BECOMING COMPANIONS: A CONVERSATION ON FORMATION
HANNAH SWITHINBANK & JACK BELLOLI
JB: Full disclosure, as they say: Last November, I (Jack Belloli) pitched to write a review essay on Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England by Azariah France-Williams (London: SCM Press, 2020) and After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). I wanted to reflect on what it might mean to read these books as I began training for the priesthood, as a white man at one of the Church of England’s full-time residential colleges. In a year in which competing accusations of institutional racism and of “wokeness” within the Church have been particularly fierce and exhausting, this proved to be easier said than done. A number of partial drafts didn’t stick.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that one way out of this was to take the advice that Jennings gives for next steps at the end of After Whiteness: to take ‘beautiful steps’ with (future) colleagues, and to see what might be gained by reading it together (157). So I asked Hannah Swithinbank, who read After Whiteness with fellow ordinands at her own theological college, if she’d like to have an email conversation about both books, so that we could tease out some of each other’s unfinished ideas. What emerged was written over a week immediately after the end of a long, pandemic-shaped year of academic work and exams, and with differences in style left in which speak to our different engagements with the text so far. So it remains unfinished and a bit unpolished. But that, we think is part of the point.
JB: Maybe you could start by saying a bit about your experience of reading After Whiteness, as part of a regular reading group with fellow ordinands? This feels like it would’ve been very different from me reading it, rapidly, alone, at the height of the New Year COVID lockdown. If this is a book about ‘forming people who form communion’, how did that context shape your reading – and, if you’re comfortable saying, how did the book reshape the community that read it?
HS: I read After Whiteness twice: firstly, as you did, over a couple of days just before New Year, and then for the reading group we did here at college — and they were definitely different experiences that I drew different things from. In my first reading the book really helped me name and process experiences and emotions I’d been dealing with through my first term back in university after a decade, in particular the ways I was finding myself wanting to prove myself. Jennings’s discussion of the way western education pursues knowledge for mastery and control rather than out of curiosity, and the way that creates isolation and stress helped me to understand a lot of what I had been feeling.
In my second reading, I was reading a chapter a week, both re-reading and preparing to host a conversation about it with other ordinands, and I guess my primary lens for that was how the book might resonate with the form and content of our own theological education, as well as our previous educational experiences. What emerged really quickly, in a group that was nearly always all-white, British and well-educated (although with various other identities and characteristics intersecting with that), was an awareness that despite the fact that we we could all identify with the tensions and pains Jennings identifies, we had also largely benefited from and been privileged within the system in different ways. I suspect a lot of that awareness had grown over the past year or so, with the rise in the Black Lives Matter movement and discussion of racism and empire in the UK, but it helped us examine ourselves within our particular situation as ordinands in the Church of England. We talked a lot about how easy it would be for us to continue in and be a part of replicating this system, but also how difficult it can be not to do that as individuals and particularly at this stage of our lives. We talked about how to leverage power within systems, about compromise and incremental change, and the dangers of being co-opted by power and systems even as you’re trying to pursue something different.
I think there are two moments in After Whiteness that really describe the process of reading it in this group for me:
“Talking together then is a practice aimed at eternity, and it matters more than we often realize for bringing our hope into focus…” (157)
“Win needed friends who would discern with him the crumbling and live in it and toward it. He needed companions on a journey of building that together would discover what blueprints emerged from the overturning…” (128)
It was absolutely an experience of being formed for communion through the conversations we had about our hopes and concerns and the challenges we see before us and the church. We’re all a part of a wider community at college and different groupings within that community, but we also have a particular tie with each other — committed to journeying together as we try not to replicate practices and behaviours that isolate and harm.
What’s your experience of discussing After Whiteness been like after reading it solo? Have you found other people who have read it who you’re able to share thoughts and ideas within your immediate context — or have you found people either resistant to reading it or ‘just not getting around to it yet’? I guess I’m wondering how much it is getting traction with people who weren’t already predisposed to read it.
