Towards a church where all are welcome
Listening to and learning from Ethnic Minority experiences in the Church of Scotland.
Background and purpose
The unlawful killing of George Floyd in 2020 by the police in the United States of America gave momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement across the world. In the UK, the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, whose murder in London in 1993 led to an inquiry into policing, and Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in Scotland in 2015, have highlighted racism within our own society.
This has raised questions about dealing with racism in the Church of Scotland, and a recognition that work needed to be done to address this important issue. This led to the Core Research Group being assembled to oversee a process to better understand Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities' experience of interacting with the Church of Scotland, through a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods.
This small-scale qualitative inquiry recruited and trained an ethnically diverse group of volunteers to interview a range of Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities about their experience of the Church of Scotland.
We used purposive sampling as a means of engaging with a small number of congregations that include the target population, and snowball sampling (ie, a sample involving people we know fit the criteria and then people whom they know who fit the criteria) to reach a similar range of ministers, all with experience of the Church of Scotland. A very small number of Black Scots are in the sample.
Some congregations contacted declined to take part at this time because they felt they lacked the capacity due to the demands of the presbytery planning process.
We interviewed 35 participants in total as follows:
- 23 congregational participants from five churches – 14 female, nine male, (nine African, three white British, three Chinese, two Indian, two white European, one white other, one Iranian, one British Pakistani, one prefer not to say)
- 12 snowball participants – 10 male, two female (eight African, three Asian and one Black Scottish)
The findings are reported at congregational and institutional levels and include comments from both samples.
We found Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities identifying with the Church of Scotland because their home churches are part of the global presbyterian family of churches in Africa and Asia. This included choosing to go to the Church of Scotland rather than, or in addition to, independent African and Asian churches because they want to integrate into Scottish life alongside local members of the Christian family.
We found ample evidence of Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities being welcomed into congregations and made to feel at home.
We were missing our home and our country, so the welcome we received from our church family, that they have become my family, our Scottish family...the whole congregation is very, very welcoming...we were the first Pakistani Christians, or you can say Black Christians, in that area and they all received as with open arms and we all received respect and honour...they involve me in almost everything.
Church of Scotland Minister
The minister is nice, he is welcoming, the kids love the section with him, we love a coffee, we love the people, it's a welcoming home. So, when you have people from the top welcoming you... it was kind of like ‘oh this is really open and they're nice'.
This included being invited for meals to members' houses, being cared for when tragedy struck at home, and support at life transition points.
I found great support when my son was about 1 year old and I returned to work … [it was a] very difficult situation and there are a couple of people, elders in the church, that at any time I can send them an email, contact them by text … WhatsApp … and I found comfort in that. I am very close to my family back in India, but sometimes the distance makes it difficult, so you need someone here in that way, and in that way the church has been very supportive …
How people are engaged depends on the local church focus e.g., one focused on welcoming students (English conversation club, prioritising music). Another was seen as a ‘seven-day church' with a weekly community meal for homeless people, a foodbank, use of buildings by the community, fun day, Boys' Brigade, choir etc. Yet another hosts a Korean church and has an informal evening service that attracts a diverse section of the community. People appreciated opportunities to take part in charitable events, like sponsored walks, and in programmes like Alpha Courses and Path to Renewal.
The welcome sometimes remained at a superficial level, with people finding it difficult to find opportunities to develop and deepen relationships, and some reporting feeling isolated. This included not being informed about and actively invited to take part in congregational life (exacerbated by it being counter-cultural to offer) and even being prevented from taking part e.g., using the lack of a PVG check to discourage visiting the elderly, taking two Black teenagers who were regular readers off the rota for reading in church and foot-dragging over their reinstatement. Another referred to feeling he was prevented from going to church because of his ethnicity.
The Church of Scotland circulated a self-assessment tool published by the NHS as a guide to allow people to assess their COVID risk in returning to church after lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. The scoring system highlighted non-Caucasian ethnicities as ‘higher risk' without explaining that it was based on an article by the British Medical Association written in relation to Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) healthcare workers who were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to wider structural reasons.
There were examples of churches embracing other cultures, e.g., replacing the traditional white covering for the communion table with a vibrant African print cloth, introducing handclapping and the occasional inclusion of an African drum in worship. However, many were keen to find ways of bringing more of their culture, gifts and ideas into the church, to put energy into encouraging more of their friends/fellows to come, and particularly to encourage the involvement of young people and young families.
We interviewed a range of Ministers about their experience of the church. As with congregation members, they identified strongly with the Church of Scotland because their home churches are part of the global presbyterian family of churches in Africa and Asia.
Some talked of reverse mission, of returning to the ‘mother church', as some described it, and giving back in a time of need.
Some talked of being warmly welcomed, of the congregation furnishing their house, of their son being helped to gain work experience. They displayed generosity in understanding that many local people don't know how to relate to Black People, are unprepared, and were tolerant in the face of regular everyday micro-aggressions e.g. ‘Don't you find it cold?", ‘When are you going back?'.
Their view of the wider institution was mixed. Some talked of knowing it would ‘have their back' if they needed it, of being provided with all they need.
Many referred to the challenges of being involved in the ‘familiarisation process' as a gateway to becoming a Minister in the Church of Scotland. They referred to the prolonged uncertainty, of being unrecognised and voiceless, and of it essentially being a one-way process.
Because we come here to do this as a placement. There's a lot of uncertainty; you have two inductions that you have to go through. It's very difficult for one to migrate into a country and then get employed under certain circumstances, when you are not sure whether [the position] has already been taken, or they are going to reject you...if they would just find ways of removing the uncertainty...and put their familiarisation as a way of learning and not something that you can fail.
