The pews are awash with the many races that make up the universal Catholic Church, a panorama of multi-cultural diversity. On the altar, there is a uniformity of whiteness, with priests drawn in the main from the continent of Europe. The distinction is striking and instructive.
The Church ofcourse is not the only institution that fails to reflect the diversity of people on the ground amongst its representatives. Take Parliament, where there are just 41 Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) MPs, some 76 short of the number required to reflect the diversity of the population. Business is even worse, with less than 2% of the directors of FTSE 150 companies being drawn from a BAME background.
Public institutions, though, including the Church, have recognised the need for more diversity amongst their leaders. This was acknowledged with the publication of Lord William Macpherson’s report (1999), which defined institutional racism as being “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.” At the time, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales welcomed the definition, urging “Catholic organisations and institutions to look again at how they could better serve minority ethnic communities in our society.” However, 18 years on, progress appears to have been very slow, certainly in terms of the clergy.
A survey of the diocese of England and Wales by the Catholic Communications Network found many unaware of the number of BAME priests. And, where the figures were available, BAME representation tended to reflect migrant priests coming from abroad, rather than those who have come from the communities in the UK.
So, Arundel and Brighton diocese has four Polish parish priests plus another three as part of the Polish Chaplaincy and three Italian priests (two as part of the Italian Chaplaincy). There were also a Dutch, a Russian, an Indian and a Nigerian priest serving.
Of the 96 priests in Leeds diocese, six are from a BAME background – two from India, three from Africa and one Yorkshire born of mixed race.
Southwark diocese confirmed 23% of its priests were black, with another 10% from the Indian subcontinent.
The Middlesbrough diocese has “no BME priests actually incardinated into the diocese but does have four priests from abroad - three from Nigeria and one from India.”
One of the most surprising responses came from Brentwood, which includes East London - one of the most diverse areas in the country. A spokesperson for Brentwood diocese said: “I’m afraid I don’t have a record of whether a priest is black or from an ethnic minority – the main concern is whether he can offer Mass, hear confessions, etc., etc. and save souls. We could do a survey, but it would take time.”
So why the lack of progress in terms of BAME representation amongst the clergy?
Father Howard James, the first black Britain of Caribbean descent to be ordained a priest back in 1991, does not believe a lot has changed in the intervening years.
Father James doesn't think BAME men are drawn to the priesthood because they do not see members of their community as priests. “Sometimes as priests we are aloof from our people and we don’t encourage. Our Catholic community is not always welcoming and many of our black men see more welcoming family understanding in other faiths that they don’t see in the Catholic or even Christian faith,” said Father James, who recalled in his own case that it was involvement in Catholic youth movement in Jamaica and a number of youth groups in the UK, that his faith grew and encouraged toward the priesthood. “So that when the notion of priesthood came into my head and heart I was not scared or afraid to put myself forward,” said Father James, who believes that the schools are the place to start. “The Catholic sixth forms would be a place to look. I would also suggest fourth and fifth forms as places to look. We should encourage, especially in Catholic schools.”
Professor of religion and public policy at Birmingham University Francis Davis believes the schools are key but also emphasised that a strategy needed to be put in place to address the problems. “We know from every other institution that if there is not a strategy put in place to deal with the obstacles that those (BAME) communities face, then individuals don’t come through from those communities,” said Davis, who contrasts the lack of priority placed on the ethnic background of clergy with the approach of the Catholic Education Service, which chronicles in much detail the ethnic background of pupils.
The CES boasted in its 2016 census that: “Catholic schools in both primary and secondary phases are considerably more ethnically diverse than national school figures.”
Davis believes the fact that there are a high level of BAME pupils in Catholic schools but they do not then go onto become priests indicates a failing of formation and nurture on the part of the Church. “The fact that they are not going on to seminaries, indicates that they do not feel included,” said Davis
Oldham based priest Phil Summer believes that BAME people still feel alienated, not seeing the Church as an institution of their community. “We need to recognise identity much more in church, so when people walk in they don’t feel it is some sort of European establishment,” said Father Summer, who also believes this feeling resonates in the seminaries “If a young African Caribbean man was to put himself forward to become a priest, the institutional life of our seminaries would be such a culture shock as to make him feel as if he didn’t belong.”
This view though is refuted by Father John Oakley, rector of St Mary’s college, Oscott, who reports rising numbers of BAME applicants. Of 63 students at St Marys, 16 come from a BAME background (six Africans, six Filipinos and four Indians). “There are signs that students are coming from the home communities,” said Father Oakley.
The late chair of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice Haynes Baptiste complained about the lack of a black bishop and the negative signal that this sent out to BAME people. He certainly had a point. Father Summer, though, is ambivalent about a BAME bishop, believing it could be a good or bad thing. He recalls some BAME bishops appointed in the Anglican Church having a tendency to denigrate their own background. On the other hand, he says probably the most prominent black Archbishop John Sentamu of York has done great work. “He has remained true to himself, a man of gravitas, who brings something different to the Anglican community,” said Father Summer.
A BAME bishop would certainly give the communities someone to relate to, in a way that senior appointments in any public services have a similar effect.
The question as to why the diversity of the pew and school is not reflected in the clergy is an agenda that the CARJ has been attempting to address since it was established back in 1983.
“The persistent shortage of BAME priests in the Catholic Church in England and Wales over recent decades, and the reiterated call for this problem to be addressed, might prompt those in positions of responsibility, at all levels of the Church (eg parents, teachers, volunteers, priests, bishops, etc) – to look again at this important question,” said Richard Zipfel, a CARJ trustee. “Raising such a question, however, should not become a judgmental exercise or an effort to cast blame. Rather, it should remain rooted in a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of our Catholic community and the wider community that we seek to serve.”
For the present there is still much to be done if the ethnic gap between altar and pew is to be bridged. The suggestion that the Church is institutionally racist is unproven, though most would agree that it has not progressed as quickly as it might since the Macpherson report was published at the turn of the century. What though does still need to happen, if the altar is ever to really ethnically reflect the membership of the pews, is for some definite structures and practices to be put in place that will lead to BAME priests coming forward. Simply waiting for something to happen, ensures only that the status quo is maintained and the white concentration of the present clergy perpetuated.
*published - Tablet - 20/5/2017