JB: The short, embarrassing answer to this question is “not much!” There’s a copy in our library here, which I know has been taken out, and some people have purchased their own. Part of it might have been out of a desire (very “mastery”-inflected, in its own way) to maintain an independent enough perspective to write about it. Last term, there was also a college-wide student-led process of reading the Living in Love and Faith documents (the Church of England’s new teaching material on debates in gender and sexuality), which probably took up a lot of the energy that I and others had to put into reading challenging material together!
I suppose the reason that I’ve stopped short is the challenge of knowing what to do with “whiteness” when it’s introduced into a conversation. Jennings is, of course, very good at anticipating and assuaging these reactions from the start: “white self-sufficient masculinity is not first a person or a people; it is a way of organising life…” (8-9). He’s rigorously committed to the implications of treating it as an idol - as something which doesn’t even exist as such, theologically speaking, so we should focus on describing the positive actions of building and cultivating common life which can occur when we avoid it. I haven’t done a thorough check, but I think he avoids making “whiteness” the object of verbs: it has to be named but it’s not, in itself, something to be fought or subverted or dismantled; this would just make whiteness another thing we master, as it were. But avoiding that trap is often easier said than done, at least from the perspective of an individual white person approaching others, rather than starting from a group. When you mention “whiteness”, there’s a risk of people leaping to perceive it as an individualised matter: feeling appropriately guilty about, or doing appropriate things to undo, “their” privilege. But if you try to say that’s not the point, you’re still framed as the educator...
The worst thing that this book and its readers could do would be to cultivate “critical white subjects”, people who gain institutional kudos, or even personal pleasure, from reflecting sensitively and self-deprecatingly on their own whiteness, shielded from the most serious burdens that transformation and change might demand of them. Jennings’s decision to build the book around fictionalised accounts of people in theological education is so powerful because, for me at least, they work counter-intuitively: I want to find models or counter-models for how to behave, only to realise that’s not the point. I’m glad you brought up the story of Win, the example of the privileged future scholar who wants to avoid perpetuating that privilege. When Jennings says he “had waited all [his] teaching career for him" (127), that feels like something I want to aspire to. (Not least because, earlier in the book, he gives an account of gently turning away the kind of over-earnest seminarian who says they “like the model of the pastor-scholar, [and] would like to keep [their] hand in the academy” without being driven by urgent questions - and that feels more like the real me (34)!) But that turn from Win to the “companions” who would support him feels crucial: it’s the cultivation of those spaces that are ultimately what’s being longed for. And without that perspective, I fear that it’d be easy to become a figure at least a bit like Connor, who’s tellingly the only person that Jennings ever actually describes as “racist”: a Southern white man whose “respect” and love for black culture ends up manifesting in a desire to be the expert on it, as if he could redeem the situation himself (108-09).
This feels like it might be a relevant place to bring in a comparison with Ghost Ship, because in this respect their approaches feel quite different. There’s a much clearer sense in Ghost Ship that white supremacy does inhere concretely in particular institutions, which need urgent action taken against them, before the joining can begin. If whiteness is an idol here, it needs iconoclastic destruction, which lies behind France-Williams’s imaginative reappropriation of figures like Elijah and Samson throughout. And I keep coming back to France-Williams’s decision to give the book’s final word to the anti-apartheid activist Antjie Krog: “Reconciliation will only take place… the day whites feel offended by racism instead of feeling sorry for blacks” (cited on 209). It’s a difficult invitation to know what to do with: displaying my own offendedness at racism doesn’t achieve much, and can often have the effect of shutting down conversation rather than inviting other people in to share that experience of offence. When either of these books have activated your sense of offence at the status quo, what have you done with that feeling?
HS: I think that’s a really interesting and challenging question for me in a number of different ways. A part of my response is to want to think about what it means to be ‘offended’ by racism and injustice: am I offended on my own behalf because racism is also damaging to me in the way makes life together in the world so much harder, or because it does damage to people I care about, or am I offended on behalf of others, known or not? Am I comfortable with any of those feelings and are they generating some kind of positive or helpful practical response, or do they show me something about myself that I don’t like and would like to see change? Where do I go with all of that next?
