Book review: Ghost Ship

Anvil journal of theology and mission

A.D.A. France Williams, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England (London: SCM Press, 2020)

by Jonny Baker, CMS

I really loved reading Ghost Ship by A.D.A. France Williams. I read through it in just over a day – in other words I didn’t put it down a lot! It’s addressing institutional racism in the Church of England but it’s not quite what you think. A book like that sounds like it’s going to make a case, an argument and dare I say be a bit dry and perhaps overly earnest (sorry if that is a thought I shouldn’t be having). But it’s far from that…

First up I loved the style of writing of the book. It’s playful, cheeky, provocative, powerful and has you nodding along and then slaps you round the head. It reminds me a bit of going to poetry gigs where that happens all the time – poets seem to move really fast from one mode to another like no other kind of speech in my experience. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise because Azariah is a poet and there are several of his poems in the book. There’s metaphor, poetry, story, anecdote, vulnerability, theology (that is inside the flow of local, contextual, liberation theology), exegesis, research, history, moving personal testimony with heart on the sleeve writing that is vulnerable and questioning with raw honesty. It’s inspiring, challenging and moving. It’s a work of practical liberation theology (if that is a genre?!) in that it is very much a conversation between experience/context and the tradition/bible/theology. It’s very much theology done from below, through the eyes and experience of the oppressed calling for change, liberation, freedom, an end to the domination system. For me it’s the kind of theologising I wish there was a whole lot more of.

One of the stylistic things I particularly loved was the way he sits inside a story or metaphor and sticks with that language and carries it through into a repeating motif almost – it’s probably more commonly used in oratory than writing but it really worked for me to the degree that I have made a mental note to try and do it more myself both in writing and speaking. So for example, he tells the story of Samson in the Bible, someone subjugated to a dominant aggressor. He reads it back through a lens of Samson being a black slave and the Philistines being the slaver class. This is a story black theologians in America in particular have often turned to, so Williams locates himself in the trajectory of black theology here. At one point in his telling of the story where Samson sets a riddle, he imagines the Philistine slavers put their drinks down, wipe the froth of their mouth and have him repeat the riddle. Later in the text when he describes discussing his writing with a white area bishop he says, “he put his drink down, wiped the froth off his mouth, looked me in the eye and said….” I loved those kind of moves which are playful in style but so powerful and well done. There are surprises all the way through. He follows up on Samson with a spin on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – I won’t do a plot spoiler but it is a great piece of storytelling and research.

The message, which perhaps I should have led with, is pretty clear and hits you from multiple directions and layers – the Church of England has not done well when it comes to race and, in the case of this book, especially with regard to its ministers, lay and ordained. Black and brown people are not flourishing. Racism is embedded in the systems and culture – in other words it’s institutionalised. In case we were unsure about this, those experiences come through time and again through Williams’s interviews with people with black and brown skin. That is their experience full stop. He also looks at the last 30 years or so of what has happened since the Faith in the City report. That report was brilliant and I didn’t know this but one recommendation was not picked up – all the others were. That was for a commission on black concerns. It’s truly extraordinary to read the tale. Williams catalogues occasion after occasion where decisions were deferred to a standing committee (‘Ronald and Reggie’ as he labels them – the C of E bouncers or gatekeepers) who basically don’t do anything. He laments Justin Welby’s reimagined Britain and shares his own personal experiences in shiny church, as he calls it (read powerful London evangelical charismatic church), where the only option seemed to be to perform as a puppet for Dagon (back to the Samson story), reduced to the role of entertainer for the show. Anything else was not welcome – and just to be clear, that anything else is the incredible gift of Williams himself with his creative theologising, insights, care, love for the church, prophetic gifts, teaching gifts, the ability to see with black eyes, to write, to be a poet, a friend who cares and so on and so on – so much is missed.

This was a weird response in me I noticed: I began to wonder what is whiteness and what is entitlement. I am white, heterosexual, educated and male so I have no idea what it is like to experience being invisible or shunned or mistreated or dominated because of skin tone (or sex or gender or sexuality or class and so on) and I like the challenge of interrogating whiteness. But I have always hated entitlement, which is summed up by one passage where Williams describes the public school network reuniting over a game of diocesan cricket as a light bulb moment where he realises he does not have access. To say it another way, I identify with many of the issues around visibility, injustice and exclusion and access and they make me enraged and I suspect quite a lot of pioneers do too because for very different reasons they see differently and what they are saying is invisible to the system. Perhaps it is simply that they hang around on the periphery – that was a kind of weird question for me that I wasn’t expecting. But this book is about race and there is simply a different order to the injustice and experience, which is brought home as Williams shares movingly the experience of being heartbroken when his own child is struggling with their own sense of worth, having been subjected to racist comments at school. I felt so upset about that. I know that for me as a parent and for my kids, we will never experience that because of white privilege.

Azariah does some future imagining and makes some suggestions. I thought they were great. I’d love to see a truth and reparations process. There is no reason I can see why there couldn’t be some of the church commissioners’ money that was set aside to invest in black and brown futures through grants, scholarships, and all sorts of other creative things – I thought that was a brilliant idea.

For me I found the book really helped my awareness, though I need ongoing sensitising and awareness, so I hope through conversations and friends and reading I can continue to do that. But a particular challenge in my area of work is around what texts we use in theological and mission education and what voices contribute in teaching. So I intend to sharpen up that area. We are pretty unusual at CMS I suspect, in that we teach systematic theology as simply being one local (western) theology among many and try and expose students to multiple voices and authors from round the world. I am not a fan of a systematic approach at all really. But we can do better I am sure, so we’ll be chatting about that in our team over the months ahead.

Writing a book is such a big effort, especially when you make yourself vulnerable and put yourself on the line. So thank you Azariah for your book and your gift and sharing it and so much of yourself. May we have ears to hear.

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