General Synod to mull new anti-racism measures

Image: Proxima Centauri
Published June 1, 2023

Recommendations from task force on the agenda this summer

The Anglican Church of Canada may have a new staff position for addressing racism and an advisory council to supervise its anti-racism work after a vote by General Synod this summer.

A report by a national church anti-racism committee, presented at March’s Council of General Synod (CoGS) meeting, suggests the new position and council as its top priorities. General Synod will be discussing and voting on these and other recommendations by the dismantling racism task force after CoGS voted to commend three motions from its report to General Synod.

The task force’s other proposals include a motion to develop anti-racism curriculum materials for Anglican-affiliated seminaries. Another calls all General Synod ministries to “engage with the full historical realities” of the Anglican church’s involvement with residential schools—per the 59th call to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and its involvement with slavery, encouraging all dioceses to do the same.

The report and its motions are the culmination of work begun after Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, named anti-racism as a key priority she wanted the church to focus on during her first speech as primate in 2019.

The task force’s work also included a survey of Anglican Church of Canada dioceses intended to discover the “racial demographics” of church leadership, as well the extent of local anti-racism work. According to its report to CoGS, the task force’s survey found the proportion of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in clergy ranged from four per cent to 50 per cent across responding dioceses. Only half of the dioceses, the report stated, could give definitive numbers about BIPOC representation among lay leaders and general church membership. The report also claims the survey showed low awareness and implementation of the church’s Charter for Racial Justice, a document, adopted by the church in 2007 and revised by the task force in 2021, that lays out principles and goals for the church’s work on racial equality; just three churches, according to the document, reported a budget for implementing it. Three of the 12 dioceses reported that anti-racism training was a requirement for all clergy.

The task force’s report cautions, however, that the responses to its survey came from just 12 of the Anglican Church of Canada’s 30 dioceses, plus the Anglican Military Ordinariate. In addition, it states, “the content of the responses and the extent to which the questions were answered as intended varied considerably,” making statistical analysis of the data “problematic.”

Task force member and spokesperson Irene Moore Davis told the Journal that her experience of the conversations the group held with stakeholders from across the church revealed both concerns and hope.

Irene Moore Davis is a member of the Council of General Synod’s dismantling racism task force. Photo: Ben Froese

“Many Anglicans who don’t have a lot of interaction with people who don’t look like them may sometimes feel as though racism is something that happens somewhere else [and] doesn’t have any bearing on their own lives,” Moore Davis said. By contrast, she added, she heard concerns about worship life and barriers to advancement and participation in church leadership for those who stand out as visibly different from others in their communities. She described these taking forms such as parish bulletins, church art and music that do not embrace diversity; microaggressions—subtle, commonplace indignities in interpersonal interactions—and the processes the church uses for selection to leadership roles. Some fairly easy, common-sense changes, like looking for new musical traditions to include, could make a major difference in sending the message that people from all cultures are welcome in church, Moore Davis said.

“A lot of people of racialized backgrounds have suffered in silence through the years,” she said. “One of the things that we have to do—other than looking at institutional racism, and looking at how the church is complicit in perpetuating structures that make things unjust—is encouraging people to look at how they’re addressing racism in their own lives … But I think ultimately folks are really hopeful that we can find a way through this.”

The task force’s mandate will draw to a close with this summer’s General Synod, Moore Davis said, but it will forward the results of these consultations to the next group General Synod appoints to take up the work. The long-term goal is the creation of training materials for dioceses to use in their own antiracism work.

According to Moore Davis, the task force has not chosen any single theoretical or philosophical foundation for the work it’s sending forward to General Synod. But CoGS member Michael Siebert, of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, is concerned about ideology finding its way into the work of the task force through the language it uses.

In an interview with the Journal, Siebert said that some of the language that church leaders and the dismantling racism task force have used in their antiracism work so far has mirrored that used by authors in the field of critical race theory (CRT). Terms like whiteness, equity and even the commonly used phrase “dismantling racism” or “dismantling structures of power” come with loaded definitions, he says, from their use—and in some cases origins—in the works of influential CRT authors like Ibram X. Kendi (How to be an Anti-Racist) and Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility), both of whose work Nicholls recommended to CoGS at its meeting in March 2020.

The task force’s report notes that it received some concerns about its terminology from respondents to the diocesan survey. The report says there was “some diversity of what terms such as ‘BIPOC,’ ‘white,’ ‘inclusion/equity/belonging’ ought to mean” in the responses and states that it intentionally left these terms “open ended,” believing it was important to have a starting point from which to build.

But Siebert says that until it chooses an explicit philosophical framework to guide its work addressing racism, the church’s use of language that originated in CRT may be taken as an implicit endorsement of a more extreme position than it intends, such as neo-Marxism.

In her interview with the Journal, Moore Davis emphasized the importance of seeing work against racism as a part of the gospel mandate to recognize each person’s reflection of the image of God.

“Everything we do has to be Christ-centred,” she says. “We want everyone to be able to engage with these questions and these issues and talk to one another and do it prayerfully and in a context that reflects our beliefs.”

At the March meeting, CoGS also discussed how the church can encourage the nomination of BIPOC people to the various councils, committees and leadership structures of the church. That included reviewing drafts of new nomination forms for CoGS and standing committees which contain language strongly encouraging the nomination of “persons who will contribute to a more diverse and representative membership in General Synod committees.”

Church leaders have been discussing the need for more diversity for years, Nicholls told CoGS, citing a resolution from General Synod 2001, which called on dioceses to encourage members of under-represented groups to participate in General Synod committees.

“Here we are 21 years later and we’re not yet seeing it expressed as fully as, certainly, I would believe we should be able to,” she said to a predominantly white CoGS. “And so the question is, will our leadership represent our congregations?”

Irene Moore Davis is a member of and spokesperson for the dismantling racism task force. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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