But also, it makes me ask what offence feels like to me as a reader of these books, and where and how — and even whether I felt it, or what else I did feel. And this flags up to me a danger I sense across my awareness of injustice, which is how easy it is for emotional responses to be blunted or processed away as you become familiar with the stories and history and damage that are the consequence of systemic racism and injustice. I say this is a danger, because I think it does affect how you act (or don’t) in myriad ways, and also because it marks a kind of diminishing in our human ability to feel for ourselves and in relation to other people, which helps injustice become normalised. Moving from feeling to action can also be problematic too, but personally I find myself more in danger of failing to engage feeling. I suspect Jennings’ line of thinking would link this to my education and its focus on reason and suspicion of emotion.
One of the moments in Ghost Ship that really did make me feel my frustrations with the system is when France-Williams is discussing the wariness of reporting prejudice and racism. He talks about the demand that the system places on evidence, rather than trusting human testimony, and how this demand compounds pain and trauma (76) and so deters people from saying something. It’s definitely something I’ve seen happen, and it reflects a failure to attend to emotion as a vital part of human life. I really liked France-Williams’ quotation of MLK: “There’s always the danger if you cool off too much that you will end up in a deep freeze,” (68). Is that who we want to be, or believe we were made to be?
One of the things I really appreciate about After Whiteness is its move towards physicality, embodiment and the erotic as Jennings talks about the crowd and communion (in chapter 5): he focuses on God’s desire, ecstasy, and the messy entanglement of life. These are all things I find challenging in different ways, so I think there’s probably something for me to explore around feeling and attending to the feelings of myself and other people, and the ways the Spirit is in that. It feels self-involved, but I also think it’s important in being part of spaces and communities that are for change and communion, because ultimately this should be about how people live, not just about fixing a system, right? I think Jennings’ story of the friendship of Rachel and Louise (115) illustrates the importance and difficulty of this kind of attentiveness to self and other.
A lot of that seems quite interior, but I think that’s only a problem if it doesn’t go beyond self-reflection into practice and action, because self-awareness is also necessary to practice, and I think that’s an argument both books would share. Perhaps we can come back to questions of ‘doing’ in a bit, but thinking about feeling offence at the status quo makes me curious as to what you think these two books are trying to do. Do you think they’re trying to raise anger or offence, or some other emotion to move readers to response? Who are these books for — because I think they’re for different people and have different aims — and what are they trying to provoke?
JB: I know you said you wanted to come back to “doing” but, if anything, I think that’s my way into this question. What I value about both of them, even if it’s explored in different ways, is how they imagine institutional action as central theological work. They invite us to sit with the implications of that reimagination, perhaps before we start acting anew ourselves.
I really appreciate that Jennings places “building” at the core of the book, and the principle that “[t]he creature builds as God the Creator builds” (77). Because I think a lot of the way we talk about formation for priesthood (which admittedly isn’t quite the language that Jennings is using) assumes a need to purge our instincts towards doing or working, in favour of something like being or resting: a different mode of activity which allows us to participate more fully in the prior and more important activity of God, and which then nourishes our action. I get where that’s coming from, but I don’t think these spaces for rest are necessarily removed by suggesting that an apparently second-order act like “building” does theologically go all the way down. It’s the difference between saying ‘I just need to learn to let go!’ and coming to recognise that even this represents a kind of doing on my part: I’ll always find myself self-consciously doing things for the sake of my soul or those in my cure, and it’s a matter of being more open to how God inhabits or disrupts them. And this approach tempers a tendency you see a lot within the Church to frame certain kinds of necessary things we do as ‘secular’ or lesser or even fallen: I’m thinking of the whole range of structures, both within the Church and within higher education, which often get collapsed imprecisely into the intrusion of a new ‘managerialism’. You don’t get that much of that in After Whiteness, because Jennings is better able to locate capitalist management within the longue duree of “colonial design”, which he has no choice but to fight from within (49). There’s a willingness to see departmental meetings about language requirements, or hiring and firing, as aspects of the work of divine building, without treating them as mere tools for it which will eventually be discarded. That’s what I hope gets heard, really. And I’m not sure if anyone in your context found the experience of reading a book that’s nominally aimed at educators rather than the educated disconcerting, but keeping this broader “theology of action” in mind helped me to see the part that I might have in it too.
