The need to tackle racism within and without the Church remains an imperative for Methodists, and the Methodist Church has not always been exemplary in this regard. However there are a number of significant moments and changes in the Church’s internal governance and external witness which characterise the history of racial justice in modern British Methodism.
The post-war years and the Windrush Generation saw a great increase in the number of BAME people in the UK, a diversity which slowly started to be reflected in the Methodist Church. It is believed that the first Black person to be ordained into the British Methodist Church was the Revd George Pottinger in 1957.
Such diversity was not universally welcomed, however. In 1962 the Committee for the Care of Immigrants reported to Conference that it was deeply disturbed about the ‘emergence of colour prejudice.’ The committee opposed the Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act of 1962, which sought to reduce immigration from the Commonwealth.
A particularly notable trailblazer for black Methodists was Phoenix, Sybil, OBE. Arriving from Guyana in 1956, she became a prominent Methodist and celebrated community worker in South West London. In 1972, she became the first black woman to receive an MBE – for services to the community. She also co-founded MELRAW (Methodist and Ecumenical Leadership Racism Awareness Workshops) in 1981.
In 1971, the Community and Race Relations Committee replaced the Committee on Migration (which itself had replaced the Committee for the Care of Immigrants), making it the first body specifically responsible for racial issues within the Methodist Church.
In the context of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the early 1970s were an active period for Methodist anti-racist campaigners. At the time, the call to divest from South Africa was gaining traction, and the Methodist Church banked with Midland, who were heavily invested in companies doing business in South Africa. Campaigners encouraged the Central Finance Board to put pressure on the bank, calls which were initially resisted. This lead some activists to take over the sound booth at one Methodist Conference during the CFB report – the idea being that the speakers were being silenced just as Black South Africans were being silenced. Midland Bank did eventually withdraw its investments from South Africa, and the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Investment (JACEI) was established in 1983 to advise CFB on its investment policies, including relating to racial discrimination.
In 1978 the Methodist Conference first explicitly stated that racism is a sin, a conviction which is now retained in CPD as Standing Order 013B: “The Methodist Church believes that racism is a denial of the gospel.”
The Connexional Racial Justice Office was established in 1984 to oversee and advise the Church’s work on these issues, with Weekes, Ivan being appointed as the first Secretary for Race and Community.
In 1985, the Ethnic Minorities in Methodism Working Group published the influential report A Tree God Planted. This was a challenging account of the experience of Black Methodists, containing comprehensive data and stories, which raised serious questions for the church. In the same year, Murray, Leon Albert, MBE became the first Black Vice-President of Conference.
Two years later came another important Conference report – Faithful and Equal. In receiving this report, Conference adopted the following definition of racism: “Allowing prejudice to determine the way power is used to the personal, social or institutional detriment of ethnic minority individuals or communities.” That same year, Methodist local preacher Paul Boateng became one of the first three black MPs elected to Parliament; he would later become the UK’s first black cabinet minister in 2003.
The Methodist Church often worked ecumenically on issues of racial justice – first through the Community and Race Relations Unit (CRRU) of the British Council of Churches, and then through its replacement - the Churches Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ). Both made money available to projects and causes tackling racial injustice. Through the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team, the Methodist Church has also spoken out more recently on issues relating to racial injustice, such as the End Hostility campaign, which criticised the racial discrimination enabled by the government’s “hostile environment” policy, regardless of immigration status.
One of the most enduring ecumenical projects is Racial Justice Sunday. This was started in 1989 by the Methodist Church, became ecumenical in 1995, and continues today. This takes place on the second Sunday in February, and resources are produced every year to help churches reflect, pray, and act on issues of racial injustice.
The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 became a landmark moment in the history of racism in the UK, and was one by which the Methodist Church was directly and indirectly affected. The Lawrence family attended their local Methodist Church in Eltham, and so Methodist Minister and family friend David Cruise conducted Stephen’s funeral. In the wake of the murder, and the subsequent Macpherson Report, the Methodist Church’s Committee for Racial Justice encouraged the Conference to enter a period of serious introspection around the concept of institutional racism outlined in that report.
Two milestones in representation came in close succession as in 1998 Revd Ermal Kirby became the first Black Chair of District, and in 2000 Bhogal, Dr Inderjit Singh became the first BAME President of Conference.
In 2004, at a time when the British National Party were enjoying some electoral success, the Methodist Council passed a resolution stating: “The policies and practices of those who promote racism and religious intolerance are incompatible with the Methodist Church’s social witness, biblical teaching and our understanding of the love of God for all people.”
In 2009, the Conference went further, passing a motion which resolved that “being a member of any organisation whose constitution, aims or objectives promote racism is inconsistent with membership of the Methodist Church, or with employment which involves representing or speaking on behalf of the Methodist Church.” In the following year, the Conference amended SO 050 to state that preparation classes for Methodist membership “shall include an introduction to the doctrines, discipline and formal statements of the Methodist Church, including its belief that racism is a denial of the gospel.”
The EDI Toolkit, a resource equipping Methodists to “go beyond legal compliance” when it comes to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, was published in 2016. This features a module on Race which explores concepts, case studies and questions around racial justice.
In 2017 the Conference received the report 'The Unfinished Agenda: Racial Justice and Inclusion in the Methodist Church', which sought to assess the evidence of the last 50 years through A Tree God Planted, Faithful and Equal, and the EDI Toolkit and make proposals for working towards a shared model of an inclusive church. It included resolution 27/7: “The Conference, in confessing the sin of racism and seeking to repent of that sin, recognised the considerable amount of work still required of the whole Connexion in order to achieve greater equality, diversity and inclusion.”
The Inclusive Methodist Church Strategy which followed in 2020 aimed to embed EDI across the life of the Connexion. It defines the Church as one in which “all people can expect to be welcomed into a place of safety, where we are disciplined in rejecting any form of discrimination and in calling to account those responsible, in which diversity is celebrated as one of God’s gifts to us and not seen as an issue to be accommodated, and where our diversity is visible in our leadership and our selection processes ensure that.”
In July 2020, Revd Sonia Hicks became President-Designate of the Methodist Conference – the first Black person to be elected to that position.
https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/9017/edi-toolkit-6-final.pdf https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-racial-justice-2003.pdf https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/the-inclusive-methodist-church/looking-back-at-conference-decisions-on-equality-diversity-and-inclusion/