Minister involved in Familiarisation
I attended presbytery for a whole year, but there is no record of me … I don't exist ... they say, ‘all are welcome', but then say please wait here – in practice you don't exist.
Church of Scotland Minister
If you were dating someone, surely you would be interested in finding out about them?
Church of Scotland Minister
Participants reported that the familiarisation process exacerbated their concerns over their immigration status. They feared being rejected and sent back to their home country at the end of the familiarisation period because they did not have the security of being part of the system.
They felt the Church of Scotland projected the desired characteristics of a minister as being white Scottish, that they were different, 'other', that a 'line existed that they could not cross'.
I think they always look for a Church of Scotland product. And what I mean by that: a person who will act, think, do the way Church of Scotland think. They don't entertain outsiders because they don't want to lose their identity. They don't want to lose their flexibility. They don't want...you know, well no organisation wants to lose the essence.
Church of Scotland Minister
This was further exemplified in some parish attitudes to funerals. Three ministers reported being asked not to officiate at funerals, to give way to a Scottish minister. A 'white other' minister was asked to first provide a photo of himself by a family member before being asked to take a funeral.
They wanted a Scottish minister... Those were parish funerals, but they wanted a Scottish minister because that lady or gentleman was very traditionally Scottish...which didn't hurt me, because I could understand their sentiments, their feelings, but in the back of my mind, I thought that is not good, because I am there as their parish minister... I felt that maybe this is because of my racial background.
Church of Scotland Minister
...families sometimes, you know, kind of hesitate to ask you to conduct their funerals...or directors sometimes say, well I will have to ask the family if it's ok that you can take [the funeral] ... Why do you have to ask them if it's ok? I am qualified to do this.
Church of Scotland Minister
We are mindful that the sample size is relatively small and the results cannot be generalised across the church. We are also mindful of the lack of Black Scottish participants in the research, and that this is an important group to engage with going forward. That said, there a number of important inferences that should be considered and built upon.
While there is good evidence of people feeling welcomed into the Church much remains to be done to recognise and harness difference as a rich, life-giving resource. It is easier to emphasise sameness, all being one in the body of Christ, but this perpetuates the projection of the Church as white Scottish, which assigns 'others' a secondary place and protects white fragility - discomfort and defensiveness on the part of white people when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.
Reverse mission offers the opportunity to (re)conceptualise the Church of Scotland as a 'transnational organisation', part of an extended international family, the church that has given and can now benefit by receiving. This may require a paradigm shift in identity – paradoxically it is often much harder to receive than to give.
Familiarisation appears to be a misnomer. It is certainly experienced as an assessment process, and characterised as assimilation rather than a two-way process, with reportedly little interest in discovering and valuing what applicants can bring.
We recognise that this work forms a small part of a range of initiatives aimed at promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in the Church of Scotland, and we strongly affirm that commitment. The overall challenge can be expressed as a desire to welcome people from ethnic minorities into the church and enable them to offer all that they bring to enrich the life of the church.
Some of the dimensions and dynamics include a need to:
- Move from welcome to belonging and ownership – from passive recipients to active participants, from assimilation (be like us) to integration (we can be more together)
- Embed equality of recognition – ensuring Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities are seen (are visible) and heard (have voice) throughout the church
- Address whiteness/white fragility – move beyond presenting as a white church, and the expected 'Church of Scotland product'
- Value and promote diversity and difference as a resource, seeing otherness (colour, ethnicity, language, culture) in this light.
We recommend a range of 'broad brush stroke' actions in the knowledge that the Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)and Racial Justice Groups are well placed to work with others to refine them.
The Church should:
- Continue to welcome Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities into congregations, seeing them as an enriching resource
- Encourage and deepen their participation and engagement ('nothing about us without us') – moving from 'what can we do for you' to 'what can we do together' to further the purpose of the Church, recognising that this will be different in different places
- Create opportunities to harness their gifts and energy in formal and informal leadership positions – in worship, social and community action and service, in pastoral work and service on church governance committees/boards
- Harness and build on their concern about the lack of young people and a lack of evangelisation
- Promote opportunities to celebrate and include their culture in the life of the church e.g., African/ethnic days – incorporating worship, music, dress, food; inter-church events that enable them to bring Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities scattered across the city/presbytery together for fellowship.
The Church should:
- Consider its identity as a transnational organisation – the Church embracing the concept of reverse mission bringing revitalising energy and enrichment to the National Church in an increasingly multicultural Scotland
- Review the familiarisation process – recognising the experience of unequal power
- EDI – strengthen policy and approach; underpinned by human rights principles and practice (PANEL) e.g., treat it like safeguarding; address and prevent PVG and COVID policy incidents; Funerals – reinforce policy and practice; consider the merits of an 'Ethnic Minority Forum' and/or integrated topic-based EDI group to build confidence
- Provide peer support and external support to candidates e.g., mentoring from a 'familiarisation chaplain' (with lived experience of the process), use interim moderators to prepare congregations for difference
- Ensure equality of opportunity – address delays in eligibility for charges, gives message of being 2nd class
- Recognition and representation
- Continue to survey and quantify the number of Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities involved with church and the extent of their engagement. Including appropriate questions in congregation's annual returns will be useful in this regard
- Ensure Black People/People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities are on major church committees (beyond tokenism)
- Support, develop and facilitate participatory initiatives at presbytery and congregational level, learning from best practice.