A BLACK WOMAN PRIEST has won an oral hearing into proposals that would result in her losing her job and her home in South London. The Rev Yvonne Clarke is the first Black woman to be ordained deacon – on 15 March 1987 – in the Church of England, and among the first women to be ordained priest in 1994.

Her current parish, All Saints Shirley, in Southwark Diocese, would disappear under plans by Church Commissioners to reduce financial demands on the Church of England.

The proposals would mean Ms Clarke would lose her employment and the parish vicarage, her home. There have been 45 representations made against the decision and only 12 in favour, including from the two churches that would benefit from All Saints’ closure.

The future of the parish church, a Grade 2 listed building, is uncertain. There are believed to be considerations to limit its use to a ‘chapel of ease’ although it is also reported that the Church of England might have in mind to close it altogether.

The Church Commissioners made clear their intention to decide the future of All Saints Shirley by considering paper evidence. Requests by Ms Clarke and other parishioners for an oral hearing were denied, but a further request in a letter from Leigh Day solicitors has been successful and the hearing will be held on 28 April.

Leigh Day managing partner Frances Swaine wrote to the Church Commissioners on Ms Clarke’s behalf and set out issues that need discussion.

  • There should be a ‘thorough and careful exploration – ‘openly and above board’ – with Ms Clarke of what she has done to ‘fail in the Church’s mission’ since she joined the parish in 1998.
  • Any investigations undertaken with regard to possible planning consent for altering the church building, designed by William Curtis Green RA and built in 1956, should be aired openly. It is unlikely that permission for alterations will be given.
  • A proposal to keep the church building open and provide an income for the diocese has not been given attention.
  • It would seem unfair and irrational not to consider Ms Clarke for the suggested new role of pioneer minister to work in the community when that is a role she already occupies.

The loss to the parish of Ms Clarke will mean that members of the congregation from Black and global majority groups move to other churches – what does the removal of Ms Clarke say about the Church of England’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and participation?

The Rev Yvonne Clarke said: “I have been serving the parish of All Saints since 1998 and I would like to see out my ministry here. It has been my mission to ensure that immigrants and children of immigrants to the area have been welcomed into the church. I work with the diverse community and I have brought a wider group of worshippers to the church. I feel no one has consulted with me about my future here in an appropriate way. Instead I have been informed about what will happen to me, that the changes will mean I lose my vocation and my home.”

Frances Swaine said: “Rev Yvonne Clarke’s heritage is [very] much one of expressing oneself through the oral tradition, and it is impossible for her to consider her voice and her views on All Saints and her ministry heard, without having the opportunity to be actually orally heard. She considers herself called to her mission at the age of 10 and she has served the Church of England for over 30 years.

“The Church of England has made clear its intention to tackle institutional racism, wherein it is clear decisions are made to preserve the white church structures with which its priests and more senior clergy are more familiar. Given a re-evaluation of institutional racism in the past seven or eight months, the complexities of being seen to be ‘sacking’ a loved and admired priest are likely to rebound in the community, and it is unfair and unjust that such matters do not receive a full public airing.”

* Source: Leigh Day