Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land

Header Photo: Shreyas Kakad

This is an incomplete segment of an ongoing piece on the Black Anglicans of Rupert’s Land, Diocese of Rupertsland chapter and its members. October’s issue will continue this article.

Interview conducted by:  Jude Claude and Misha Pensato

 

The Anglican church became a global church in large part through colonial enterprise. Throughout its history, the institution of the Anglican Church has been complicit in manifest anti-black violence and profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Anglican Church has been transformed and shaped by its encounters with diverse Black communities around the world. The present day Anglican Church has a prominent Black demographic, and is richly shaped by its global community. Though Black communities have been integral to the life of the Anglican church in Canada, long histories of exclusionary and persecutory actions and attitudes continue to marginalise and do harm to Black Anglicans.

Despite this, Black Anglicans across Canada are working to nurture Black life in Canadian churches, and confront anti-black racism and discrimination. Within our own diocese, there is a long history of Black Anglicans doing this life giving work. In the present day, The Black Anglicans, Diocese of Rupert’s Land chapter embodies this ongoing work.

 

Formation History: Black Anglicans of Canada, Diocese of Rupert’s Land Chapter

In May of 2020, Dr. June James was asked by Bishop Geoffrey Woodcroft to co-chair a committee which would address anti-black racism in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. This happened following a series of police murders of Black individuals, most prominently of George Floyd, and the subsequent swell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. James has long been involved in diocesan life and has continually worked for anti-racism both within and outside the church. In addition to James and Woodcroft, the “Committee for Dismantling Anti-Black Racism” has also included Cynthia Manswell, Patsy Grant, Rev. Wilson Akinwale, Rev. Diane Guilford, Stirling Walkes, Rev. Deacon Colleen Matthews, Rev. Val From, Rev. Edmund Laldin, and Tanis Webster. Rev. R. Susan Smandych joined later, having previously been part of a similar group in Toronto. The group welcomed a diversity of members, with the understanding that dismantling anti-black racism in the diocese required allyship from non-Black people, as well as the involvement of clergy.

Meetings of the group began online with James, Akinwale, Grant, and Matthews. “Bishop Geoff recommended we do noonday prayers,” James says, “and then we would talk about anti-black racism, using a related topic for discussion.”  Shortly afterwards, due to diocesan responsibilities, Bishop Geoff had to resign as co-chair. Now the sole chair, James invited more individuals to become members of the committee, and clergy were invited to lead prayers. The conversation portion of meetings was “cathartic for those of colour,” James says, who were “relating openly, sometimes for the first time, instances of blatant discrimination in the churches they attended.” The group discussed the historical mistreatment of Black persons in Canada, including the histories of Anglican Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia in the 18th century. During this time, James was invited to several parishes to open church services with a message about the committee. James also shared information and numerous resources with the group about anti-black racism in professions such as medicine and the experience of Black Anglicans in England, using readings such as the work of Glynne Gordon-Carter, as tools for discussion.

James and other committee members were in frequent contact with a larger established group based out of Ontario called “Black Anglicans of Canada.” Amidst the May 2020 protests responding to the murder of George Floyd, members of the Committee for Dismantling Anti-Black Racism attended a series of online events, hosted by Black Anglicans which featured speakers including Irene Moore Davis (interim chair of Black Anglicans), Br. Reginald Crenshaw, Rev. Jacqueline Daley, Bishop Peter Fentry, Lance Wilson (ODT), and Rev. Steve Greene.

Indigenous leaders participated in support of initiatives focused on dismantling anti-black racism, alongside both broader anti-racist initiatives and efforts to challenge anti-Indigenous racism specifically. Rev. Vincent Solomon, ministry developer for Urban Indigenous Ministries in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, organized a national conference titled “Identity, Culture, and Scripture.” Speakers included Adrian Jacobs, Jeremy M. Bergen, Rt. Rev Chris Harper, Rev. Jamie Howison, Dr. June James, Gung Yan (Joanne) Lam, and James Thunder. These speakers were invited to reflect on their identities in the church under the headings “White and Christian,” “Black and Christian,” and “Native and Christian.”

In May 2021 the Committee for Dismantling Anti-Black Racism presented a commissioned report, drafted by James, and adopted and passed by the committee, titled “Walking Together for Racial Justice and Equality: Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land.” James stepped down as chair of the committee soon after the presentation of the report due to other commitments, though she continued to be involved with the group. Akinwale then became the new chair.

James says that a highlight for her was in August 2021 when the Federal government passed a bill declaring Emancipation Day on August 1 as a public holiday. The Diocese of Rupert’s Land sent out a statement to churches celebrating the official creation of the holiday. Additionally, in 2022 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an address related to Black History month. In this address, James was named for her professional work and community involvement, both secular and ecclesiastical, related to dismantling anti-black racism.

Smandych joined the committee in December 2021, and offered input from her previous collaboration with the Black Anglicans network.