All this comes out more explicitly, and more messily, in Ghost Ship. The keynote of the book for me is the account that he gives of a retired bishop telling him not to let ‘anger, pain, sadness or lament clutter your writing’, as if that was necessary to legitimise its protest (52). The book itself feels (appropriately) cluttered, and it speaks to a church which is just as fragile and contingent, operating across “dioceses, parishes, primary schools, colleges” (69). I’m grateful, for example, for the way that the chapter you cite in your response draws attention to how the “authority” of diocesan bishops can end up entangled with, to the point of being appropriated by, that of large individual resource churches (72-73). We can’t retreat to a confidence in what the Church, in its catholic order, just is, independent from how local organisations accrue and exercise its power. And it’s striking how, in the “alternative future history” with which he closes the book, France-Williams imagines a church that has to draw from other institutions - the Labour Party, the Greater London Council, the BBC - to make change possible (200-02). This process compromises us as much as it liberates us: he notes the irony of the Church of England asking ordinands and employees whether they belong to ‘any political party or institution that espouses racist values or ideas’ (71). The irony actually goes a bit deeper: I found out earlier this year that the introduction of that question, long advocated for by the General Synod member Vasantha Gnanados, explicitly took up the example of the Metropolitan Police. Radical arguments about how we engage with the police given its own institutional racism tend to be less “advanced” in the UK than the US - and shouldn’t be expected to advance along the same lines, anyway - but this feels like it might yet become a pressure point for the Church.
I guess this is a long way of saying that I hope the book finds an audience who accept that the Church of England needs to make concrete institutional changes. It can’t rely on its inherited sense of “being church” to make that change, and “being church” isn’t a neutral position. France-Williams emphasises people of colour’s grief and anger at the material consequences of inaction: the lost possibility that there “could have been a movement” (80), the reality that it’s the most marginalised who have already felt the effects of our supposed future ‘decline’ (34). It’s that embarrassment at wasted time that seems to have carried over most strongly into the From Lament to Action report from the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce, and the publicity that’s surrounded it: many of its suggestions are, pointedly, reworkings of ones from the litany of unheeded recommendations, stretching back to 1985’s Faith in the City, that it lists in the appendix. But, for all its urgency, Ghost Ship does something a bit more subtle than just demanding action from those readers. Again, it’s a working-through of the implication that ‘action goes all the way down’. If we want to take seriously the fact that “the mistakes made back in 1985 cannot be revisited” (170) - that no action will completely cover over our lament – we need to reframe the history. To admit that what looks like the inaction of institutional indifference is, in fact, a form of violent action that we haven’t had the lenses for: that’s the effect of France-Williams’s unsettling fables and allegorisations, in which, say, the proposal for a Commission for Black Anglican Concerns at Synod gets roughed up by bouncers (101). And, once you can be made to see that, you’re more liable to see what kinds of action have already been going on without you, and all the more effectively because you haven’t noticed them, where you might only have been an obstacle: hence the space that the book gives for presenting what Anglicans of colour have admitted and imagined together within private networks, while making it clear that they don’t have the safety to reveal everything. I appreciated that in much the same way as I became more aware of women’s ‘whisper networks’, and the limits on my own relationship with them, as MeToo escalated in 2017. So the effect is one of saying: ‘It’s not like there’s been no action - and that you, yes you, need to make up for it. This is the landscape of action that we’ve all already been in, and we’re asking you to prepare to inhabit it differently.’
