Black-majority congregational praise and worship times resonate with lively chorus singing. Quite often you will hear, "We'll sing a lively chorus while the offering is collected", or "Let's sing a lively chorus while we have some testimonies". As I reflect upon the conference, first, in terms of the interaction between Black Christianity in Britain and the White dominated WCC, and second, Black on Black Christian fellowship, both of which were facilitated by the process, two choruses spring to mind.
1 Get together, get together, get together in the Lord
2 Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light
Like a little candle burning in the night
In this world of darkness so we must shine
You in your small corner and I in mine
A Brief Summary
One could sense a certain uneasiness in the formal opening proceedings, but this soon dissipated as we greeted one another and blended our voices with the host worship leaders. We were treated at the outset to the exquisite sound and feel of British Black Gospel, as a group of young people from Leeds led the Conference in worship. The evening's service structure was unlike a normal Black worship service, and fuelled my suspicion that neither Black worship nor White worship is at their best in the company of each other. We ended up with an abridged version of both subconsciously attempting to meet each other half way, resulting in neither being as authentic as they are on their own. I am aware that a number of Black people left the meeting on Thursday night feeling 'less than happy' about the way the worship had gone.
The opening presentation, delivered by John Briggs of the WCC Central Committee, provided a good platform from which to launch the Conference, focusing as it did upon the need for greater co-operation across the Christian spectrum. Pauline Huggan greeted the participants and guests and led into the Conference programme.
Christian care was demonstrable as local people took the visitors into their homes for the night.
Friday, the only full day of Conference, was a taxing day. I must first make mention of the excellent Caribbean cooking provided by our hosts. Morning prayers focused upon "God's round table" as the reference point for freedom "from self-interests, privileges, denominational fights, cultural superiorities, and (acquiring the willingness to) serve God's people on the streets" (R H I Gerloff). Conference was challenged throughout the day by way of presentations and group work.
Saturday morning prayers were followed by reports from the groups. This was itself followed by a plenary session which focused upon the matters raised in the group discussions the previous day, and was rounded off by a session on The Way Ahead. We closed with fervent prayer for "Oneness in Christ" in which witness, socio-political awareness, pastoral care and prophetic ministries transcend our cultural and denominational boundaries.
The stated WCC's reason for attempting to "reach out to Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent Churches", and in particular Black Churches in Britain, is "as a drive towards mutual awareness, contacts and understanding and the removal of misconceptions". We have to respect their word that "these undertakings are not meant to be a membership campaign" (Hubert van Beek). At the highest level this was an act of altruism on the part of WCC, an attempt to "treat one another like sister and brother". On another plain one could speculate on an implicit marketing or public relations strategy being at play. However, it would be fair to say that the conference was conducted in a spirit of reciprocal respect, devoid of any obvious attempt to recruit new members.
When Christians "get together in the Lord", Jesus promised to be in the midst (Matthew 18:20). A presence which illuminates hitherto dim crevices. It became clear that some WCC criteria for membership mitigate against British Black majority Churches joining, if they wished to. For example, the 25,000 members minimum threshold, and national autonomy requirements immediately exclude most, possibly all. Should we, if desirous of membership affiliation, engineer some kind of denominational demographics which would bring together presently disparate groups just to comply with the WCC requirements? Should we disconnect ourselves from the various International Headquarters, usually abroad, in order to join the WCC? Both of these might be desirable objectives in their own right, but whether it would be proper for them to be realised through the desire to join the WCC is a matter for serious reflection and conjecture.
The question of association and representation, from the position of non-membership was discussed. How meaningful could any such interface be? Who would benefit from such an arrangement? How different would this be to the historic juxtaposition of Black denominations having little or no influence on the organisational and doctrinal constructs which, though governed by them, are the exclusive prerogative of their White governing bodies?* It is important that any new relationship between the Black majority Churches and the WCC is meaningful, and meets the aspirations of the Black-majority Churches themselves. As Cone puts it, 'The phrase "Black ecumenism" is significant because Black Churches have traditionally resisted the limitation of the term ecumenical to the unity among Churches. Black Church people contend that the search for unity in Jesus Christ cannot be separated from the struggle for justice in society' (Speaking the Truth, p.143). This, I believe, goes to the heart of the difference between the aspirations of the two parties concerned, and we must not rush into any alliance which has not been thoroughly thought out, interrogated and examined as to its relevance to the Black Christian community it would be designed to serve.
When we 'get together in the Lord' we do so on terms of mutuality and love.
*The New Testament Church of God and Church of God of Prophecy are linked to American Headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee
Black on Black dialogue
A bonus of this get-together was the fact that Black Church leaders were able to dialogue with each other, some for the very first time. The complexities of the Black majority Church movement in Britain is often underestimated, not only by "outsiders", often by the Churches themselves. For example, ecumenism is synonymous with inter-faith in the understanding of many older Black leaders. Oliver Lyseight, founder and former National Overseer of the New Testament Church of God writing about what he calls "ecumenicalism", says, "Even people who kill and destroy; and people who pronounce death on other people over religion, are in this inter-faith. I cannot have fellowship with these kind of people. Only children of God can come together for inter-faith" (Forward March, p.84).
With this as a basis for understanding ecumenism, most Black leaders just get on with their own business in their own denominational stream. Unfortunately, the exclusion of the outside world often imply the exclusion of other Black brothers and sisters in other organisations also. Alienation reigns supreme. Thus, it was important and refreshing to hear the radical voices of Robert Beckford and Jerisdan Jehu-Appiah, both from the youthful spectrum of Black Church life, the former from the African Caribbean, the latter from the African tradition. Although their articulatedness is more representative of their generation, in retrospect it might have been good to have had also a written presentation from the older generation.
This Conference provided the venue and occasion for an only too rare meeting point between the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Black Church in Britain. The inadequate interface between African Caribbean Christians is surpassed by the almost total void of interaction between this group and the African Churches. Then within both traditions is the developing divide between the older and younger more articulate, more assertive, more militant voices. The agendas are very different. This could be discerned at the Conference with the younger representatives asking for more emphasis to be put on "this generation's needs". The presence of a representative of the Alliance of Asian Christian brought into focus the dilemma concerning the scope of Black Christianity. Are Asian Christians included in this classification? Then there are the thousands of Black Christians in "main line" denominations such as Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, etc., who are in solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters in the traditional Black-majority Churches. Should not "Black Church Movement" mean them also? Is there the desire for ecumenism within British Black Christianity? We may need to answer this question first before moving on to wider involvement. On the other hand, the whole matter may well belong together. That the caucus group has been asked to work towards an Annual (Black) Church Leaders Conference, must be seen as an acknowledgement of the need for such dialogue, but this can only be an initial step in the right direction to dispensing with our present position of shining almost exclusively in each of our small corners. Jesus bids us shine together, no longer 'you in your small corner and I in mine'.
Blacks are not as keen as Whites are to describe Black people as being from "...bottom of the social ladder" (A Plea for British Black Theologies, p.4), nor as constituting "...the underside of history" (Church in Black and White, p.3), nor am I personally prepared any longer to agree with James Cone in linking the origin of Black Theology exclusively with slavery. There is a certain fixedness about these positions. Surely Black Theology is inseparable from Black life before slavery, and subsequently. This Conference articulated a voice which reflected a new confidence, particularly among the younger generation. The recommendations from the syndicate groups should go some way to enhancing the development of a theological perspective which is peculiarly British and Black.