Recognising the evils of race hate has taken the church a long time. In banning clergy membership of the BNP the Synod took another significant step along the road.
British National party leader Nick Griffin has said "We affirm that non-whites have no place here at all and will not rest until every last one has left our land." He has also said that voters for his party supported "What they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists."
Supporting the BNP is starkly at odds with a faith that teaches, "Do to others as you would have them do to you", "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" and that to care for the poor, the sick and foreigners is to welcome Christ himself. In practical terms, Church of England leaders are required not only to preach a message of God's love for everyone but also to offer pastoral care to people of many different backgrounds. They cannot easily do this if they are hardline racists. Imagine the feelings of a young couple (one of whom happens to be black and the other white) if the vicar they turned to for their wedding, or to baptise their baby, had openly campaigned against "racial mixing"!
It is not only black people and their families who could be deeply offended by clergy who belonged to the BNP. Many white parents work hard in often difficult circumstances to help their children to lead decent and peaceful lives. For the church to allow someone promoting bigotry and hatred to have access to young people in a school or youth club would be a betrayal of trust. And community relations could be deeply damaged if the claims of far-right extremists to be defending Christianity were not firmly denied.
It is not surprising, then, that the General Synod of the Church of England has banned clergy from joining the BNP. Some people were concerned that this might be a violation of employees' human rights, but the Association of Chief Police Officers agreed a similar ban some years ago, after seeking legal advice (pdf). Under the Human Rights Act, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association may be restricted if this is necessary to prevent crime and disorder or protect the rights of others.
However it is not enough simply to denounce racists from a standpoint of moral superiority. It was a long and painful journey for the Church of England to recognise the evils of racism, and even now there is much room for improvement. All of us fallible humans may sometimes feel prejudice or be tempted to scapegoat others. Those who give way to such temptation are not irredeemably wicked, but can be challenged and encouraged to be more just and merciful.
Many Anglicans are already active at grassroots level, working alongside their neighbours to heal divisions and offer an alternative to the politics of blame and hatred which racist parties offer. Such organisations often exploit people who feel alienated and undervalued by mainstream politicians, especially in a climate of uncertainty. To love and care for people who might otherwise turn to parties such as the BNP, acknowledge what is positive about their cultural identity and tackle the real problems which communities face can do much to undermine the far right.
By intensifying such efforts, as well as making it clear that racism is unacceptable, the Church of England can help to bring hope to troubled neighbourhoods, and offer a positive alternative to the poison peddled by the BNP.