the harder realities. But they exist nonetheless.

To talk of participation adds something transformative to this discussion. I draw attention to it because it is likely that the (many) rejections that this report will elicit are likely to focus on representation (‘No to quotas! No to diversification!’) and to ignore participation. That seems to me an avoidable disappointment.

In a sentence: this report calls for the kind of change in which ethnic minority members of the Church of England can fully participate in its shared life.

It also calls quite rightly for increased representation. Let’s not get sentimental.


The report has at its heart two core concerns: with suffering and with change.

Suffering is the stuff of theology, as it is for poetry, plays, songs, novels, operas, ballets, and committees.

Suffering calls for healing, which requires diagnosis, attention to details, listening. A doctor’s most extraordinary skill lies in taking a history – their healing ears as much as their healing hands. As for medicine so for theology.

Some folk foolishly suppose that suffering calls for explanation, as if there could be a meaningful theodicy, or ‘the problem of evil’, or any other defective practice that involves speaking rather than listening. Fortunately we have as a society found a way to quarantine such folk in departments of their own, where they can be kept away from hospitals and from funerals. There is no reliable way to keep them away from the pulpit: this responsibility falls on the shoulders of local clergy.

There are two ways to view the suffering to which this report bears witness. The first is to hear the suffering of ethnic minorities: of their exclusion from participation in the shared life of the church. The second is to understand the suffering of the whole church that is caused by this exclusion: we are all impoverished by institutional racism. One does not have to choose between these two ways of hearing and understanding. They belong together.

Suffering is, for those with an interest in mereology, something that can only be tackled in its particulars, never its totality. One cannot heal suffering as such, only this person’s suffering, here and now, in this way. One cannot set out into the world with the aim of reducing suffering (let alone explaining it): it is already here, not just close to home but in it, ready to be diagnosed and healed.

But although suffering is irreducibly particular, its causes have a different character. They are often a matter of wholes, of systems, of institutions. This often produces a second foolishness to complement that of theodicy: a false belief that one should refuse all wholes, dismantle every system, and abolish each institution. This report accomplishes an elegant and compelling account in which three things are articulated:

1. Suffering is particular (but damages the whole community);
2. Its cause is systemic (but the systems are precious and vulnerable);
3. To heal particular suffering requires healing systems and institutions.

This is connected to its second core concern: change.

There are two dominant modes of description which guide everyday human life: that of narrative, and that of structure.
Narrative (the stuff of mythology and scripture) recounts persons and events. It is often a view on the ground, with drama, detail, and denouement.

Structure (beloved of French intellectuals in the mid twentieth century) identifies the principles by which relations are arranged. Where narrative is the performance, structure is the folio, the score, the marks on the page. It is the set of conditions – the view almost outside time; it is the langue of which utterances are the paroles.

Between narrative and structure there is a world of freedom and order, the lyric and the epic.

There is a third, non-dominant, mode of description: transformation.

Transformation is the stuff of folktales and of theology. Persons become what they were not, often passing through a set of ambiguous states. The poor become rich, the unmarriable become married, the humble are exalted, sinners are reconciled with God and each other. The forces (magical or divine) are unfathomable, strange, incomprehensible. Everything is the same but different.

‘From Lament to Action’ has plenty of narrative. Like many documents of liberation theology, of which it is a compelling example, it has as its focus the experience of the everyday lives of the oppressed. It has plenty of structure. It lays out the institutional conditions and draws attention to the ways in which they function to maintain order and particular kinds of (often damaging) stability.

But it is also a witness to transformation, and the agent of change is God.

Instead of asking, ‘what shall we do’, it also asks, ‘what is God doing?’. It does not do this, perhaps, quite as boldly as it might. If I were to be invited to share some criticisms of the report, I might locate this set of issues for attention, or better amplification. (They are there in the report, but they require a bit of work to bring to the foreground.)

There are things that members of the Church of England can do: make some changes and document them. But there are also rather obviously some things that God is already doing that are the condition for these practical measures. God is inspiring the vocations of young ethnic minority persons. God has endowed a significant group of articulate intellectual leaders with a powerful blend of patience and angry energy. God, the Son’s action makes reconciliation real. God, the Spirit’s action makes reconciliation endlessly possible.

The reconciliation whose particular outworking is concentrated into a series of well-thought-through bullet points is already underway. It was already underway in a series of reports and recommendations over several decades, although obstructed by inertia, complacency, and reluctance. The work has begun. The report draws attention to what is possible, what has been made possible now, under current conditions. It is a matter of removing obstructions as much as engaging in new forms of action: the forces are already acting to bend the arc towards justice.

Religion is at its best the small picture, answering the small questions, negotiating the challenges of everyday life on a human scale.

Institutional racism is a constant threat to everyday flourishing, a relentless undermining of everyday relations between persons. It is a series and a structure of banal obstacles to responding to vocations. It is a mean, small thing that makes life meaner and smaller. But the flourishing, the relations, and the vocations do not need creating out of nothing, formed from the void, conjured into being. They are already created, already alive.

‘From Lament to Action’ is witness to a transformation that we merely need to let happen.

The transformation has already begun. Our task is to join in.

All of this is encapsulated in what I take to be at the heart of the report, and which is expressed succinctly in a paragraph devoted not to narrative nor to structure but to transformation, and which is simply called: How to Change.

“In our action plan we have, wherever possible, tried to work with the grain of where actions are already happening. There is already work going on within the NCIs to improve participation at trustee and senior levels. Some dioceses are already investing in work on racial justice. Both the National Ministry Team and the Church of England Education Office are already taking steps in some of the areas we have identified. But the Church of England’s lack of progress over the past decades means that some of our recommendations go further than those plans currently in place, recognising both the historical lack of progress and the potentially devastating effects of further future inaction.” (p.16)

Amen to that.

Author: Nicholas Adams

Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham.

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