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Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England

A. D. A. France Williams

SCM Press, 2020, £19.99. Paperback ISBN 978-0-33405-9356

Review by Jenny Bridgman, Director of Studies and a Parish Priest in the Diocese of Chester

Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England

I opened this book with some trepidation; a feeling I can now name as ‘white fragility.’ My feelings were misplaced. While the stories and sadness of this book are indeed haunting, the author is a generous host. From evocative images of his boyhood home in Leeds, to his deeply painful experiences as a youth worker, ordinand, and priest, France-Williams welcomes readers into his life with open arms and patient passion.

Through poetry, song, metaphor, anecdote, imagery, letter and story, we are taken aboard the Ghost Ship ‘Church of England.’ The reader is invited to join the author below deck, where black and brown lives are shoved without thought: second class passengers whose initial joy and self-giving to the Church leads them to danger and destruction.

France-Williams gives voice to so many, lay and ordained, who have found themselves hurt by the unthinking (at best) institutional racism of the Church of England. As a white reader, I found the narrative both readable but unbearable: easy enough to see the words, the phrases, the paragraphs, the poems; much harder to absorb them fully and to hear the challenge to a Church which has failed, over and again, to overthrow the racism that drowns so many of God’s people. This is serious. Token attempts at diversity are not enough. They never were. We need a deep and costly critique and dismantling of the whiteness that, over centuries, has poisoned the Church.

For preachers, there are moments of particular challenge. France-Williams touches on the question of who drives change. Does change come from above, or from the grassroots? The author is clear that change has failed spectacularly to come from above in recent decades. This raises searching questions for those who have the privilege of standing aboard a preaching platform: what part do we play in educating ourselves, in hearing the other, in making room for the outsider, in acknowledging our unconscious bias, in stepping aside for the preacher whose voice is yet to be heard? As a white preacher I am driven to prayer by the question the book raises: (how) can I be an ally?

France-Williams cries out for white theologians who will ‘make the demolition of white superiority a key feature of their work and practice’ (124). I suggest the same yearning might be uttered for white preachers and emblazoned across the top of every page of my sermon notes.

Ghost Ship is not just a rallying call to a racist church. It is a Spirit-filled invitation to transformation; a prophetic vision of how the Church of England might be led into new ways of living, leading, and being, for the flourishing of all God’s people. The question to those with the power and privilege of position, to those who can operate comfortably within a white, male, middle-class paradigm, is this: will you hear, receive, and be changed by this heart cry of the Spirit within our midst? Or will you allow it to be just another haunting cry from a soul lost on the ghost ship?

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