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Robert Beckford



It is impossible to provide an overview of black church life in Britain. This is because no two churches or denominations are alike. Therefore, any attempt to provide an overview or summary will at best be limited and at worst, inaccurate. Therefore, all I will attempt to do in this short paper is present a series of issues that have emerged from dialogue with African Caribbean-British church leaders. Also the influence of teaching undergraduate students in Birmingham. And the results of conversations with black theologians such as Professor James Cone in the USA, Itumeleng Mosala in South Africa, and Dr Noel Erskine, and Dr Lewin Williams in the Caribbean over the last three years or so. Let me begin by unpacking the contents of my title.


1 Domestic neo-colonialism

The context that we find ourselves in today as black British people can be described in many ways and through a variety of intellectual disciplines. However, I am concerned with the social and political world in Britain and Europe in which we live in the latter part of the twentieth century. I agree with black British scholars who describe our situation as that of a 'domestic neo-colonial situation'.0 By this I mean that black people in Britain represent a Caribbean Diaspora in this country. And as such, we are faced with systems and structures of discrimination that began working upon us in British colonial and imperial history.

We still have to grapple with systems of white supremacist thought in Britain. White supremacist thought is a system of belief that promotes all things European and Western above all things African.0 White supremacist thought in the form of white racism constantly changes and undergoes reconfiguration.0 It is not the sole property of extreme right-wing politics: it is found in the so-called respectable immigration fears of the Conservative Party; in TV and Media items that represent black people as animalistic and subhuman; and is part of everyday common-sense thinking. For example, it is found in the popular notions that suggest black people are more physical than intellectual, more emotional than rational.

White supremacist thought has been internalised in some aspects of black church life in Britain. In general, like the Apostle Paul, we have fallen into the trap of being more concerned with the North (Europe) than hearing the Spirit's voice pointing Southward (Africa and the Caribbean). Many black churches are places where we deny aspects of our blackness. For example, we represent Jesus in icons at home and at church as a European Gentleman with blue eyes and blonde hair. All of which suggests that the people in the New Testament world were closer to Europe and European values than Africa. Similarly, we use a colour symbolism in our theology which makes whiteness the colour of purity and all things dark the colour of sin and destruction. In sum, we live and minister in a multi-cultural, multi-racial domestic neo-colonial situation. I now want to unpack what I mean by modernity.


2 Modernity

When I was growing up in the seventies, it was OK to talk about the black community in general terms. We used words like Caribbean people, Black people and Jamaican people to describe common experiences, traditions and geography. We understood experience as something that was fixed and general. For example, I believed every black person on my street liked Cricket and cheered for the West Indies when they toured in 1976. We even understood the church in similar universal and fixed terms. I believed the black churches were only attended by black people from the Caribbean or Africa. Despite some black people existing in the Anglican and Methodist Churches, we were raised to believe that our denomination had the true religion. Some black churches even went as far as making this belief part of their church creed. Moreover, no one questioned the black church tradition, because almost everyone on my street went to one of several black-led churches. However, things have changed.

In our context today, black experience is understood as being multiple. We cannot talk about one singular black identity because black experience is varied. For example, not all black people watch or even like Cricket. Likewise, black churches are populated by more than just people from the Caribbean. In my church, there are people of European, Asian, Caribbean and African descent. We all worship in an urban multi-cultural, Pentecostal context. Also, black Christians no longer see themselves in terms of narrow denominations. We recognise that religious experiences are as varied as black people themselves. There are black people in independent house churches, black people in mainstream fringe churches, as well as the more traditional locations. Furthermore, we have to recognise the growing existence of black people in other faith traditions such as Islam and Buddhism. In our post-modern world of change, variety and complexity we must also take stock of the criticisms levied against the black Christian traditions.

Many women such as Elaine Foster have criticised black Christian traditions for being sexist. Despite the black church being populated by black women, they still play a marginal role in power structures of the church.0 For Elaine Foster, black churches are "inverted pyramids" where the many women are led by the few men.

Also, many second and third generation black British criticise the black church tradition for being status quo. That is, not concerned with challenging directly and explicitly injustice and oppression. Many churches rarely mention or exorcise the demons of racism, sexism or classism. For example, I have marched against racial attacks, the poll-tax, and against Apartheid. On all of these occasions, I was the 'one-in-a-million' that was a black church-goer. It is no longer a surprise to me that Islam, with its strong emphasis on ethnic identity and militant politics, is converting 25 black men under 30 every week in England alone.0

However accurate these criticisms, they do not tell the full story. It is important to remember that black churches for three decades have been the centre of black communities in Britain's inner-cities. They have been the centre of leadership on (at least) three fronts:

- The moral and spiritual centre of black life in Britain

- The source of black graduates and professionals

- The place of refuge, sustenance and empowerment for black people

However, never at any other time have these churches faced such a crisis as confront black communities in Britain to-day. Rising unemployment, massive rates of incarceration of black males, single-parent family life, and a real decline in church-going amongst second and third generation African Caribbean people are but a few of the problems to be tackled head-on. What then is the way forward? The contents of my title suggest two areas of importance: (1) Post-Colonial theologies and (2) Post-modern theologies.


