June 20, 2011
Members of the Church of England at the General Synod. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian
The Church of England needs to embrace affirmative action to increase the number of priests from ethnic minorities and the number of non-white parishioners, both of which lag changes in the wider population, a report has said.
The report, which the church has produced ahead of the meeting of the General Synod – its legislative body – next month in York, says that the "pace of change is very slow indeed" in widening participation among non-whites.
"The ME [minority ethnic] proportion in our congregations is still barely half the ME population as a whole, and the proportion of ME recommended candidates (for ordination) still lags behind the ME proportion of the congregations," the report says.
Its key recommendation to address the racial imbalance is to introduce "positive intentionality" – recognising there are "missing faces and missing voices and actively seeking ways to enable them to be seen and heard".
But the report concedes there are "drawbacks" to the proposal.
"Some will perceive them to be a form of positive discrimination or even favouritism. Those not from a ME background may feel passed over and other groups that they are not being given the same encouragement. These drawbacks are appreciated but we have seen that 'Positive Intentionality' does work and has contributed to genuine progress in other areas."
Practical steps could see bishops mentoring priests from ethnic minorities, asking for them to be included on their team or sending them on courses to improve their confidence.
In a separate report, the church also warned against complacency about the teaching of Christianity in its schools.
The church's education arm, which promotes and equips thousands of schools in England and Wales, observed that while general standards in RE "are not healthy" and "in particular the teaching and learning about Christianity are not well done" the Church of England should not be "overly complacent about the quality of teaching about Christianity" in its own schools.
In the report it said: "Syllabuses generally do not give enough help to teachers now entering the profession who lack even a default understanding of Christianity. While DBEs (diocesan boards of education) still provide in-service support for teachers the mountain is very large and progress very slow."
That is likely to provoke considerable debate at the synod. The report is billed as a "call to action to maintain the proud history of the Church of England's contribution to education in this country" amid "significant challenges" to its continued involvement in the system.
Church officials have acknowledged that the July synod is likely to be considerably quieter – and less contentious – than previous years.
The synod general secretary, William Fittall, told a press conference: "2012 will feel different."
Fittall also referred to a freshly issued legal notice on gay clergy becoming bishops, saying it was designed to help those involved in the selection process "understand the general principle of the [equality] legislation".
"It neither paves the way nor uses the Equality Act as a smokescreen for change. It does what it says on the tin."
In spite of this assurance, a prominent conservative evangelical group has criticised the Church of England for even daring to broach the subject.
The Rev Rod Thomas, from Reform, claimed the legal notice went "far beyond anything the church has decided to permit".
"To be in a civil partnership is to be seen as having forged a lifelong bond with someone of the same sex; to have created family ties; and to have engaged in a commitment similar to marriage. A bishop vows to protect the church's teaching both by what he says and by the way he lives. This is immediately compromised when he engages in a civil partnership. If the church no longer wants bishops to support the Bible's teaching on marriage and sexual relations it is not up to a legal office to hint at it. It must be decided by the House of Bishops and affirmed by the General Synod."