'Let us lose our lives to end the structural sin that is racism' – a sermon for Racial Justice Sunday 2021


First published 15th February 2021

This sermon was given by the Revd Canon Dr Martin Gainsborough, Chaplain to the Bishop of Bristol for Racial Justice Sunday on 14 February 2021 at Bristol Cathedral.

"May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So, they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.’ (Mark 9:9-10)

Mark’s account of the Transfiguration – Jesus appearing in his glory to the disciples on the mountain top, ‘they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.’ (Mark 9:10)

I wonder what this interesting phrase means. Do we – do you – have a sense of what ‘this rising from the dead’ could possibly mean? Today is Racial Justice Sunday. Not a new thing, it has been running for over 25 years, though I suspect we have often not marked it. But I want to talk about racism – institutional racism – in the Church, in the Church of England.

It’s not an easy subject, but racism is real and if you think this is not the case, please think again. I want to express my sorrow – deep sorrow – that this is our reality. It is a failing of the Church of which I am part. A failure to see our UKME (UK Minority Ethnic) sisters and brothers, UKME siblings, as God sees them, which is a terrible thing.

It is people’s lives we are talking about. Daily discriminations. Daily being spoken to or spoken about in a hurtful way. Being ‘othered’ because of the colour of a person’s skin. And as a white person, who holds a position of power in society, once in the University now in the Church, I am conscious of how my journey –in which I have very slowly become more aware of the whiteness of power and its implications, and I experience the world completely differently from my UKME siblings – I am conscious how shamefully slow my journey has been.

‘So, they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean’ (Mark 9: 10)

Again, the words from today’s gospel that I want to see if we can understand better. This week has been a particularly torrid week for the Church of England – in fact very distressing, very upsetting. You may have read about it in the media.

A young black priest, Jarel Robinson-Brown, made a comment on Twitter, alluding to some of the possible politics surrounding the national clap and adoration of the late Sir Captain Tom Moore, famous for raising money for the NHS. What followed has been referred to as a ‘social media lynching’ with much of the abuse directed at Jarel being racist and homophobic.

More than this, the diocese in which he is about to serve issued a statement in light of the events which has been criticised for not protecting Jarel and making the situation worse. Again pointing to the whiteness of power in the Church, and prompting an unprecedented intervention from the Archbishop’s Anti-Racism Taskforce calling this out.

As I say, a deeply upsetting and bruising week for all concerned and the ramifications are far reaching and serious, with the Archbishop’s Taskforce speaking of a ‘fracturing of trust both towards and within the church’, particularly from UKME clergy and ordinands. Some of whom have said they are unsure if they can continue to be part of the Church of England. This is very sad indeed.

So, I ask again, with the writer of Mark’s gospel: ‘What does this rising from the dead mean?’ It is possible that you may be listening to what I have shared and be thinking this does not apply to you, that this is just internal church politics, someone else’s problem, and it doesn’t apply to me. But I’d encourage you, please, not to think like this.

A Church which is institutionally racist is an affront to God, there is no other way of putting it. We know the effects of, the legacy of, racism in this city of Bristol. We are implicated in it – more than most – through the historic transatlantic traffic in enslaved African people, which to this day is evident in our buildings and our monuments, including in this Cathedral, and in the wealth of the city.

We know that UKME people, including in this city, have been affected disproportionately by the pandemic. How we explain this is complex but there is no doubt that some of it has to do with historic inequalities, poverty and exclusion, affecting UKME people.

We know that our former Bishop of Bristol, +Mike, my friend, has just been rebuked by the Church of England for racially stereotyping a former priest in the diocese. Again, an upsetting episode for all concerned.

So, these are real and live issues for us, including in this Cathedral.

‘And coming down from the mountain […] the disciples questioned what this rising from the dead could mean.’

I am pleased to say that following the toppling of the Colston statue and the Black Lives Matter protests last June there seems to be a new momentum in the city – from quarters previously reticent – to address historic injustices, historic racism. The nature of the conversation – for me, who has been around a few years now – does seem different from as little as four or five years ago.

This includes the diocese, where the Bishop has made a series of commitments to tackle – relentlessly – racism in the diocese and we are working hard on a plan to make this a reality. Our new Dean also is fully engaged with discussions and accompanying plans for action in the city, and that is good to see. But there is no room for complacency.

It requires all of us to look deep within ourselves – to listen to things which may be hard to hear and resist the temptation to dismiss them. Take something ostensibly as simple as the kind of welcome people receive when the walk through the doors of this Cathedral, when people can actually walk through the doors again! We are not in a position to fix this ourselves. We need to listen – unguardedly – to what it feels like as a UKME person to enter this place. So, tackling racism is for all of us.

But returning to our gospel reading, are we any clearer – with Jesus’ disciples who in Mark’s gospel are often not very clear! – at what this rising from the dead could mean? I hope my speaking has given us something of a clue.

The key to unlocking Mark’s account of the Transfiguration – God’s glory – is what comes just before this passage in chapter eight of Mark’s gospel, when Jesus tells his followers what it means to be a disciple.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8: 34-35) 

This could not be clearer. What rising from the dead means is the cross. It means the cross – losing one’s life for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the world. One of the saddest things about the events of this week – the fallout from Jarel Robinson-Brown’s tweet – is how it points up a divided Church – a divided body of Christ.

Now, I am not saying that unity at all costs is what we need – absolutely not. As Rowan Williams says: ‘unity is cruciform in shape if it is worth anything at all’. But I think the way of the cross, rising from the dead, demands something distinctive, something else, as we strive for justice, as we strive for an end to institutional racism in the Church.

Indeed, in the whole of society – and that must be our destination, without compromise – there is a future out there, which is neither mine nor yours. Not this group’s or that group’s. But God’s. God’s future. God’s end. More beautiful and more wonderful than anything any of us can possibly imagine. Regardless of colour, creed, gender, sexuality, whatever. This is God’s glory, which the writer of Mark strains to portray, in the Transfiguration. And I believe in it!

But it is a glory which can only be reached, with each other, by the way of the cross. Let us lose our lives to end the scourge, the sin, the structural sin, that is racism. The journey will not be comfortable. But let us repent of our past, of all that we have been a part of that is less than God, and join together to see this city lead the way to a new place which is Christ’s alone.  

Amen."