The publication of the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Sewell) report on 31 March 2021 has sparked great debate across the nation, and is a significant moment in the cultural conversation about addressing structural reforms to tackle the social injustice of racism.
Following the turbulence of 2020, with the catalysing event of George Floyd’s murder leading to global protests demanding equality and equity, the report’s claim that Britain should be heralded as a beacon of best practice, and the suggestion that structural racism no longer exists on Britain’s shores, has met with sharp opposition. Criticisms have come from both within the church and from the wider public space, considering the report to be undermining the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in Britain, and pointing to a lack of objectivity, academic rigour and peer review.
Leaders from across a number of our Member Churches have commented and given statements since the report was released…
CTE’s Pentecostal President Pastor Agu Irukwu (of the Redeemed Christian Church of God) shared his sober reflections on the report through his online Easter Sunday sermon, alongside a message of encouragement to congregants and wider society.
Pastor Agu stated that he was “deeply saddened” by the report, which he had hoped would address and speak to structural injustices of racism in the UK. He shared his stark realisation that “the issues of racism are deeper than you and I thought, and the UK had a long way to go in addressing the issue of race”. Pastor Agu then went on to encourage viewers that “we must fight this evil” of racism, explaining that fervent prayer was needed to address the deep roots of racism and the spiritual stronghold it had over the nation. His message then encouraged viewers to use every available avenue to speak up and against racism.
The 10-minute excerpt from Pastor Agu’s sermon can be found here.
On 6 April, the National Church Leaders Forum also released a statement on behalf of the black majority churches they represent. Responding to the report, the NCLF stated that “there have been widespread expressions of dissatisfaction with some of its contents, with some of our leaders expressing on behalf of their parishioners, feelings of deep hurt, especially concerning the suggestion that institutional or systemic racism in the UK no longer exists. This runs counter to their lived experiences and the success of some has been achieved in spite of, not in the absence of, institutional or systemic racism.” This miscalculation is to be regretted since it hinders real engagement with elements of the report that could be impactful.
The full NCLF statement can be found here.
The Diocese of London have joined church leaders responding to the Sewell Report:
“As Christian leaders in an intercultural Diocese of the Church of England, we are concerned that the Report has failed to deliver a diagnosis and a remedy that will bring about the lasting change in the culture of the UK for which we long, work and pray. Our sisters and brothers deserve better”.
The London College of Bishops, Sarah Londin, Graham Kensington, Joanne Stepney, Jonathan Fulham, Robert Edmonton, Ric Islington, Pete Willesden have joined together and expressed:
“Over the past few weeks, the narrative around the report published by the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has rightly given rise to concern and anger. The Report claims that institutional racism is not a significant issue affecting the life opportunities of many in our country, and that the United Kingdom is a beacon of good practice for the world”.
They went on to comment: “The Report has created confusion and anger in many of our households, churches and communities. It has also added to a sense of despair that the lived experience of so many within our country is being ignored and dismissed. And whilst they did not demur from most of these proposals. What the Report signally fails to do is to address the underlying problems which have afflicted our society over decades.”
The Bishops also expressed a note of self-reflection, sharing: “One of the priorities of the Diocese of London for the next decade is to strive for racial justice within its own structures. This followed the admission by the Archbishop of Canterbury at General Synod in 2020 that the Church of England is ‘deeply institutionally racist.’ We recognise that our own record leaves much to be desired and that we need to change”.
The London College of Bishops finished their statement affirming the words of the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, that as a Church and a country we still have a long way to go in this work, and we commit ourselves to work for change.
Read the Bishops’ full statement.
CTE’s Principal Officer for Pentecostal and Multi-Cultural relations, Shermara Fletcher, stated “In a prime moment of opportunity following the global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it was disappointing to read a much-anticipated report undermining the lived experiences of those bearing the brunt of racism, as well as the work of pioneers in the racial justice field in the UK.
“Whilst work has been done to implement the integration of a multicultural society in Britain, before being awarded a beacon of global best practice there is much more work to be done in areas of employment, education, health and housing, the criminal justice system, to mention just a few. Whilst the rigour of the report has been questioned, it has been encouraging to see Christian leaders within CTE’s newly established Racial Justice Working Group, as well as other leaders of faith and voices across all of society stand in solidarity and hold authority to account – as they continue to do the hard but essential work of bringing into realisation a fair, equal and equitable society.”
Bishop Mike Royal, a member of CTE’s newly established Racial Justice Working Group, commented: “The Sewell Report has been widely condemned in an open letter by 429 academics and multiple black church leaders alike. The denial of structural racism overlooks empirical evidence cited over many years, and ignores the lived experience of everyday people from Black & other ethnic groups. The report is divisive and lacks credibility, but at least we are talking about racial justice!”
British theologian Dr Robert Beckford is Professor of Black Theology at The Queen’s Foundation, an ecumenical training college of a number of CTE’s Member Churches. His documentaries for both the BBC and Channel 4 have caused debate among the Christian and British religious community.
Professor Beckford told CTE: “The Report fails to find research balance between personal behaviourism and liberal structural causes of disadvantage. By favouring the former, personal behaviouralism, the Report reduces the causes of racism to old fashioned cultural deficiency models. In other words, black people are to blame for their predicament.”
A webinar responding to the report
Professor Robert Beckford joined the webinar ‘A Moment of Dishonour; Racism, Sewell and the Christian Response’ on Wednesday 14 April 2021, 7.30-9pm.
This webinar was a joint event hosted in partnership by the Racial Justice Advocacy Forum, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI).
Introducing the webinar, CTBI explained: ‘The UK Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Sewell) Report has generated a great deal of debate within society and the Church since aspects of it were launched on 31 March 2021. This webinar will be a fantastic opportunity to hear from some of the keenest minds in Church and society on this report, and for you to share your opinions on these issues.’
The expert panel include Professor Robert Beckford, Sir Simon Woolley, Ven. Rosemarie Mallett and Eleasah Louis. Watch the webinar recording on CTBI’s Youtube page.
Millennial Christians express their concerns
Emerging millennial leader Charnelle Barclay, from the Centre of Theology and Community, also expressed her thoughts, sharing, “In the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement and the year that 2020 was, I was really disappointed by the release, tone and conclusions of the report. There was a real opportunity to more accurately convey the impact and reality of racism in the UK in the 21st century, and that has not only been missed but has been deemed irrelevant.”
CTE also heard the views of key UK millennial leaders including Seth Pinnock, Tearfund’s Head of African and Caribbean Engagement. He commented of his concern for the lack of peer review, as well as “the eyes“ within the party that allowed the report to be publicised, revealing the state of our current governmental context in relation to race. He shared a sobering reflection in the words of Maya Angelou; ‘when people show you who they really are, believe them’, and denounced the suppression and marginalisation of those on the fringes of society who experience the effects of racism in the UK.