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CofE's first black female deacon makes legal bid to save job and home

by Press Association
Photo Credit: Church of England - Banner image
Photo Credit: Church of England

The first black woman to become a deacon in the Church of England has spoken of her desire to serve her parish as she fights to save her job and home.

Rev Yvonne Clarke, a mother-of-three who became a deacon in March 1987, was also among the first women to be ordained when she became a priest in 1994.

In the face of a battle to continue her work in the south London parish of All Saints Shirley, in Southwark Diocese, she said: “I feel no-one has consulted with me about my future here in an appropriate way.”

Her current parish would disappear under plans submitted to the Church Commissioners to cut financial pressures, but she has won a small breakthrough in being allowed to make a plea at an oral hearing, her solicitors have said.

Having served All Saints since 1998, it is the place where the Rev Clarke “would like to see out” her ministry.

She said: “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.”

Her lawyers, Leigh Day solicitors, said a hearing is set to be held in April despite a belief that the Church Commissioners will only look at paper evidence to decide the future of All Saints Shirley.

The future of the parish church, which is housed in a Grade II listed building, is uncertain.

It could be put to limited use to try to provide an income or potentially closed altogether but the proposals would see Rev Clarke lose her employment and the parish vicarage.

Members of the diverse congregation could move to other churches if Rev Clarke leaves and she could still be useful in a community role, the lawyers will suggest.

Leigh Day managing partner Frances Swaine said: “Rev Yvonne Clarke’s heritage is 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.”

She added: “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.”

On the CoE website, where she introduces herself to the community, Rev Clarke says: “I have a very strong faith, and at the core for me is to fight injustice.”

She adds: “I love to exercise: Zumba, play badminton. I am a keen yogi, I enjoy my yoga and Pilates every week.

“I would say I am ‘glampine’ – that is glamorous, a pioneer and radiant personality.”

The Diocese of Southwark confirmed it has proposed to the Church Commissioners that All Saints, Spring Park, be dissolved and divided between the parishes of St George, Shirley, and St John, Shirley.

It is suggested the current church of All Saints, Spring Park, becomes a chapel of ease for use by those who live some distance from the parish church.

The church building should be kept as a pioneer ministry to link to the community.

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”.

The parish remains unable to sustain itself either in terms of finance or governance, it added.

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