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Diocese to address racism, bias

by Stuart Mann

The Diocese of Toronto is embarking on a comprehensive plan to address racism and bias in the Church. The plan, which will be launched in January, will include listening sessions, antiracism and anti-bias training, the formation of a strategy group, and the raising up of volunteers to lead training workshops.

Bishop Jenny Andison, the diocese’s Diversity Officer, says the plan will build up capacity in the Church so that it can begin to dismantle the barriers that are preventing it from reaching all people with the good news of Jesus Christ.

“One of the barriers to following the God of mission is structural and personal racism,” she says. “This summer, the murder of George Floyd and similar tragedies in the U.S. and Canada focused the Church’s attention on this particularly insidious barrier to living out the mission that God calls us to. This plan flows out of that desire to shed a light on that brokenness in our own hearts as Christians and also in how we have structured the life of the Church.”

She says reconciliation in the Church will not happen unless people can speak openly and honestly about racism and bias. “There can’t be reconciliation without repentance and there can’t be repentance without speaking out loud, so we want to start a conversation that will be challenging but we hope will lead to reconciliation and new life. We hope it will knit us together stronger so that we can share the good news of Jesus with people who haven’t heard it.”

The plan is an initiative of the College of Bishops and the diocese’s Working Group on Intercultural Ministries. It will be led by a diverse team at Co: Culture Collective, a Hamilton-based training and consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations embrace diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. Bernadette Arthur, the owner and principal consultant of Co: Culture Collective, spoke about what the diocese can expect from the capacity-building plan over the next 15 months.

Ms. Arthur, who is a practicing Christian, has worked with several other denominations over the course of a decade on issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. The denominations include the Mennonite Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Salvation Army and the United Church.

She sees her work as an extension of her religious beliefs. “Jesus Christ is an important figure to me, and to do this work feels like a living embodiment of the work of Christ and how He called us to live,” she says.

Starting in January and February, groups from across the diocese will take part in listening sessions. Participants will come from different cultural backgrounds and will include members of the LGBTQ2 community. They will be asked to share their experiences of race, racism and bias in the Church.

Learnings from those sessions will be used to create an anti-racism and anti-bias training program for the diocese’s bishops, clergy and staff. The six-hour Foundations Training Program will provide a common language and understanding of racism and bias and will give participants the skills and tools needed to address them. The training is expected to take place in the early spring.

At around the same time, 12 people, both clergy and lay, will be chosen to form an anti-racism and anti-bias “pod.” Team members will be engaged in an intensive training program so they can identify what racism and bias looks like in the diocese and what steps are needed to bring about cultural and structural change. In addition to the pod, 12 volunteers will be trained to continue anti-racism and anti-bias workshops after the plan ends.

Ms. Arthur hopes the plan will help the diocese go through a culture shift that will result in a more equitable and inclusive faith community. “Every institution in the country right now is thinking about how to do this work,” she says. “We’re on the cusp of a great cultural shift and the Church has the ability to consider doing that using the ways that Christ has instructed us.”

She cautions, however, that it will not be a quick fix. “We are offering the skills and tools to create a container for people to learn and think about what it looks like to shift towards a more inclusive community. But the work won’t end when Co:Culture Collective is finished. People will still have to decide if they want to make changes to policies and practices. They will have to decide if they want to open up their churches so that they not just look more multi-ethnic but are actively ensuring that their culture and practices are not exclusive or oppressive.”

She looks forward to hearing from people throughout the process. “I invite people to share with me and others. That’s what’s going to make this process rich – the community’s commitment to dialogue and action.”

Bishop Andison, who will handing off the role of Diversity Officer to Bishop Kevin Robertson at the end of February, says she is honoured to be part of the initiative. “This is part of what it means to follow the God of mission, and it’s really good news,” she says.