‘Racism still exists’ - Norfolk BAME adviser on discrimination ethnic clergy face
PUBLISHED: 06:00 18 October 2020
A Norfolk vicar has today told of her concerns that “racism still exists” in the Church Of England, as she was given a role to work with the Bishop of Norwich to tackle the problem.
Reverend Karlene Kerr, team vicar at St Faith’s Church at Gaywood in King’s Lynn, has spoken out about the “overt racism and microagressions” ethnic clergy face in their roles.
The 62-year-old, who was appointed the Diocese of Norwich bishop’s adviser for BAME affairs, says she has “always been passionate about racial justice” and hopes her new role will allow her to be a critical, but constructive, voice for BAME clergy.
The mum-of-one said: “It’s always been a big issue. Often when people talk about racism in church there’s the assumption it shouldn’t happen, but you have to remember the church is an organisation like any other, it has a hierarchy of people and people are fallible.”
Rev Kerr, originally from Jamaica, moved to King’s Lynn three years ago from London after being ordained a deacon in 2013 and a priest in 2014.
Rev Kerr’s role, which is to critique the diocese’s dealings with racism, came as a result of the murder of George Floyd - a black man from America who was killed by police.
She said: “The Bishop of Norwich (Graham Usher) was very proactive and arranged a meeting to ask how we felt about the murder and the racism we experience as clergy.
“We acknowledged racism still exists in the church and as black leaders we’re judged by a different standard.”
Bishop Graham said racism was present in some in Norfolk, often in “insidious and unrecognised ways,” and explained that Rev Kerr’s appointment was to help advise him and the diocese in understanding the needs of its BAME community and to “foster a culture where the sin of racism and exclusion is challenged and called out”.
He added: “Racism diminishes individuals and us as a society, and continues to cause incalculable harm across the world.
“It demeans, ignores and discriminates people of colour.”
Commenting on society as a whole, Rev Kerr said that, despite legislation and a shift in attitudes over the years, there had not been a “seismic shift” and more needs to be done by organisations and the church in “calling racism out when it happens”.
She added: “I’ve experienced it, you can be standing there with your collar on and you get asked where the vicar is or people see you as a new admin person.
“Or a common perception is that you get where you are through tokenism.”
Rev Kerr highlighted other examples of BAME clergy being “bullied” because of their colour, speaking about a case where one member was ill from stress after dealing with abuse from someone from their congregation.
She added: “It is sad, but years ago this was expected and had never been challenged. But it shocked me because it was so open and overt.
“The church is the last place you’d expect to experience racism because it is the place you go to for comfort and to find peace and friendship.
“There are a number of reasons it still persists in church - people have unconscious thought processes which have never been challenged or acknowledged and this comes with them to church and when they see a black member of a congregation or priest those opinions and attitudes are given free rein.
“A common experience among black leaders in the church, lay or ordained, is that their competence is often doubted and credentials are questioned.
“One priest, who is Indian, was asked ‘do you write your own sermons or does someone write them for you?’. It’s that lack of respect when talking to you.
“Not everyone is like that and I have to give thanks for those people who are welcoming and who don’t treat you any different.”
The Bishop’s adviser hopes the profile of racism in church will be highlighted and tackled long-term and has said it is a “fight” that needs to take place with a “combined army” of people from all races to work through the issue.
She added: “The fact I was appointed was huge and I think that is a major step.”
Bishop Graham added: “Making one appointment does not change things. The responsibility lies on all of our shoulders to see, and witness to, the image of God in every human being.
“We need to look hard at ourselves, and our ways of operating in the past and in the present, so that now and in the future, everyone can truly flourish as God intends.
“One aspect of a bishop’s role is to be a bridge builder. Yet it is also more than that. It is to seek to mend the world. My prayer is that we can overcome obstacles, seek to bring about change and not walk by on the other side.”
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