Presentations on Black Majority Churches in Britain
(chaired by Bishop Joe Aldred, Church of God of Prophecy)
on Friday 1 December 1995
Presentations were given by Robert Beckford for the African Caribbean community and the Revd Jerisdan Jehu-Appiah, Musama Disco Christo Church for the African community in Britain (see full texts in the appendix to this report).
II Jerisdan Jehu-Appiah: An Overview of Indigenous African Churches in Britain: an approach through the historical survey of African Pentecostalism
Jeri also began with a warning against generalisations. Africa does not exist as a single entity but contains over 3,000 ethnic groups and several thousand more sub-cultures, religious practices, views of world and life and so on. He therefore concentrated on West Africa, and in particular Nigeria and Ghana, and in so doing did not describe the African church scene but construct a historical basis 'that will help us to understand why the churches of African origin do things in the way that they do them today'.
2 Scriptural evidence: Paul, in Acts 17:26f, speaks of God who, from one human being, created every nation 'that they should inhabit the whole earth' and 'God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him', because he is not far from each one of us. The people of Africa sought after God and were allowed to find him in the same way as people elsewhere. The human quest for God is not an event in Europe alone. Western explorers and missionaries, who claimed that Africans had no religion, were 'indeed uneducated, simplistic and shamefully ignorant'. Christianity on the continent pre-dates the Western mission, from the time of the apostles (Pentecost); trade and traffic between Palestine, Rome and Africa; the Cyrenian forced to carry Jesus's cross; the Ethiopian eunuch; Christian churches and martyrs in North Africa; the establishment of Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia around 600 - historically all long before the arrival of the missionaries, though in some way it can be said that the missionaries' Christianity 'clarified for the Africans certain statements and truths that they held for centuries'.3 African Traditional Religion is not based upon credal statements and therefore there is nothing like heresy. Since it does not have a founder, it emerges and so everybody starts it, and nobody claims ultimate authority over its practice. Only the deity itself is the authority, and the deity is local; but because there is no allegiance to the seat of the deity, it can be taken anywhere. These religions are dynamic; they are shaped and influenced in interaction with other cultures and religious practices. This also happened when Africans (eg in Palestine) came in contact with Christianity; especially so, as the event of Pentecost was a conversion experience. It is thus not surprising that European Christians failed to recognise what they met, saw and heard in Africa. In African cultures there are stories very parallel to stories in the Christian Bible which, in itself, is a collection over a long period of time. African myths and legends include the incarnation, people imbued with power, vicarious sacrifices, the tree of life, and a God as three-in-one (Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and others). Was this a parallel development? Or is there a plausible possibility that Hebrew-Jewish-Christian stories were told in Africa in such a way that they made sense to people? Africans were teaching the universal attributes of God, and they were practising Christianity though they may not have used the name Jesus Christ.
4 Missionary activities: The missionaries robbed the Africans of their personhood once they became Christians. One could not be a proper Christian and an authentic African at the same time. There are several reasons: an absence of desire on the part of the missionaries to learn from the Africans; a missiological approach which was based on coercion; a Christian practice and message which were not purely biblical but tied up with commerce and European (pagan) culture. Jeri's own grandfather was expelled from the Methodist church because he dared to allow the African talking drum in church. Everything European was good, lovable and salvific. Everything African was evil, paganistic and heathen. African and Missionary Christianity were not compatible - though both of them are 'enmeshed' in their own myths, legends, customs and traditions. This distinction is made with reference to the core of the message of Jesus Christ: the experience of his life, the experience of his sacrifice, and the meaning of this sacrifice to the peoples of the world.
5 'Christianisation' of Africa: The beneficiaries of the missionary activity were the rich, the educated, and the powerful, Europeanised and denying their Africanness, and joining the 'historic' churches. 'The close relationship between missionary activity, trade and commerce, slavery and colonisation means that for most Africans there was nothing to benefit.' Overseas academic studies, at universities of high repute, added up to the alienation of Africans from their own culture and religion. The result is that theology was de-Africanised, and African theology became corrupted. African theologians today are often only theologians from Africa who see things through the eyes of their own particular acquired (Anglican, Catholic, Methodist etc) Christian religion and know nothing or very little about, or have wrong and mistaken understandings of, the theologies and practices of the indigenous churches. Writings about these African-initiated churches are often incorrect and interpret what they have not understood - and this is the material then used in further European interpretations!
