(Un)conscious Bias

Yesterday Renewal and Reform, the current beacon of hope we have for the realisation of a Church that is more relevant and representative, published an essay by Revd Dr Sharon Prentis regarding the appointment of a Bishop for the BAME community. (https://www.facebook.com/notes/renewal-and-reform/come-as-we-are-re-visioning-the-landscape-of-bame-involvement-and-representation/1261156440628201)

This essay and associated report spoke of the Church’s tendency to ‘unconscious bias…the inclination to favour what is more like us’. I think the Church is being over-generous with itself there.  I cannot speak from a BAME perspective but the bias that I am most conscious of in the Church – a bias toward the middle-class & away from the working-class – is certainly not ‘unconscious’. It is very real and is both conscious and deliberate.

From the outcry of middle-class men and women indignant at the fact (middle-class) women couldn’t become Bishops, to those incensed at the appointment of a diocesan Bishop who might not allow them to flourish as they feel is their right (and might even allow some working-class clergy to take their places in leadership instead), we hear much when the middle-class hit a glass ceiling or their career prospects are thwarted. But they remain studiously tight-lipped and apathetic about the fact the whole Church is appallingly skewed towards those of privilege.

There was a piece published by a retired Bishop some weeks ago – a Bishop from a working class background – expressing his sorrow at the entrenched elitism which prevails in the senior leadership of the Church and at his disappointment at the lack of challenge to this coming from the women who have now joined their ranks. That is no surprise. In the introduction of female Bishops without changing any of the discernment and appointment structures that we have, we have simply upgraded an Old Boys’ network to include an Old Girls’ one.

I spoke to a Bishop some while back who was engaged in an appointment process. ‘What are you looking for in the ideal candidate?’ he’d been asked by one prospective applicant. And his answer essentially had been ‘someone like me’…and indeed the successful candidate was independent school/Oxbridge educated just like him.

The Church has a bias of culture; I often speak out on issues such as these and have been labelled at times both ‘gobby’ and ‘blunt’, whereas middle-class colleagues who speak out on similar issues and in the same language and tone are termed ‘powerful’ and ‘challenging’.

Bias.
Conscious Bias.
Conscious sinful bias.

Bias at every level from who is discerned to be of leadership potential in our parishes to who is sitting in the House of Bishops.

And a bias that is dangerous because as the blinkered ranks of our leadership attempt to hold onto a position that is untenable both in terms of integrity and the will of God, deals are done, indiscretions covered up, weak appointments made.

I was told recently by a middle-class female colleague who is senior to me that we shouldn’t aim for success in the Church because ‘success isn’t a Gospel concept’. So how do the working class become part of the senior leadership of the Church?  They can’t work themselves there, they can’t network themselves there and they can’t speak out without being privy to a very deliberate process of derision and side-lining.
So success may not be a Gospel concept…but nor is bias, prejudice, closing ranks and isolationism.

So I welcome the moves toward greater diversity in the Church that the Bishop for the BAME community will bring.

And I pray for the appointment of a Bishop for the real elephant in the room in terms of our lack of diversity, the Bishop for the Working-Class.

7 thoughts on “(Un)conscious Bias

    1. Thanks David. Rather than ‘gentrification’ I think the whole process involves ‘inculturation’ and, to some degree, that is around formation and is necessary.

      Where the negative aspect lies is in the unspoken and latent demands and expectations of those destined for senior office to become like those who are already there. So there is a strong push to conform, certainly I suspect if you have ambitions to the episcopate. And then we end up with a monochrome set of folk in the House of Bishops all of whom have been firmly conditioned not to rock the boat. I’ve not experienced such a strong ‘conditioning’force in any other organisation and it is firmly led by the middle-class. So the process isn’t to my mind true gentrification so much as middle-class-ization i.e. a mirroring of the attitudes and approaches of the middle-class who are in power in order to have the maximum opportunity to be appointed to such power oneself.

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      1. I agree with a lot of what you say here Lynne, but I wonder if you are assuming or implying a self-seeking or self-promotion which I hope is absent from ministry. Or am I naive?

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