The Committee for the Dismantling of Anti-Black Racism worked to draft motions related to furthering anti-racism efforts in the diocese. National networks of Black Anglicans had discussed the possibility of establishing chapters of the Black Anglicans of Canada group across provinces and dioceses. The committee in Rupert’s Land  contacted those involved in the Toronto group to begin the process of establishing themselves as a chapter of the Black Anglicans network.

In October 2022, the committee’s motions were passed at the 118th Synod. In March 2023, the group hosted a momentous event titled “Ours to Tell: Celebrating Black History.” This marked the official inauguration of the Black Anglicans of Canada chapter for the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, and hosted several esteemed guests.

 

Goals

The Black Anglicans network has the stated goals of supporting Black belongingness, empowerment, participation, and representation. The Diocese of Rupert’s Land chapter works to forward these goals in its local context.

Akinwale states that one of his own goals is to ensure that the legacy of Black Anglicans does not die. “Some people have to carry it on,” he says. He hopes that the national networks of Black Anglicans that have strengthened since 2020 can continue to connect with Black laypersons and clergy across the nation and work towards common goals. “There has to be partnership amongst all of us. We need to know what is going on across regions,” Akinwale says.

 

Recommendations and Resolutions

In May 2021, the Committee for the Dismantling of Anti-Black Racism presented six recommendations to the diocese for consideration. Among these recommendations were acknowledgment of anti-black racism in our diocese, and increased anti-racist training and education for clergy and laity. The group envisioned training that would go beyond raising awareness about racism and create self-sustaining anti-racist structures. According to the text of the report, this could happen through “intentionally support(ing) the discernment of Black Anglicans as to where their ministries lie within the Church,” and through “foster(ing) a spirit of openness and transparency to speak up if racist behaviour or attitudes are observed.” Another recommendation was to create mechanisms to address incidents of racism within the diocese with the input of the committee.

The motions presented at the 118th Synod in 2022 aimed at creating an official framework for carrying out future anti-racism work were particularly significant to the group. These motions, which were ultimately passed as resolutions were:

 

C2: that Diocesan Council undertake a critical examination of the diversity of representation, participation, and leadership of Diocesan-level governance and decision-making bodies

C3: that this examination considers demographic diversity within the constituency of the Diocese of Rupert’s Land and compares the diversity of representation, participation, and leadership of Diocesan-level governance and decision-making bodies, with demographic diversity, to assess whether the existing diversity in the Diocesan structures reflects diversity within society at large

C4: that the result of this examination of diversity be shared during Faith Horizons in the Fall of 2023

C5: that the diocesan council, with input from and in collaboration with the Diocese’s Dismantling Anti-black Racism Committee, dedicate time and effort to develop a new policy and associated procedure regarding representation of marginalised persons, (other than Indigenous persons – recognizing that Indigenous persons in this Diocese have their own structures and governance, including the B-15 Committee), on Diocesan-level governance and decision-making bodies, and that the status of this policy/procedure be reported on at Synod 2024.

 

Akinwale says that, by passing these  resolutions, the Black Anglicans, Diocese of Rupert’s Land chapter has “set the pace” for other chapters. The group hopes to maintain this energy by supporting the resolutions, and ensuring follow-through on their enactment.

 

Experiences of Anti-Blackness in the Anglican Church

The urgency of the group’s work arises from an acute awareness of the presence of anti-blackness in the church both historically, and in the present, on national, as well as local, levels.

James notes that the “history of slavery, started by the Europeans, including the British, is instilled in the Anglican church.” This history shaped the Canadian context in significant ways, as Canada was a part of the transatlantic slave trade and has a long history of anti-black racism both in official policy and social practice. James explains that during the American Revolutionary War, a significant number of enslaved Black persons travelled North to fight on behalf of the British against the Americans. When the war was over, those Black persons who fought for Canada were not treated with the respect their white counterparts received. Instead, James says, “white soldiers in Canada got the best land and Black people got scrubs.” While many of the Black Loyalists, as well as the later Black refugees of the 1812 war were Anglicans, they found themselves subordinated in Canadian Anglican churches. “Initially they had to sit in the back of the churches,” James says, “and then later they were sent to the rafters.” As a result of this discrimination, and at times due to explicit pressure from white clergy, many Black persons left the Anglican church to join other denominations.

Anti-blackness in the Anglican Church of Canada is not a thing of the past but continues to exist in the present day. Laldin points out that there is meagre representation of Black persons or Persons of Colour amongst national staff, and there is a similar lack of representation amongst the Anglican Foundation’s board of directors. Concerns expressed by Black Anglicans about the lack of Black representation have at times been met with defensiveness, and deflection by members of ACC staff.

A common way institutional representatives will deflect from questions about racial equality in hiring is to say that positions are open to all, and that marginalised groups are invited to apply, but often don’t come forward. Laldin remarks that individuals regularly do not feel comfortable coming forward for good reason. He notes that there is a sense of apathy and resignation from many BIPOC persons he has spoken to, resulting from negative experiences with the institutional church. Past encounters with racist hiring practices, and being rejected despite clear qualifications have made many reluctant to apply to positions. He also asks why the Anglican Church of Canada does not have mandates for representation in place, noting that it is within the Primate’s control to create and enforce these mandates.

