“What would the black majority churches think?”
The question was posed during a meeting I was having in the course of my work – one of the many gripping ones I have to attend as part of my role working for a para-church organisation.
I glanced up and realised that the question had been posed at me. All eyes were on me, waiting for me to respond on behalf of black-Christian-kind to a question about a topic I can’t even remember now.
What I do remember is thinking: wow, they’re asking me because I’m …. black. They thought that because I am black I must go to a certain type of church. They thought that black Christians go to black majority churches.
Which meant that somewhere in their subconscious minds, the Church divided along ethnic lines.
I was fuming.
Not because I am in any way ashamed of my black-ness. This month is Black History Month. I’m proud of my heritage. I’m so very proud to be a black person. It’s an important part of my identity.
But it is not the only thing by which my identity is defined.
I’m a woman. I’m an alumna of my university. I’m a Manchester United supporter. I’m a Londoner. I’m a journalist. I’m a Take That lover. I am … not very cool.
So I would find it odd going to a Church of Women, a Manchester United Supporters’ church, the Church of the Uncool, or the Church of the Latter-Day Take That lovers, for that matter. Heaven forbid.
But – shock horror – it is actually possible to pick and choose your church depending on your ethnicity or your country of origin. You can find Polish churches, Chinese churches, Spanish churches, ‘black majority churches’.
I really don’t think this is ok.
Because I think, if we’re honest, what often lies at the heart of this type of separation is prejudice, preconceptions about those who we would perceive as ‘other’.
I don’t remember prejudice listed among the gifts of the spirit.
I don’t think many leaders of ‘ethnic’ churches set out to have their pews filled with members from one ethnic background. But humans are humans. They – even new-community-Christian-humans – like to stick to their own kind. A church leader from a certain background will be attractive to those from a similar background, while those from a totally different background may choose to worship elsewhere.
But I’m not sure that when Christ called us to “be one” he intended us to worship and fellowship only with those people who look like us, who like what we like, who speak the same language or came from the same place.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place,” we hear in Acts 2.
In one place.
I’m not going to pretend this is easy. I realise that for some people, their ethnic origin is their number one way of identifying themselves. I realise that among the people in our beautifully diverse country, there are those who have moved here and are not yet able to speak good English, who want to worship God in their mother tongue and to fellowship with people in their own language. I also realise how isolated people can feel when they sit in church unable to understand what’s going on, unable to communicate with others because of language and cultural barriers.
But I think Jesus calls us to what Owen Hylton in Crossing the Divide describes as “radical inclusiveness”. Nobody said it was easy.
We really need to be proactive in making our churches as diverse as possible.
George Yancey in One Body, One Spirit writes: “A multiracial church is a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80 per cent of the attendees of at least one of the major worship services.”
That’s what we need to aim towards.
I happen to love my own church. It is not perfect. But in so many ways it reflects the diversity we’re called to. It’s a church which stands in a leafy suburb in Kent, but on a Sunday morning you’ll see the white British, black British, white Africans, black Africans, Europeans, those from the Middle East and lots more besides.
Last month, we heard prayers in Punjabi.
But diversity of course is not just about race. I love my church because there are newborn babies and 90-year-olds. There are married couples, widows, divorcees and singletons. There are taxi drivers, journalists, investment bankers, teachers, doctors, hairdressers, students, shop assistants, retired people. There are the able-bodied and the disabled.
There are people with problems. And people who may be totally different from you in the world’s eyes, who hold your hand as you walk through those problems.
Our society is becoming increasingly multicultural. But a multicultural Church isn’t just about political correctness. A multicultural, diverse Church is beautifully symbolic of the God whose very essence is unity.
The Church therefore should be the last place where, before entering, I put on the Cloak of Race and stand side by side with those sporting the same attire as me. The Church should be the one place where the cloak matters least; where we stand together with one sole, unifying identity.