Ronald Nathan takes a look at the contribution of Britain’s Black churches to Black history, and challenges the Church to take its role to empower, encourage and protect the constituency it serves to the next level
Black History Month is a celebration of the United Kingdom’s diversity. It highlights the role played by people of African and Caribbean ancestry in these British Isles, and illustrates the historical experiences and achievements of Great Britain’s people of colour. Black Christians have to embrace the fact that Black history is about us. Historians, too, have to discover and pay respect to our role in shaping Black British history. It is our story of how we engaged social, political, economic, cultural, racial and spiritual forces.
British Black history draws data from Roman times to the present struggles and accomplishments of our children, youth, students, artisans and professionals from all walks of life. Black history inspires, motivates and challenges both the present and future generations. Black History Month is beneficial to all peoples, races, colours and ethnicities. The Black Church represents the most cohesive and strongest institution in the Black community. What is somewhat surprising is that some seek to write historical accounts of the Black presence in the United Kingdom, with little or no reference to the Black Church. This could be because we found ourselves defining ourselves around our faith commitment, as opposed to our cultural identity.
Due to negative images and meanings attached to the word ‘black’, many of us shied away from that label. However, the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s sought to reinterpret the term ‘black’ and gave us slogans such as ‘Black is Beautiful’ and ‘I am Black and Proud’. This implanted strength, pride and positive identity into the term ‘black’.
Many in the Black Church detested the term ‘Black’ and rejected the designation ‘Black Church’. Even so, many young people at that same time questioned, ‘What is wrong with being Black?’ Self-acceptance is vitally important in identity formation and to understand one’s significance in the world. We, as Christian leaders, are therefore required to communicate effectively to our children and youth their value as to their specificity, their Blackness and their universality among the human race.
It is interesting to note that since the SS Windrush landed at Tilbury Docks, some sixty-six years ago, the Black Church has been on a quest for acceptability and respectability. We really do so want to be accepted and respected by other churches – especially White Christian denominations. This validation we consider crucial to our role in society, and verification that we are bona fide. This quest, however, can be a two-edged sword: it could propel us to do the work of the church as priest, pastor and prophet to our community and world, or it could feed an inferiority complex that has us constantly trying to be like others and seeking validation from others, which undermines and undervalues who we are and what we do.
This respectability thing dogs us continually. The growth of the prosperity gospel emphases among our churches has more to do with wanting to join mainstream middle class status than to do with the teaching of the Bible on incarnation. A colonial legacy, some still believe that acceptance of the status quo brings respectability and power. We have therefore downgraded the critical prophetic edge of the Church and the Christian message.
The reality is that the status quo empowers the powerful, and tends to institutionalise systemic injustices into the very fabric of society. This then wages war on the poor, the weak, the needy and the vulnerable. Many of our people are disproportionately represented among these. Now, please do not misunderstand what I am saying. This is not a call to abandon annual conventions and to take an oath of poverty. I am purporting that we ‘let the Church be the Church’ and that necessitates a prophetic critique of the society and of the Church itself. This includes our part in history, and our relationship with different segments of the Black community and interactions with the wider community.
We should celebrate the successes of the Black Church, as it offers to the Black British community motivation to continue in the struggle. Here are a few of our successes:
- Many of the major Black denominations – the New Testament Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, Church of God in Christ and the New Testament Assembly – have all celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries in the United Kingdom. Their staying power should be saluted.
- We have inspired Black Christians in the older denominations to challenge racism and discrimination in their respective churches.
- We have raised the profile of successful Black Christian leaders on a national and international level, including the likes of Kate Coleman, Angela Sarkis, Dionne Gravesande, Matthew Ashimolowo, John Francis, Joel Edwards, Eric Brown and Joe Aldred – to name a few.
- We have served in certain social fields with distinction, through our provision and hosting of mental health services, senior citizens’ homes, youth clubs, mentoring programmes and Saturday schools, etc, for which we now have a plethora of persons with designations such as OBEs and MBEs.
- We have raised up, primarily among our African sisters and brothers, entrepreneurial Christian leadership that has revealed the business possibilities of being in church.
- Due to the strong emphasis on reading, singing, performing and public speaking, we have produced excellent scholars and professionals.
- Our music has transformed the popular media, and has taken gospel from the choir loft to the Royal Albert Hall. There is no doubt that our musicians, dancers and performing artists are some of the best in the world.
- Academic theology has benefitted from the emergence of womanist and Black theology in Britain, which acts as a critique to the status quo ideas of God and the conditions of people of colour.
- The spread of spectacular awards we give to excellence in our communities speaks volumes to our confidence and ingenuity.
The above are just a few of the many contributions that the Black Church has made to empowering its followers and contributing to Black history. The greatest challenge and future work has to be how it represents those who are not numbered among the faithful.
For every person who gets ‘into the spirit’ in our church on Sunday, three persons will be ‘catching hell’ to have a descent quality of life. They will be battling with the economic downturn that has made them poorer, and with much of the negative experiences associated with the police, the penal institutions, the mental health services, the schools and colleges, the adoption and fostering services and the housing authorities. They will not have the Black Church support system, nor its extended family to encourage them to go on up a little higher. The way forward has to be to create from our present vantage point institutions of assent.
Where are our financial institutions to buffer the difficult boom-and-bust cycles? Twenty-five years ago, we did not see the wisdom of a Black bank. Maybe now is the time? Is there not room in our calendars to formulate a Black Church investment fund to facilitate small- and medium-sized business development?
Can we expand our ideas of Christian healing to include the development of world-class research and teaching hospitals, and the creation of community health plans? Where is the strategic united leadership that would allow us the critical mass to put pressure to bear on incidents of unfair judicial and policing policies?
How will we engage with the upcoming General Election, moving from manifesto to preparation of a slate of candidates trained to understand politics, and with a value system informed by the biblical principles? Is it not time that we take advantage of the ‘free schools’ educational policy to get our own Pan African University started?
The Black Church has to translate its dynamism within the society, and take ownership of our human, social and financial resources. Black history has to move from mere protest to empowerment, and the Black Church has to at the forefront of this paradigm change. Let’s make history by building upon that which our foremothers and forefathers were able to accomplish.
Ronald A Nathan, a former Director of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, now works as an international social development consultant, motivational speaker and coach, and is an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. His latest book, ‘Defying the Odds from the Ghetto to the Globe’, is available from Plain Vision Publishing.