First black woman to become Church of England deacon loses appeal to keep South London parish open

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The first black woman to become a Church of England deacon has lost an appeal to keep her parish in South London open.

Reverend Yvonne Clarke, 62, was ordained 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, will see Rev Clarke’s parish absorbed into two neighbouring parishes.

Rev Clarke claimed due process had not been followed and she had not been consulted about the changes.

The Church said financial pressures meant it needed to merge Reverend Clarke's parish with two other churches in the Southwark area.

Reverend Yvonne Clarke with MP Sarah Jones Credit: Leigh Day

At a hearing earlier this month 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."

"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.

Reverend Yvonne Clarke (centre), with her legal team and supporters, outside the Emmanuel Centre, south west London earlier this month Credit: Leigh Day

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.