And this is, in my reading, where the poetry in each book comes in. Because poems, especially in devotional contexts, are often held up as discrete objects, bringing those who write or read them into “pure” or higher states, over against the business of the world: ‘poetically man dwells’, as Heidegger has it, rather than builds! But this elides the ways that poems are speech-acts with worldly consequences, and which are assembled out of the language that we use in a range of compromised contexts. The former is perhaps stronger in Ghost Ship, where the poems are (I think?) more clearly the product of spoken-word and performance traditions which attend particularly to what the poem does with and for the immediate social circle of those listening. The latter is clearer in After Whiteness, where the poems rework the linguistic environments of, say, orientation meetings and student sermons: the self that the speaker confesses is necessarily the self within an institution, shaped by its designs. That’s what I’ve gained from the poems, anyway - how does it resonate with your reading? And what about the related question of prayer in each book: can that, too, be brought into the terms I’ve been setting out? (I’m thinking here about the full story behind the bishop who dismisses lament as clutter: he ultimately admits that he hasn’t “taken many risks” in confronting racialised power dynamics, and this admission comes about in the particular spiritual ‘neutral zone’ of a Quaker meeting hall (63)).
HS: I think that last point is a really important one to recognise — the fact that both France-Williams and the bishop are somewhere ‘different’ ultimately enables a moment that gets beyond their earlier tension. It’s something that’s helpful to have in mind as we think about doing or working towards reconciliation. It’s so easy for those of us who belong in white church and educational spaces to think that by inviting other people in we’re making space and enabling reconciliation, but actually, we have to break out of that space to build something different together. You see that in the way both Jennings and France-Williams express frustration in their accounts of trying to get those who fit and who hold power to open up to something different.
And I think that is a part of what poetry does within both books as texts — it creates a different kind of space, so you can’t just read them as purely academic works in a cleanly rational way. They want more of you and from you. You know how sometimes you’ll read a book that isn’t quite working for you, and you can make the choice to think that this is because of something in the book (the bluntest variation of this is that you think the book is ‘bad’), or you can wonder about what it is in you that is making the reading difficult? For me that barrier is often that the book is in a style, or literary tradition, or frame of reference that I’m not familiar with, and I have to choose whether or not I’m going to continue with something that’s a little alien to me. I think that’s what’s going on here: both books are doing something different with traditional forms of academic writing and Christian memoir that makes the reader pause and respond to it as they read because they’re ‘strange’. You do actually have a moment of acceptance (or rejection, I guess) where you decide to trust the writer and let the text do its work in you — and for me a part of what that eventually did was to help me bring my emotions to the table and be present to the stories in the book, so that they could work their way down into my being.
The connection you draw with prayer makes sense to me too, because I often feel that prayer, like poetry, helps make space for opening up to something beyond yourself: it’s a thin place, essentially. For me one of the memorable images in After Whiteness is at the start of the chapter on design, where Jennings tells a story of a visitation he experienced while praying at the start of a semester. There’s a malevolence in the laugh he describes that really sticks with me (47-8) and evokes the powers and principalities that are at play here. However you understand spiritual powers and dimensions, and conceive of what is going on behind or within the world that we see around us, it’s important to recognise that this isn’t all there is, and by being willing to open ourselves up, be it to the poetry of Jennings and France-Williams, or to the Spirit in prayer, we gain a greater realisation of both the evils of racism and injustice and the possibility and power of God’s goodness and desire to overcome them.
I like the way that you question an idea of formation that, as you describe it is first purgative and then passive, because that kind of understanding of formation (which I’ve also experienced) seems to me to be not wholly wrong, but it is also not wholly right — which is, in fact, how Jennings’ describes a lot of the problems in education: ideas and practices that started from a good instinct but have been warped. There are things in ourselves that need to be dealt with, but also things that are to be used, and while rest and listening is important, so is being an active participant in our own formation, bringing our questions and concerns and desires into play. Bringing the ideas and stories in these books into spaces of prayer, I think, is an important part of our formation for leaning into them in everyday life. It helps those of us who have benefited from the system to be willing to enter into different spaces and risk what we have for something that we hope will be better.
