By Rev. Ronald A. Nathan
People of African Descent (Blacks) make up 3% of the population of the United Kingdom. We have been present in varying numbers in Great Britain since the Romans invaded these islands in the 1st century AD. We are intrinsically linked to the historical and social evolution of this maritime nation which became a great empire. We have contributed to the national economic, social, religious and political systems and also created our own cultural and religious, historical traditions and institutions. The failure of the White majority population to acknowledge, embrace and celebrate these salient facts is due to nation’s imperial historic ambitions and colonial biases fuelled by ethnocentrism, racism and xenophobia.
The common features shared between the United States of America and the United Kingdom cannot go amiss especially in light of recent political and social changes that has taken place during the past year. The special relationship spoken of by our national leaders on both sides of the pond (euphemism for the Atlantic Ocean) speaks to these commonalities. Today, these could be summarised as a trend towards populism, protectionism and fascism. What seems like unprecedented change towards by-gone days and by-gone ways, has left many in the Christian church and outside of the church in shock.
As persons of faith, and people of colour, we know there is a clear biblical tradition that the Christian Church has a responsibility to critique the nation-state and international trends according to certain divine principles. These principles include Faith, Truth, Love, Justice and Righteousness. They have to be enacted and enshrined into our governing systems, institutions, policies, practices and habits. As members of the body of Jesus Christ we must be courageous to speak truth to power. Like the children of Issachar we need an understanding of the times and know what the people of God should do. The passivity induced by colonial mission theologies was used to enslave and pacify us. These have to be shaken off especially by those of us who are at the heart of the former colonial empire.
“The United Kingdom has also produced its own black theologians in Kate Coleman, Dulcie Dixon, Joe Aldred, Anthony Reddie and Robert Beckford to name a few.”
The Black Church in the United Kingdom, includes branches of several American Christian denominations such as the Church of God in Christ, Church of God (Cleveland), Church of God of Prophecy, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church denominations. We have not been as vocal and visible in the fight for civil rights as our American counterparts. In recent times, there has been a more deliberate move to articulate a different theological orientation and ecclesiastical direction. However, Black Theology is still peripheral to the practice of most Black Churches in the United Kingdom, even though we have played host to the likes of James Cone, Cornel West, Randy Bailey, Jacqueline Grant, Delores Williams and Katie Cannon. The United Kingdom has also produced its own black theologians in Kate Coleman, Dulcie Dixon, Joe Aldred, Anthony Reddie and Robert Beckford to name a few.
“A lack of prophetic practical theology limits black theology to judgements, oracles and theological apologetics. Reform requires work within the religious folk life of the faith community”
The late Dale Andrews, summed up the situation between black theology and the black church well when he stated, “A lack of prophetic practical theology limits black theology to judgements, oracles and theological apologetics. Reform requires work within the religious folk life of the faith community”.1. The fact that Black Theology has become a somewhat closeted academic exercise within university halls and theological conferences is a challenging one. This is especially so for those of us who identify with the Christian idea that ‘to go to the byways and hedges’ is to make theology public, one that interacts within public spaces and the conditions within which the public lives.
For example, we can be in no doubt that people of African descent are generally found numbered amongst the poor, working and lower middle classes of British society. This makes our people the most vulnerable to the economic, social, political and immigration fallout triggered by or aggravated by the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
What therefore should be the role of a Black Pastor committed to a black theological praxis in a post-Brexit society? Here are five areas of concentration that would bolster the impact of the Black Church in the lives of people of African descent and by extension other communities in the United Kingdom.
- Greater emphasis on educational advancement and provision. The vulnerability of black children and youth in the United Kingdom in respect to gun and knife crime comes out of a context of oppression, marginalization and racism facilitated by poor educational standards, cultural bias and disproportionate exclusion from educational institutions. This proactivity by the Black Church could include the establishment of Saturday schools, mentoring programmes and career enhancement initiatives.
- The creation of independent institutions of social and economic uplift. With a collapsing health and social sector a by-product of a declining ‘empire’ action needs to be taken that includes the development of business courses, establishment of business incubators, creation of social housing associations, health provision, homes for senior citizens and fostered children, credit unions and investment clubs.
- Involvement in civil rights and empowerment programmes. There is a serious lack of community organizing, political education and other policy-making initiatives in and around the Black Church UK. The Black Church Political Mobilization- Manifesto for Action which is by no means a radical document, is still unheard of in many black congregations in the UK even though their national leaders are signatories to it.2. There are organizations such as the UN- International Decade for People for African Descent, the international Reparations Movement, and the Anti-Slavery International which could do with the support of the Black Church. This would also stem the outflow of youth and millennials from our churches who consider us as unengaged, uncaring and irrelevant.
- Engage in an aggressive outreach development programme. This programme should be extended to small isolated Black communities across the country and even into Europe. To whom much is given much is required.3. Of course, this has to engage our Church’s evangelism and missions departments but it should not stop there. In light of the growing levels of racist attacks and xenophobic organising taking place, we need to mobilise legal challenges to inequality and racist laws and practices. Further to this is the monumental needs of our mother continent Africa, with its 54 independent countries. The best way we can help African countries to invest in its peoples, institutions and countries.
- Develop a deeper commitment to ecumenical endeavours. We cannot play our prophetic role in British society or internationally if we continue to allow ourselves to be divided into clubs that do not serve our interests and many that continue to supress and oppress us. As people of African descent we are spread across all denominational and religious borders. Yet we face the same debilitating impact of racism, classism and sexism. Whether we have just arrived from the continent or Africa or came via the Caribbean and South America or we can trace five generations born in the United Kingdom, we face the same challenges of disadvantage and social exclusion.
We must seek to create new partnerships and alliances with each other and other progressive Christians in the United Kingdom, Europe and further afield. Capacity building is vitally important. There is a Jamaican proverb that says ‘one, one, cocoa ah fill de basket’ this is true for us now as it was a century ago.
In this the fiftieth year of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the publication of the seminal volume Black Theology and Black Power by professor Cone, we must press on to create a different reality for our nations, communities, families and institutions. 4. Surely that is the interface between black theology and public theology.
1.Dale P. Andrews, Practical Theology for Black Churches. 2002. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Academic
2. The Black Church Political Mobilization- Manifesto for Action 2015 London: National Church Leaders Forum
3. Luke 12:48
4. Black Theology and Black Power James Cone 1968 New York: Orbis Books
Ronald A. Nathan is the senior pastor of the Ransom AME Zion Church, London England, A member of the Board of Convenors of the Trans-Atlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. A member of the Board of Synergy Partnership a Christian network working against gun and knife crimes in London.
“The Black Church ‘s commitment to social justice, peace, economic equality, and ecological consciousness, is central to the ministry of the Jesus Christ.”
This is part of our series on AfroCultures, God-Talk and the African World.
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