07 September 2021

First black woman deacon says plans to dissolve parish ‘feel personal’

07 September 2021

The first black woman to become a deacon in the Church of England (CoE) has said plans to dissolve her south London parish feel “personal” as she battles to keep her job and home.

Reverend Yvonne Clarke 62, was ordained as a deacon in the CoE in 1987 and has served All Saints Shirley, in Southwark Diocese, for more than 20 years.

Plans to cut financial pressures, submitted to the Church Commissioner, would see Rev Clarke’s parish absorbed into two neighbouring parishes.

Reverend Yvonne Clarke with her legal team and supporters (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

A hearing at the Emmanuel Centre, in central London, on Tuesday heard that Rev Clarke was a “pioneering minister” who provided a “special joy” to members of the black community.

Rev Clarke, who was also among the first women to be ordained priest in 1994, said due process had not been followed and she had not been consulted about the changes.

Frances Swaine, representing Rev Clarke, asked the Church Commissioners’ Mission, Pastoral and Church Property committee to consider the “optics” of the minster’s position.

“However uncomfortable, it is important to address the question of racism in the Church of England and in particular, the Southwark Diocese,” she said.

“If that racism is felt by those who received it, then it occurred.”

She continued: “For black worshippers there is special joy in going and worshipping where there is a black minister.

“If the boundaries were reorganised there would be an inevitable black flight.

“The Reverend Yvonne Clarke was the first black, female deacon in the Church of England, and the only black woman priest in the Diocese for some time.

“Think what the optics of that must look like and, in breaking through a ceiling, what huge attributes she must have had to get her there.”

The proposals by the Diocese of Southwark suggest that the parish of All Saints, Spring Park, be dissolved and divided between the parishes of St George, Shirley, and St John, Shirley.

They suggest the church of All Saints, Spring Park – which is housed in a Grade-II listed building – becomes a chapel of ease for use by those who live some distance from the parish church.

The diocese said it had come to the decision due to “ongoing concerns about the financial viability and capacity for governance and mission over a period of several years” and had “not come to it lightly”.

At the hearing, representatives of the Diocese spoke of “extreme sadness” over the proceedings and asked the committee to “look at the data” to make an “objective” decision.

They firmly rejected allegations of racism or sexism towards Rev Clarke.

In her own testimonial, Rev Clarke said: “I live the racism every day, trust me I do. You don’t know what it’s like.

“To say ‘that is it, that is the end, there is nothing else for you,’ that feels personal.”

She added she had always been “certain” of her calling to the church and vowed to keep helping the community regardless of the hearing’s outcome.

“The needs of our parishioners are what matters most, and we will continue to keep serving, with God’s grace,” she said.

Dave Neita, a lawyer and supporter of Rev Clarke, said black members of the community felt “loved and valued” in the parish.

“I think it is impossible to come into contact with Reverend Yvonne Clarke without it having an impact on your soul,” he said, in a passionate address to the committee.

“We have to give due care and attention to what people are feeling…racism might be experienced regardless of if it was intentional or not.

“Yvonne is rare, she is a treasure…she is essentially a pioneering minister…(and) she is too precious to lose.”

The outcome of the hearing is due to be given by the Church Commissioners within three weeks.

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