Keynote speech for Gypsy Traveller Roma Symposium
On 29 September 2021, The Bishop of London spoke at a symposium relating to the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities.
“Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today. It’s very good to be among the members and supporters of the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. Much detailed and patient work went into briefing the General Synod of the Church of England back in February 2019 and I know that many here were heavily involved in that work. Your paper Centuries of Marginalisation; Visions of Hope was both sobering and a call to action. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with us.
At that meeting of the General Synod we heard a moving presentation about racism and discrimination against Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people. We listened to a member of the English Gypsy community, Janie Codona, talk about her experiences. They began when she was aged five. Janie told us that discrimination against GRT communities never goes away. It happens so frequently that ‘we don’t even seem to notice it half the time’, she explained.
She went on to say:
‘We don’t judge, we don’t demand apologies, we don’t say ‘oh don’t treat us that way’ because we think ‘What is the good – it is only going to happen again the next day’.
In a video on the website of the London Gypsy and Traveller community, several teenagers talk about their experience of racism. They are asked whether they are experiencing it less as time goes on: whether things are getting better. Their views vary, but it is very clear that they all know racism as a common everyday feature of their lives. They are articulate about equality and the basic truth that all human beings are created equal. They long for society to treat them and their community equally.
Similarly, three adults speak out in a film on the Roma Support Group website about the prejudice and misunderstandings which they have experienced throughout their lives. A mother describes her sadness at knowing that her children still experience the prejudice that she knew in her own childhood. As that website puts it: No one should be discriminated against just because of who s/he is. Give a fair chance to everyone and be proud of who you are.
The thoughts shared by all of those people resonate deeply with the message of the Christian gospel. With the truth that we are ALL created in God’s image and are equally God’s children. As we trace the story of Yahweh’s people through the Old Testament scriptures it increasingly becomes a story of inclusion – of the widening of God’s tent.
A key priority for those who love Yahweh is fair provision for all people. We see this in the Year of the Jubilee, when debts were cancelled. We see it in the command not to harvest the crops at the edges of the fields – so that those who have nothing can come and glean what remains. The prophets speak out for social justice, and for care of the stranger and alien. Those passing through as they make long journeys are to be welcomed and their needs met.
As we move forward to the New Testament scriptures there’s that lovely verse in Hebrews 13 about those who have offered hospitality to strangers and entertained angels unawares.
Jesus spoke and lived with a passion for those who society considered to be outsiders or even outcasts. He sits and eats with those who are shunned by others. He receives their hospitality. He makes it absolutely clear by his actions as well as his words that they are loved by his heavenly Father. They are his family, whatever their perceived status in the eyes of the establishment and the religious elite.
So our Christian tradition is steeped in the understanding that all are equally and profoundly loved by God and that the way we choose our priorities and use our resources as a society must reflect that truth. This is the place from which we must address the injustice of prejudice and racism against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. This is why we need to ask hard questions about inequitable access to education, healthcare, employment and a safe place to live.
In The Guardian in January 2016 Mike Doherty of the Traveller Movement wrote that 9 out of 10 Traveller children have suffered racial abuse and two thirds have been bullied or physically attacked.
Many from the Gypsy, Irish Traveller and Roma communities now seek to hide their identity when applying for jobs as they know it will generally reduce their chances of employment.
On the day that the General Synod listened to Janie Codona we were also briefed on some dreadful statistics relating to GRT communities, such as these:
- In 2011 life expectancy was 12 years lower for women and 10 years lower for men in these communities.
- Infant mortality in samples of the Irish Traveller community was 3 times that in the settled community.
- Forced removals impact on hospital appointments. Many GP surgeries will not register people with no permanent address.
- Discrimination exacerbates poor mental health. One study in 2004 calculated that Gypsies and Travellers are 3 times as likely to be anxious and twice as likely to be depressed as the wider community.
- Forced settlement also badly affects people who are used to living outdoors, as does the constant uncertainty for those without sites.