6 The Indigenous African Christian Churches emerged out of this theological and sociological context - not as a new phenomenon but as a two millennia old Christian presence. The Africans in the missionary churches never abandoned their particular practices - only they did not practise them within the boundaries of these churches. They were forced to live with a dichotomy of minds and souls which was the result of the attempt to supplant the core of their values of existence and beliefs with foreign ones. But indigenous African Christianity was 'bubbling beneath the surface'. When Wade Harris, Jehu-Appiah, Samuel Yankson, Oshitelu and others started their movements, their success lay in 'a certain sharpness of preaching'. They addressed witchcraft and evil spirits not by denying their existence but by affirming the belief in the greater power of Jesus Christ. They taught the gift and practice of healing, and they took seriously Paul's words about the wrestling against 'principalities and powers' and the 'rulers of darkness'. All of these operated within the missionary churches, but all of them were repudiated. In this way, the independent Aladura movement (Moses Orimolade), the Musama Disco Christo Church (Jehu-Appiah), the Christ Apostolic Church and many others began to flourish. This was a natural development of the encounter between the Christian message and the cultures of the African peoples. It is based on complete trust; dependence and reliance upon God; and the abandonment of fetish relics and practices.
7 The Indigenous African Churches in Europe started from the mid-sixties. In the UK we distinguish between overseas mission churches, transplanted churches, and new origin churches. The churches of the first two categories tend to be more traditional with close roots in and links to Africa; the third group is influenced by the new American Charismatic renewal. Indigenous English churches still ask, 'Are these really Christian?' Abstract themes and concepts do not have much place in these congregations; God is rather seen in relation to what he does than what he is, in day to day encounters. God is in everything, childbirth, examinations, employment, rain and sunshine.
The difference of African churches lies in three directions:
(1) They are movements which have been suppressed and need clarification;
(2) They need to re-define themselves, not only in relation to the European churches but also to the African Caribbean and North American Black churches: this is to say against an exclusivist definition of Pentecostalism as based on the primacy of glossolalia, and against the hijacked term 'charismatic' by North American denominations. The term charismatic has been used as a description of the 'prophet-healing' churches for almost a century. The British white churches have at least accepted the African indigenous churches as Christians!
(3) They need to clarify their theology in terms of systematising it from within the African movements. Formal theological education as well as research from within is still largely lacking. They should be offered time and space to arrive at their own interpretations.
8 The Way Forward: There is a concept of the church as an extended family in African societies which could benefit the wider church. The pastor is an elder in the community and relies on the answers of the Holy Spirit. Also, racist experiences are part of the daily lives of Africans and all Black people. When people are under constant pressure and surveillance, when they are constantly trying to reaffirm their humanness, when they are denied the best services, when they look at their present predicament which saps their hopes and ambitions ... there must be a place where they can sing, 'Now I am in my Father's house I can rest and enjoy his peace'. This is meant here and now: people expressing their humanity and thanking God within the church! This must be said especially in view of a new generation of Africans who were born and raised in Europe. It points to the fact that now also the African churches cannot just cling to old customs and traditions but must modify their life and work in view of this new identity. This is what an authentic African theology relevant for time and space would be all about.
9 In discussion, the concept of the 'Communion of Saints' was addressed which is not 'ancestor worship' but the presence of the Living Dead in God's presence.Also, the difference between 'religion' and 'Jesus Christ' as both expressed in different cultural ways and yet, confronting cultures, was debated.
Most of the time was spent on the re-definition of theology from African perspectives as opposed to a theology which has been the cover of an imposed religion: Many African Anglicans and others are not really qualified to talk about African Indigenous churches, and there are anthropologists who misinterpret the phenomenon by wearing European glasses. 'As a scholar you must become somehow a part of what is going on.'