James notes other instances of this pattern, such as during the Covid pandemic lockdown when the Christmas services of various churches across Canada were featured by the national church. There was a marked absence of Black church representation, and when James reached out to national church staff to question this, she was met with the deflecting response: “We might have asked churches who didn’t respond.”

Also on the national level, Manswell notes an instance of discrimination in an Anglican Journal article, where white persons related to the text were spoken of at length while the single Black person referred to was given only three lines of description.

Anti-blackness is also present in the history of our local diocese.

Akinwale notes stories of Black candidates for ordination who have been rejected without explanation. He shares a personally devastating experience in which he was refused entry to a service he was supposed to be participating in at a neighbour parish. Despite those involved in the service, including a former clergy member, being aware that he would be at the service and participating, he was intentionally kept locked outside in the rain, and his knocking was ignored.

He also remarks that the Committee for the Dismantling of Anti-black Racism’s recent proposals to Synod were met with resistance from some individuals.

There are many stories too of anti-black racism within the context of local parishes. Laldin recounts how during his time as priest at All Saints, he noticed the hesitancy of many non-Black members to get to know Black congregants. There were also automatic assumptions made about Black parishioners. He recalls how he had to make a point of informing non-Black congregants of the careers, contributions, and achievements of Black members. He remarks that there is often not a welcoming space for marginalised persons to come forward and share in.

James expands on this, saying that she sees Black community members who have been disempowered so often they feel resigned to everyday racism: “So many times people have spoken out and nothing happens.”

James recounts how members of a local Anglican parish were surprised when a Black parishioner, who had been a resident of Canada for just over a year, showed up to church with a nice family-sized vehicle: “They assumed that when you come to church as a Black person–when you come from Africa–you must be from the dumps. They were wondering ‘How is this lady able to buy a car?”’ James challenged these assumptions, addressing one parishioner who had come from Iceland, noting that she too was an immigrant who had been able to buy a car for her children. She pointed out the discrepancy between people’s reactions to the Icelandic immigrant and the Black immigrant who were both part of the same church community.

Manswell also shares instances of racism experienced within local church communities. When she came as a student to All Saints, she says there were no other Black people in the congregation. She recalls how she sat at the back of the church during services and was not greeted by church members, with the exception of Rev. Ronald Shepherd. She recognized that there were many Caribbean immigrants in the city who were Anglican, but they were not represented in the pews of Canadian Anglican churches.

Manswell notes that at times she felt as though she was expected to come to church but keep quiet. She also spoke about white congregants who confused Black members for each other.

At one point Manswell told her church community that in Trinidad, Anglican churches make a point of explicitly welcoming newcomers and asking them questions about their lives. She suggested this might be a way to make the parish more welcoming to new people, especially Black immigrants. Manswell’s suggestion was abruptly and rudely shot down by another parishioner, and went disregarded.

When Laldin became priest at All Saints he instituted Manswell’s suggestion, having also gone to Trinidad and experienced this welcome firsthand. As a result of this, he recalls a time a Black newcomer shared information about his life’s work with the congregation about having made monumental achievements in biology by isolating an enzyme for treating diabetes in mice. Laldin notes that without this formal welcome, the rest of the congregation likely would not have reached out and gotten to know the visitor, and the man may not have felt comfortable coming forward to share about himself.

Beyond explicit instances of anti-black racism, members of the Black Anglicans group note a lack of acknowledgment of the integral role Black communities have played in the Anglican Church of Canada, and the rich histories and gifts these communities have to offer the church here. James notes how integral Caribbean Anglicans are to the local Anglican community. “In nearly every church in this diocese there are Black people from the Caribbean.” And, she adds, Caribbean people “saved the Anglican church in Toronto.”

 

Instances of support and solidarity

Maxwell also makes a point of acknowledging that there are many white Anglicans in the diocese who are supportive of Black communities. She specifically notes that at her home church of All Saints, “there were and still are a lot of very warm, welcoming, and supportive people.”

Akinwale too speaks to instances of solidarity, including expressed support for the work of the Committee for the Dismantling of Anti-black Racism, and shared commitment to their goals.

 

to be continued in October’s issue

Keep on reading...

News

Parish Profile: Stonewall Church of the Ascension

Interview with Walter, Jean, Joyce, and The Rev. James Gomez   RLN: Could you tell me about the name of your parish? Jean: We used ...
News

Joint Committee Struck Between Anglicans and Lutherans

Image by Clark Van Der Beken   By: Theo Robinson Over the last few years, there has been an increase in attacks on the 2SLGBTQIA+ ...
News

Change Journeys at Holy Trinity

  While working in healthcare, I attended at one-day workshop on change for chaplains. During the workshop, we discussed the book Guiding Change Journeys by ...
Skip to content