‘The only way forward is together’: Church of England’s first BME Dean reflects on a decade of work
Born in South Africa to Hindu parents at a time when societies remained vehemently divided, Rogers Govender’s life has always touched upon the simple concept of ‘bringing people together’.
Today, in his role as the Dean of Manchester, he works across the city-region with communities of all faiths and backgrounds, continuing to build on interfaith work he first established over 8,000 miles away.
With a desire to push for a ‘united city’, he has spent over 16 years working with faiths in Manchester and explained what he has learned during his time in the area.
“Manchester is a very diverse city but within that diversity there is still a fair amount of work to be done,” he said.
“At times, we must learn to rise above our race, culture and religion and recognise our common humanity. We need to celebrate that.
“All of us contribute to making this rich tapestry which is Greater Manchester and each and every one of us has an important part and place in our diverse society.”
A sixth generation South African, born in KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Rev Govender was first introduced to the church at the age of 17.
It was during that first visit that he jokes ‘God got a hold of me’. He felt that the ‘unity and togetherness’ which was transmitted in the place of worship drew him irrevocably in.
In 1985, the then 25-year-old was ordained by the Diocese of Natal and went on to serve there for 15 years as parish priest, archdeacon and cathedral canon.
With experience of working in diverse communities under his belt, Rev Govender decided he wanted to share his experiences with an overseas audience and so headed over to the UK to work with the Church of England.
“One of the main reasons I moved to Manchester was because I felt like I had made a contribution to cities in South Africa and I wanted to see if I could bring some of that vision to the Church of England,” he said.
“At the time, I did not envisage working on such a broad canvas as I am doing now. Today, I rejoice in this role as The Dean and relish the opportunities which are presented to me and my team.”
Rev Govender’s first role in Manchester was as the Parish Priest in West Didsbury.
There, he began to build up a reputation in the local area, working with middle and working class families from a variety of backgrounds.
He was soon additionally appointed Area Dean of Withington, overseeing 14 parishes in inner south Manchester before then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, approached him for the role of Dean of Manchester in 2006 - subsequently making him the first black Dean in the Church of England.
“It was quite a shock to the system really,” he admitted. “I was just a humble parish priest, getting on with my job in the local communities and to be invited into a post like this was a huge honour, very humbling but also rather daunting.
“It is a big job, being the dean of any cathedral is a different job than that of a parish priest. As a priest everything is very local, small scale, whereas this job is more city-wide scale, it traverses many faith communities and demographics and offers up loads of variety.
“It certainly makes for a very interesting time.”
Over the past decade, Rev Govender has continued to progress the work he is passionate about.
He has helped to establish the Multi-faith Challenging Hate Forum, Multi-faith Forum on Modern Day Slavery and just last month hosted an all-inclusive peace and unity event in the Town Hall.
As well as being a leading figure in the Christian community, the dedicated community leader says it is ‘imperative’ that he is seen as a commendable representative for the whole of the Greater Manchester area.
“Sadly we are living in a time where we are becoming increasingly suspicious of our neighbours, when acts of terrorism have increased the incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and of course in other parts of the world, the persecution of Christians,” he said.
“With this in mind, it is especially important to keep bringing communities together and not to allow these acts of terror to divide our communities. Whether we like it or not, we all live on this one planet together.
“There is nowhere else we can escape to and so we have to learn to live in peace and unity in this city, in this country and in this world.”
What keeps Rev Govender motivated? That same simple concept he first learnt about decades ago in South Africa – ‘bringing people together’.
“I’m interested in people living in peace; people learning about each other, people appreciating diversity and variety, and people moving forward together,” he said. “I’m interested in celebrating differences and in stopping people seeing differences as obstacles.
“Faith allegiance is part of a bigger story, a bigger human narrative and is something I take great pride in promoting in my role as the Dean of Manchester Cathedral.”