I Robert Beckford: Towards Post-colonial, Post-modern, Black Churches in Britain
Robert did not give us an overview of black church life in Britain, which is impossible as no two denominations are alike. Instead, he raised a series of issues that have emerged from dialogue with African Caribbean-British church leaders, and also with students in Birmingham and black theologians in the Americas.
1 Domestic neo-colonialism results for the Caribbean diaspora in Britain in facing systems and structures of discrimination and white supremacist thought that has, in some aspects of black church life in Britain, been internalised and leads to the denial of blackness and use of white colour symbolism in theologising.
2 Modernity: Black experience in today's context is multiple and varied. We cannot talk about a singular black identity. This applies to sport as it applies to the religious experience, not only in reference to the variety in church life but also to black people of other faith traditions such as Islam and Buddhism. In changing times, we must also be self-critical as sexism, racism and classism is rarely addressed in black churches. On the other hand, for three decades they have been the centre of black communities in Britain's inner cities and as such face now the crisis of rising unemployment, incarceration of black males, single-parent families and a decline in church going.
3 The Way Forward: Post-colonial theologies are urgently needed. This applies to a positive evaluation of ethnicity and Africanness, to socio-political analysis, to mental de-colonisation (as opposed to 'We are not a black church') and to combat racism everywhere. Social analysis would include the significance of race, class and gender in the lives of black people, and Bible studies which take seriously the socio-political implications of the teaching of Jesus. Afrocentric resources and perspectives would look into history from a black standpoint, eg into the spirituality of independence leaders in Jamaica such as George Liele or Sam Sharpe, the rise of Rastafari, or the attraction of the Nation of Islam for young black men in Britain.
4 Post-modern theologies: Not only are diversity and change to be taken seriously, the understanding of what it means to be black is constantly undergoing reconstruction. First, we must be willing to develop our thinking in line with the rapid social changes into which the gospel of Christ is to be proclaimed, such as the intellectual demise of black men, criminalisation, the emergence of a black middle class, the growth of black enterprise cultures and others. Second, there must be self-criticism, ie to explore the good and the bad within black life in Britain. This corresponds to its complexity, diversity and problematic nature. Why is it 'dance hall culture' and music which express what it means to be black in this country? Why do many young blacks find churches boring and irrelevant?
In conclusion, there must be a movement towards a prophetic spirituality, that is, speaking the power of God into a changing and complex world. Not to ask difficult questions about traditions and Scriptures and indulge in a cover-up, would only be to our loss.
5 In discussion, the issue raised was that of identity: How far does the Black Church need a specific identity versus White Christianity? This points to the problems of a racist hierarchy, of white theological impositions and definitions (Pradip Sudra: 'We often seem to be defined by other people') and of an inherited inferiority complex (Malachi Ramsay: 'We are original').
The search for a social, cultural and spiritual identity corresponds to the intensity of a felt racism (Ronald Nathan: 'There is a greater necessity for its affirmation in relation to the degree of intensity of racism felt').
The issue is further highlighted by the differences in language and concepts between African and African Caribbean Christians (eg 'White' in Nigerian culture is 'applied to God himself or the angels and not to human beings with pinkish skin', Olu Abiola).
It is heightened by an existing identity crisis among black youths which is a totally different generation from black leadership in the 1950s-1970s. Relationships between church and communities fall apart. The young lose the sense for an 'extended family'. Rastafari, Islam, new types of churches pose new challenges. Are fragmentation and 'diversity' of black majority churches helpful in this respect?
In the last instance, this is not a question of 'ethnic identity' but of the liberation from oppressive structures - historically, culturally, spiritually and theologically imposed by white definitions - and from an imprisoned frame of mind ('Arise in our minds!') eg the acceptance of the superiority of 'white colour' in the Anglican Jamaican upper class.
This implies a high degree of self-criticism. After all, we are all the 'architects of our own misfortune'. It needs the Spirit - 'and the fire will come down' (J P Hackman).