- There is an impact on educational achievement, with communities having low rates of literacy. School exclusion rates for Gypsy/Traveller children were 4 times above the national average in 2017.
- The Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy communities make up only 0.5% of the UK population. But in 2014, 5% of the prison population was made up of people from these communities. Along with 8% of the inmates of Young Offenders Institutes and 11% of detainees in Secure Training Centres for children and young people.
- Churches have been part of this institutional racism by failing to welcome Gypsies and Travellers into the full life of their communities. There is shocking anecdotal evidence of people being refused Baptism, Weddings and Funerals. And there are stories of churches cutting off the outside tap for the graveyard so that Travellers cannot use their water supply.
- Other factors which have combined to disenfranchise the GTR Communities are: Changes to planning guidance involving controversial definitions of Gypsies and Travellers; aspects of the Housing Act of 2016; the withdrawal of the need for Local Authorities to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers; the Control of Horses Act; and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to which my attention was drawn a few weeks ago by somebody who I think may be present today.
- Brexit, too, has brought additional stresses in relation to the need to apply for settled status.
The GRT communities are acknowledged to be among the most disadvantaged in the UK. This has been compounded in the past by lack of visibility and recognition. This year, for the first time, Roma is included as an ethnicity on the UK Census. Gypsies and Travellers have only been recognised in the census since 2011.
In one of the videos I mentioned earlier a group of teenagers describe the effects of prejudice. They talk about racism, name-calling and difficulties getting jobs. Some of them say that their teachers try to deal with the bullying but in spite of those interventions it still happens again. One of them says thoughtfully that they are not sure whether things are getting any better but that perhaps ‘We have just got used to it more’.
Janie Codona came to realise that if this situation was ever to come to an end she and others would need to call it out. So that day in February 2019 the members of General Synod committed ourselves to joining in with the task of ‘calling out’ racism and discrimination in GTR communities. Of finding ways to walk alongside our sisters and brothers and to engage with the struggle for justice and social equality.
At that Synod meeting, the Church of England made several commitments to the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities. They can be summarised as follows:
Firstly Church of England leaders will speak out publicly against the racism and hate crime directed against Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Roma. We will also urge the media to stop negative reporting and victimising of these communities.
Secondly every diocese will appoint a chaplain to Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. The intention is to provide pastoral care, harness the potential for church growth and help combat racism.
Thirdly in its forthcoming work on housing, the national church will evaluate the importance of providing sites for Gypsies and Travellers in wider housing policy. It will ask church bodies to play their part in lobbying for land to be made available.
Fourthly the church will use its relationships in Parliament and local government to collaborate on shared plans to make traveller stopping points available across England.
I rejoice that the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma is a highly ecumenical organisation. Today is an opportunity to talk about how all church traditions might work together to raise these issues and push for these changes. Several denominations already offer chaplaincy services to GRT communities, including practical, pastoral and spiritual support. On the Travellers section of the Irish Chaplaincy website I see that one key priority relates to planning law and the provision of sites. This intersects with the third and fourth commitments made by the General Synod and I wonder how we might harness our combined energy to work together on that issue. This is just one example: there will be many more where we might be more effective if we worked with one another and not in silos. Of course we need to discern, too, where the co-operation needs to be within one city or locality, and where it needs to go broader or requires a national approach.
Today is, equally, an opportunity to ask how the churches might work in partnership with the GRT communities themselves. ‘Nothing about us without us’ is a key principle in any work of awareness-raising and social change. This is not a conversation about the GRT communities, it is a conversation with GRT communities. It’s about how together we might do things differently and more effectively to challenge the inequalities and disadvantages which are an offence to the Christian Gospel. Again, you are well equipped to do this as each community is represented among the academics, lobbyists and church leaders here.