And I think that brings me back to the matter of building or doing, which I absolutely agree, theologically goes all the way down. I found Jennings’ ability to see all the different aspects of educational and institutional life as expressions and reflections of faith and love really helpful, because, as you say, it takes them beyond tools to be used or systems to be used or compromised with — it enables us to see them differently and to start to imagine them existing and operating differently, in a way that’s generative for action and transformation. I think that there are two questions for me in this: firstly, how do we get comfortable with the fact that there are going to be multiple ideas about what reconciliation and rebuilding look like in churches and in theological education and multiple ways of going about it — because we love a simple action plan, right? And secondly, how do those of us participating in this do this with a grace for each others’ inevitable failures? I see a lot of noise about the idea that ‘wokeness’ (for want of a better word) has created a mob mentality and ‘cancel culture’, coming from people who are, essentially, resisting this kind of change — and mostly I think it’s a lot of nonsense. But I think that there is a complex dynamic at the moment in which our desire to be a part of change can get stuck in our fear of getting things wrong and of being perceived as a ‘bad’ person or of being unable to come back from a mistake. Do you see anything in these books that helps us to tackle these questions?
JB: I’m really glad you brought up how the difficulty of both of these texts tips you over into fighting the urge to call them “confusing” or “bad” - I think it’s something they both court, in different ways. Hence why I called Ghost Ship “cluttered”, really: there’s been a strain of Anglican politeness to the way it’s been received in the UK, with few people commenting on just how many rules for writing books that it breaks - knowingly, and appropriately, for all the reasons you express so well! In both cases, I think it’s an expression of the resistance that the authors face in writing a book, as individuals, that’s nevertheless polyvocal: the new space that they open up is ‘other’ insofar as it is space that is open to others’ voices. This is behind Jennings’s project of “institutional gnosticism”, attempting to tell a properly collective story of the theological academy by broadening his own memories through “exact fabrication” (20-22). And, in a more volatile way, behind France-Williams’s insistence that he “can neither confirm nor deny that BraveSlave”, whom the poems throughout are attributed to,“is an alter-ego and avatar to enable the author to say with force what he sees, hears and feels” (xx). As much as Ghost Ship is clearly motivated by a desire to tell a long-denied personal story of disenfranchisement, introducing this not-quite-avatar mitigates some of the risks that come with emphasising this desire alone: both the risk that France-Williams will be accused of just projecting his own experience, but also that, for someone so used to being “tipped out and filled up” with alternative versions of himself to fulfil the expectations set by whiteness (53), any autonomous self-expression that he makes might already be compromised. Ghost Ship will find its target when it’s no longer read just as a personal testimony, but as one which is in constellation with those of other people of colour and which has found a place within a renewed Church, full of people willing to see how they too contain multitudes.
So it’s through strategies like these that I think both books already anticipate your question about how we cope with different approaches, or different rates of response, to institutional change: if the actions that result from these books weren’t polyvocal, contested, messily collaborative, they wouldn’t be true to the terrain that the books stake. And both books, understatedly, look to the Eucharist as the model and telos of such actions: not only because it’s one that we necessarily do together, but because it’s one where we necessarily fail to make good on that collaboration in our own strength. Appeals to sacramental fellowship are often wielded as a distraction from anti-racist work - the claim that “we don’t see colour, we see common baptismal identity”, and so on - but I think both books point towards an antidote to that. There’s a vertiginous moment in Ghost Ship when France-Williams praises the white solidarity shown against apartheid by John Collins, as the work of someone who ‘did not presume to come to this table trusting in his own righteousness’. The Prayer of Humble Access finds its fulfilment when we turn ‘to the voices of the oppressed’ and follow their lead, as well as when we turn to Christ at the altar (16). The difficulty we encounter in trying to “solve” racism finds its match, but also might come to rest, in the difficulty that we should face in feeling adequate to the Eucharist. I think it says a great deal that the narratives available to us of the Eucharist’s institution, in 1 Corinthians and the Synoptic Gospels, all postdate its emergence as a repeated memorial practice of the early church, a practice that we know from Paul’s letter was often practised irreverently and inequitably: what appears to be the pristine event that we’re remembering is already shaped by recuperation. So whenever we come together as Christians, we do so in the understanding that, if any more tangibly ‘political’ reconciliation is to emerge out of it, it will be the work of Christ alone; but, as soon as we understand that, we might begin to see the particular places and people gathered among us through whom it’s being manifest. We can change the institution, once we remember that the institution is his. I think that this dynamic, and its Eucharistic grounds, is made especially clear in After Whiteness’s final poem. It’s powerful in its assurance that the reconciliation can and should be felt as change, on everyone’s part, not merely in everyone continuing to more or less get along.
