A slightly puzzling complaint here. A black Church of England vicar mutters about how people don’t see him as a Church of England vicar because he is black. And, well, yes, but the clue might be in the name of the church he’s a vicar of – England?
As a black priest in the Church of England, I felt like I was invisible’
In Ghost Ship, Father Azariah France-Williams reveals the barriers and bias faced by ethnic minority clergy in the Anglican church
John Sentamu does rather show the lack of barriers placed in the way of the melanin enhanced in the Church of England. But that’s not quite the point being made. Rather, the parishioners seem to think that as a black he’s not going to be a vicar:
A few years ago, Father Azariah France-Williams answered a knock at the door. A woman stood before him, asking to borrow space in the church car park for a removal van. They chatted, France-Williams gave permission, and she thanked him.
The next day there was a note on the doormat addressed to the vicar. “It said, ‘I came to see you yesterday and I’m sorry I didn’t meet you, but a lovely young man helped me.’ I was surprised because I’d been wearing my [dog] collar and standing at the vicarage door, but her imagination was infused with what a vicar looks like – and he didn’t look like me. I’d had a lovely exchange with her, but actually she didn’t see me at all. I felt like a ghost.”
Well, yes, reprehensible and all that except not so much. For how many black vicars are there? More to the point, how many were there? For our expectations are rather informed by our experience. Given that black immigration is a rather new thing (the Afro Caribbeans tend to more Pentecostalist churches rather than CoE, so it is black African that matters here) it would be a new experience to see a black vicar.
There is also that reverse ferret there, the manner in which churches have always tried to match the message with those experiences of the congregation. My favourite example being this from Cuzco:
The original menu of bread and wine is a classic. However, this image of the Last Supper presents Jesus and his disciples dining on a uniquely local rodent delicacy.
The Last Supper as painted by Marcos Zapata in 1753 is an obvious stand-out among the massive collection of art and archeological relics in the Cathedral Basilica in Cusco’s main colonial square. The large painting depicts Jesus and the twelve apostles gathered around a table preparing to dine on a guinea pig.
The cooked guinea pig cannot be missed, lying paws up on a plate in the center of the table. Guinea pigs are native to Peru and can still be found today on many restaurant menus in Cusco, the former capital of the Incan empire.
The artist Marcos Zapata was a Peruvian Quechua painter and member of the Cusco School, a tradition of teaching European art techniques in the Americas which the Spanish used as a method to convert the native Incas to Catholicism. Several painters at this time incorporated local indigenous elements in religious works, but it is surprising that this piece of art was tolerated by the Catholic Church, especially during the time of the Inquisition.
In much the same manner those interminable statues of Lenin across the time zones of the Soviet Empire always have him tending towards the facial physiognomy of the local helots of socialism. For the same reason too, to link the belief system with known local things.
Given the manner in which belief systems do try so hard to link with local experience perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on those who expect a belief system to reflect that local experience? Like, say, when black Anglicans are rare to also be more than a little blind to the existence of black Anglican vicars? Perhaps not even to insist on ignoring such assumptions but possibly to look kindly upon such mistakes?