The British Church: Strategies for addressing the dichotomy between White and Black

by Olu Ojedokun

This paper makes an attempt to explore solutions to some questions facing the British churches operating in a climate of different and diverse cultures? It explores whether division into separate churches is a way forward to address the differences and diversities? Or whether rather they should seek to ensure arrangements are made for the ‘Grecians’ (Others) to be cared for amongst them. Fernando (1998:230) Thorsten (2008:69).

My suggested starting point is an attempt to draw from the Acts of Apostles, 6:2, examining the response to the complaints made by the Hellenists and how the twelve brought together the ‘whole community’. This was a situation where the church was faced with a practical problem of unity because of its multi-cultural nature, and it deals with it immediately and sensitively. Are there lessons for the church today?

The Status Quo
The British Church as a whole has seen a steady decline in both membership and Sunday church attendance in the last two decades. While in 1980 8.1 per cent of the population went to church on Sundays this figure was down to 5.3 per cent in 2005 (Brierley 2005b:2.21). In this same period the number of church members dropped from 6.6 million to 5.6 million (:2.23). Whilst this has prompted British theologians and church leaders to rethink the traditional understanding of church and mission, through a variety of publication among which is:

Intelligent Church (Chalke & Watkis 2006);
Emergingchurch.intro (Moynagh 2004), Changing Communities: Church from the grassroots (Hinton & Price 2003);
Invading Secular Space: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church (Robinson & Smith 2003);
• (Maybe the most influential publication has been the) Mission-shaped Church (CofE 2004), a report from a working group of the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council.

These reports have in common their conspicuous silence about migrants as potential mission partners for a shrinking British church. It would seem that Christian migrants are obviously not seen as agents of change by the majority of British mission experts and church leaders. Thorsten (2008: 190)

However, this paper seeks to pick up the suggestion that Christian migrants can help Christians in the United Kingdom to see and experience what it means to be a stranger and thus prepare them for their mission towards their postmodern friends, colleagues and neighbours, as well as those on the margins of society. Ideally for this to happen it is suggested that the migrant’s churches would be required to remain and stay in contact with indigenous church and resist the trend of forming their own separate churches. For the alternative impairs their role model status as agents of mission in Britain. Thorsten (2008: 193). The reality, however, is that many of the migrants over the past 40 years have formed separate Churches all around the United Kingdom and it has become a fact of life Sturge (2005).

Many of these churches are described as Minority Ethnic Churches, Black Majority Churches or even ‘African Majority’ Churches. For the purpose of this paper I will refer to them as mainly ‘Minority Ethnic Churches’. The formation of these churches over the years has raised a number of challenges, some are highlighted by Prill Thorsten, which this article intends to explore some in the paragraphs below.

The fact is that by their very nature Minority Ethnic Churches have the propensity to be insular. This insularity does curtail their influence, in the area of hospitality and the characteristics of their mission. These churches consists of huge volunteer migrants and their focus is mainly determined by their own ethnicity, they see their default remit as targeting their own group. These makes them intrinsically exclusive, in that they unwittingly exclude both the dominant ethnic group and other ethnic minorities. This raises attendant issues of: Introversion, over-dependence on population movements, exclusivity.

They tend to be detached from the local community and its needs that most of their income and energy is spent on serving and caring for their own church members, the churches sometimes morph into a social club where social and cultural activities become the primary focus of church life.

Over-dependence on population movements:
They depend on such movements to sustain their membership and mission. Without the influx of their own ethnic group even a mission-minded minority ethnic church would struggle to survive unless it manages to engage second and third generation members.

The exclusive character of a local minority church runs contrary to the inclusive character of Christianity and God’s mission. Jurgen Moltmann (2000:19) argues:
The negations of this thesis follows accordingly: Christianity cannot be a family religion, a tribal religion. Or the religion of a particular people or nation. It cannot be a male religion. And it cannot be the political religion of a particular government. If these religious forms develop, Christianity becomes so deformed as to be unrecognizable.”

The default mode of having their mission focus exclusively on their own ethnic group or race, minority ethnic churches ignore the fact that risen Jesus ‘boldly and unreservedly’, sends his followers to disciple “all nations” (Bosch 2004:64-65)

The Scriptural Basis for a Multi-Cultural Church
When scripture is examined it indicates the Church in Antioch was a multi-ethnic church that had been founded by migrants who had fled religious persecution. Thorsten (2008:74). There are therefore some lessons still relevant for us today’s contemporary times. Galatians 3:27-28, these verses support the fact that Christians not only belong to God through faith in Christ but also to one another. Furthermore it would appear that central to Paul’s vision is that the Christian community should be characterised by unity, equality and the breaking down of all barriers between its members.’ Thorsten (2008:77). Galatians 3:27-28

J L Martyn (1988:381-383) goes on to describes the vision of Church as a:
Community of the new creation in which unity in Christ has replaced any religions and ethnic distinctions in which the old creation was built upon.’

In other words ‘This bond of unity has priority over cultural, social or national allegiance’ (Thorsten 2008:78) and Dunn (1998:208) adds:
‘…not as levelling and abolishing but as an integration of just said differences into a common participation in Christ where they enhance …. the unity of the body, enrich the mutual interdependence and service of its members.’

It is apparent from above that apostle Paul does

not promote a simplistic notion of unity, and that Christian unity is more than an ideal. Christian unity has to be lived in the local church. Thorsten (2008:78-79)

In Acts of Apostles:
‘….the church decided not to demand cultural assimilation from Gentile Christians. It made clear that they were not expected to become Jewish.’ Any insistence on this would be a stumbling block for Gentile integration into the Church and would endanger the unity of the whole Church. However, we must not be uncomfortable to ask them to observe the minimum requirements that had been set for ‘strangers’ wanting to enjoy fellowship.’ Thorsten (2008:76)

I agree with John Stott (1967:75) that heterogeneous congregations are stronger than homogeneous ones. ‘The more mixed the congregation is, especially in ‘class’ and ‘colour’, the greater the opportunity to demonstrate the power of Christ.’

This leads to the position that to participate in God’s mission the church must replicate Christ’s incarnation. Thorsten (2008:221) would also draw from the Church of England (2004) report Mission-Shaped Church that aligns itself with the need for a mission-minded church is incarnational:

A missionary church seeks to shape itself in relation to the culture in which it is located or to which it is called. Whenever it is called to be cross-cultural then its long-term members or initial team lay aside their cultural preferences about church to allow the emergence of a form of church to be shaped by those seeking to reach.” (CofE 2004:81)

Authors such as Gailyn Van Rheenen (1996:72) understand incarnational ministry first and foremost as ‘identification ministry’. He argues that Christians ‘must become God’s message in human flesh dwelling among people’ (:73). In a similar vein, Mark Norridge (2004) asserts that mission means identification with people. In his article Incarnational Mission Norridge speaks of ‘complete identification’ with the target group.

He writes:
As an incarnational community we are called to complete identification with those to whom we are reaching. This includes their pain and their sufferings, as well as their pleasures and their joys. Following the footsteps of the Isaianic Servant we can be part of absorbing their pain, even as Jesus did on the cross.” (:14-15).

He argues that it involves the following:
• a denial of rights;
• a self-emptying; and
• Cultural adoption.

Darell Whiteman (2003:408) describes the process of cultural adoption:
“In the same way in which God entered Jewish culture in the person of Jesus, we must be willing to enter the culture of the people among us whom we serve, to speak their language, to adjust our lifestyles to theirs, to understand their worldviews and religious values, and to laugh and weep with them.”


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