Despite last year’s apology from the Archbishop of Canterbury for the ways in which the Church was institutionally racist, last night’s BBC Panorama report was damning in its indictment on progress made. Reverend David Peterson, the youngest black priest in the Church of England, shares his response to the programme

Rev David Peterson

When I watched the BBC Panorama programme Is the Church Racist? I was really surprised at how honest they were. The longer I watched, the more I was saying to myself: Yeah, that happened to me. I’ve been through that. I know what that’s like. It is a shame that so many of the BAME community who are part of the Church of England have gone through similar experiences. 

I have been in church services and had conversations with clergy where I have felt alienated and placed in a box because my ethnicity and race. One woman on the program spoke about comments made during her training; I had a similar experience. The person who was assigned to support me said “David, why don’t you start your own Pentecostal church? You speak the language and you’ve got the skin colour for it.”

Things need to change - and the Church needs to be at the forefront of that conversation

It is these heinous remarks that are just too common in the Church of England. During training, we were advised to saying nothing if we had a racial experience; that people would get bored of the conversation. Why should we be afraid to share the truth of our diabolical experiences?

Finding refuge

I grew up in the Anglican Church. I love the Church of England. I came to the Church for refuge; I didn’t want to feel like I was joining the mafia. I grew up on a council estate. It was difficult enough for me to get through that, to survive in that environment, and then people within the Church were saying to me: “David, you need to learn how to play the game.” I didn’t want to play games. I just wanted to serve Jesus, experience his unconditional love and speak about that love with other people. The Church isn’t parliament. You shouldn’t expect people to have hidden agendas. This is the place in which we should all be free just to love Jesus - who doesn’t judge people by their race or ethnicity, but based on their heart, their love for God and whether they receive him as their Lord and Saviour. He’s there for everybody - every color, every creed, every race.

Staying to serve God

I became a vicar to serve God. I stayed because, whenever I’d have conversations with God and say: God, this isn’t me, I don’t fit in, people are looking at me sideways, God always said to me: “But this is where I have called you. This is where I want you to be. I want you to shine in the midst of parts that are dark. I want you to go where I have sent you.”

 I came to the Church for refuge; I didn’t want to feel like I was joining the mafia

I want a Church where all people feel accepted and supported; where we we don’t have to hear the phrase ‘play the game’ or feel that we are being muzzled rather than being able to speak about the way that we have been treated.

If change is going to happen, we need more black people in senior positions. What’s been done in promoting women to more senior positions needs to be happen with the BAME community. I’m a team vicar now but I’m hoping that, one day, I can be Archbishop of Canterbury!

An honest conversation

The Archbishop of Canterbury being so prepared to be blunt about institutional racism in the Church of England is a sign of hope, but for me, there’s no point in saying these things publicly; they also need to be said privately. I sent Archbishop Welby an email asking to speak to him about how I felt. I was told that he was too busy. I want to see that same public passion in private too, where he can sit down with the youngest black priest in the UK, who’s grown up on a council estate in London, who has faced racial abuse and been marginalised by the police. Things need to change - and the Church needs to be at the forefront of that conversation, leading by example and showing how much they love people.

Reflecting Jesus’ love

Jesus preached about the Samaritan woman, who was half Jewish, half Samaritan (John 4:1-43) - he was the hero of that story, breaking down the racial discrimination present in his society. We need to amplify and reflect scripture. The apostle Paul puts it in a beautiful, articulate way: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 4:28). We need to show it, we need to feel it, we need to be a representation of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Rev David Peterson was speaking to Esther Higham on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.