He blessed it and broke open his dream, one part in each hand.
To those on his left and those on his right, he said the same thing
as he handed them his dream, “Eat this dream,
and it will kill the dream that kills.”
Hands trembling, they wondered which of their dreams
would die and which grow stronger. (153)
So of course we’ll fail, and part of that failure will include us being self-righteous and overcensorious and not seeing my opponents as future collaborators (or perhaps disavowing how they act like I used to!) Jennings admits to something like this himself, in that startling poem about how ‘[t]he wall between anger and hate broke’ during his interactions with Connor, and he was left waiting for ‘the waters of hate [to] recede’ (109). The allusion to the imagery of the Genesis flood narrative feels important here. It’s a way to suggest that this failure, however regrettable, is somehow foundational and relationship-building. Just as we can’t look back before the Biblical record of institution to a “pristine” Eucharist, or before the flood to antediluvian creation, we learn to be content with ourselves as constituted by our errors - and by God’s gift of recovery from them. I think there’s also something to be gained from following through on France-Williams’s use of the Prayer of Humble Access: just as our inadequacy to receive the Eucharist isn’t paralysing but liberating as soon as we recognise the fullness of God’s mercy so - at least once we’ve reached a certain threshold of trust - we can ascribe the same patience, and the same ultimate agency, to those among the oppressed whom we see ourselves as allied to. If we’re committed, as you say, not to playing host and setting up the space as white educated people, we have to accept that our influence on the narrative is pretty minimal: if any good that we do isn’t going to make us the protagonists, neither does any obstacle we could set up need to end up being that severe.
This feels like the undertow of Jennings’s decision to end After Whiteness with a chapter on friendship and desire. “Friendship is a real thing where people open their lives to one another,” rather than worrying about achieving goals (147): it’s the essential background environment which can end up concealed or instrumentalised within academic spaces, but also in activist ones. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate that allyship and friendship don’t overlap tightly: having correct opinions doesn’t serve as criteria for friendship; the things that have most secured trust in me from my friends, including many more committed to political struggle than I am, are small inconsequential details, probably forgotten on both sides. And seeing and sharing my friends of colour’s offence at racism should also be an invitation to look out for what’s eschatological in their patience, their sense of perspective, even their sense of humour - which are harder for me to see and perhaps not mine to share. Again, there’s a less satisfying version of this that you hear in the ‘cancel culture’ world, in which actively courting and sustaining friendships with people of opposite opinions is claimed as a virtue, something which should be striven for by good liberals (or good Anglicans?!) I think this can risk what Jennings calls a ‘cruel communalism’ (147), and that it stops us from treating such friendships as a grace: they are a foretaste of what all human relationships will look like when our differences are absolved, something which the ends of both books associate with the eschatological horizon of Isaiah’s holy mountain. Unexpected friendships – whether among the strange people we find ourselves training among, or on Twitter(!) – aren’t really means of bringing this horizon about, but they might stand as inspiring articles of faith that it will come…
Jack Belloli & Hannah Swithinbank
Cuddesdon, UK and Cambridge, UK