Neither is this conversation about what can be done for the GRT communities, as that approach would be to deny the wisdom, skills and agency of the communities themselves. When we recognise people of all diversities, cultures and ethnicities as children of God, the richness of our human experience is multiplied a thousand times over. We all have much to learn from those who live differently from ourselves. When people with diverse lifestyles and experiences are given the space to flourish, it becomes possible to offer our different gifts and insights to one another. It’s as though the spirit of Pentecost is released: the Holy Spirit which on that day enabled understanding among people of different lands, languages and cultures.
I realise that I run the danger of stereotyping, so forgive me if I cross that line at any point, but a nomadic lifestyle remains key to many GRT communities. This was a way of life known to our Jewish and Christian forbears who spent much of their lives journeying: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel; Moses and the Israelites who spent forty years travelling in the desert; then the nomadic prophet Elijah. Jesus himself was a child refugee, then lived an itinerant lifestyle as an adult, travelling from village to town to city. The gospels tell us he had nowhere to lay his head. And beyond the Gospels, the New Testament is strongly shaped and influenced by the journeys of St Paul.
The GTR communities have much to teach the settled community about some key social and global issues that we all face:
About commitment to wider family networks, which many other communities have lost. Including a gift for inter-generational relationships, support and care. This is very much needed by our more dispersed and fractured ‘settled’ communities where loneliness and isolation are rife.
About an appreciation and care for the natural world on which we depend. We live in a time of climate emergency and multiple environmental issues. More than ever, we need the wisdom of those who have always lived closer to the natural world and the land.
And we can learn from those in the GTR communities who still live a nomadic lifestyle – and I realise that isn’t everybody – about what it means to belong everywhere rather than only in one place. We face pressing questions about global versus local; the renegotiation of relationships with other European countries in the light of Brexit; how to respond to unprecedented numbers of people displaced by war and politics, seeking asylum, needing to make new lives in a different place.
Just looking at those three areas of experience and insight we can see that the experience of GTR communities is crucial to some of the most vital issues which our society is currently facing. But the rest of us won’t be able to receive or learn from that wisdom while prejudice and social injustice against GTR communities continue.
I’ve learnt recently that the patron saint of the Romany people is Saint Sara. Sara is said to have been the servant of one of the three Marys, who travelled by boat to the Camargue. Her statue remains in the shrine of Saint Marie de la Mer from where she is carried down to the sea in an annual ritual which honours her close relationship to the Roma.
As Saint Sara’s near-namesake, I’m delighted today to express my commitment and that of the Diocese of London to supporting the existing work of the churches among the GTR communities, and to finding ways to strengthen and expand that work. I pray that we will have ears to hear what those communities are telling us – not only about their needs but about what they have to teach us.
Not all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers would describe themselves as Christian – it is estimated that approximately 80% may consider themselves to have some Christian affiliation and others are Muslim or committed to another faith. But of course any work of social justice undertaken by the churches will address the situation of all GRT communities, regardless of any faith affiliation or none.
In March of 2019, just after the General Synod resolution was passed, Steven Horne who is a graduate researcher in theology at Canterbury Christ Church University wrote:
‘Remember, Gypsies and Travellers are not recipients of the Church and its provision, but like all people, Gypsies and Travellers are part of the Church’. He then traced the relationship between the Roma and Gypsy communities and the Christian gospel right back to the 1300s, when in the town of Modon on the coast of Greece many Roma took on the Christian faith. He goes on to suggest ‘We may not all be God-fearers, God-worshippers or regular Church attendees, but we are nevertheless a people built upon a foundation of Christianity’. He asks whether the Synod’s commitment grows out of a sense of from penance.
Penance does seem wholly appropriate for any part the church has played in discrimination against GRT communities, and all the times that we have failed to stand against prejudice and discrimination. Yet what Steven Horne calls for is not penance but partnership, saying:
‘please remember to involve us in your acts of love, consideration, and defence of our names and culture. Let’s walk together as we move forward into an age that truly sees GRT people as part of the fabric of our society’.
My prayer is that today will be a significant step forward in doing exactly that.”
Sarah Mullally, 28th September 2021