3 Post-Colonial Theologies

According to Frantz Fanon, the esteemed anti-colonial psychologist, the greatest effect of colonialism is on the individual Psyche. In short, for Caribbean people it is the internalisation of a negative evaluation of all things African-centred. In black church life in Britain this is most clearly witnessed in the unwillingness of some churches to talk about ethnicity. And also, to see themselves as part of the African Diaspora. We fail to understand the racial-politics behind events. For example, the divide and rule policies of the British in the Caribbean Islands that pitched Jamaican against Barbadian and West Indian against African are played out in the histories of many leading black denominations in Britain. Also, the 'mental colonisation' of black churches can reach such 'dizzy heights' of stupidity that church leaders with 95% black membership will proclaim, 'We are not a black church'. Another way of talking about this is to say that many 'leaders' have failed to take seriously the effects of white racism on black people in Britain. We may have encouraged our young people to work hard and get qualifications, but many have not deconstructed and exorcised the demons of mental colonisation in black church life. Post-colonial theologies in Britain must take seriously white supremacy in the social and religious worlds in which we live. I suggest two ways forward.

First: The need for social analysis. That is, the need to explore the social, political and economic contexts in which we live. This is so that we can better understand the needs of our communities. We must take seriously the importance of race, class and gender in the lives of our people. How many churches have Bible studies that explore the works of black theologians, social thinkers or even the social and political implications of the teaching of Jesus?

Second: The development of Afrocentric Resources and Perspectives. One of the effects of white supremacy on black church life is to deny the contribution of black people in history. Teaching theology has taught me that this denial also takes place in church history and church life. Therefore, in opposition, post-colonial theologies must search for resources for church life from our history and theologies. For example, we must ask 'What does the spirituality of church leaders in the Caribbean in the last century like George Liele and Sam Sharpe contribute to our understanding of the role of the church in our communities to-day'? Similarly, 'What can we learn from the history of Rastafari'? 'What was it that our young people were searching for in it in the seventies'? and 'What does it tell us about the surge towards Islam by young black men in Britain to-day'? Let me turn now to the second way forward, post-modern theologies.


4 Post-Modern Theologies

When I refer to post-modern theologies, I am thinking of the need to take diversity and change seriously. The black community is diverse, internally divided and multiple in expression of identity. For example, there are divisions in terms of age, religion, gender and class within black communities. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about black people in a collective sense. This is because there are a variety of cultural, spiritual and political journeys represented in black communities. Consequently, our understanding of what it means to be black is constantly undergoing change and reconstruction. In my opinion, there are two things of which we must be mindful of when developing post-modern black theologies:

First: The importance of dealing with change. We must be willing to develop our thinking in line with the changes that are occurring around us. For example, the intellectual demise of black men0, single-parenting, criminalisation of black men and the rise of other religions in the black community. All these show us the rapid social changes into which we have to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Similarly, we must note the emerging black middle class, the power of the black economy and growth of a black enterprise culture. These present us with other challenges which we must address.

Second: The need to explore the good and bad within black life in Britain. That is, learning from both the success and failure stories. I am suggesting that we also learn from what is difficult and ugly in black lives in Britain. This way, we take on board the complexity, diversity and problematic nature of our lives here. For example, by exploring 'dance hall culture' and 'slackness' in popular African Caribbean music, may teach us something about how many of our people have come to understand what it means to be black in Britain.0 Similarly, by exploring why many of our young people find some churches boring and irrelevant we may come to terms with our inability to make much of the Gospel meaningful today.

In conclusion, all that I have suggested may be summarised as a movement towards a PROPHETIC SPIRITUALITY.0 That is, speaking the power of God into a changing and complex world. To do this requires a radical scrutiny, examination and questioning of the way we go about being the people of God here and now. We must ask difficult questions about our traditions and Scriptures and leave nothing covered over. We bear all to our Lord and Saviour because we know that our Lord provides avenues and paths to those that ask for guidance.

As I mentioned in the introduction, it is impossible to give a total picture of church life that will please everyone or represent all that is happening. However, I am sure of (1) the rapid social change that confronts us; (2) the need to think radically and move into de-colonised, post-modern theologies; and (3) that an unwillingness to confront these issues will be to our loss. Finally, as I ponder these issues I am spurred on by the Jamaican saying "If we do not hear, we will feel".


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