Christianity and Ethnicity
Making up your mind about ethnicity in Christianity (Please read carefully and pray)
The presence of the Spirit and the mind of the Spirit are too inseparable characteristics of his person. We cannot honour the presence of the Holy Spirit without the affirmation of his person.
Bringing a Kingdom emphasis
The very prominence of aspects of religious identity indicates a shift from classical sociologies of structure (i.e. the influence of Christianity on politics and government) to the more post-modern variety of choice and personal identity. A clear example of this is the formation of independent Pentecostal African Caribbean churches to whom such choices have not been as widely available up until recently in the UK. We may also note that this emphasis persists amongst the English in certain types of personal preference in their religion.
Some may say we can afford to remain apart. We are now prosperous. We already have everything we need. But this is not the right apostolic emphasis. Paul says
1 Corinthians 4 v.8
‘Already you have all you want! Already you have become Kings- and that without us! How I really wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you’.
The history of Israel indicates a development from honouring the presence of God in the temple towards honouring his presence as King in the nation.
Secularisation in the UK
If secularisation is defined as the loss of the social significance of Christianity our personal identity will need to also be of structural significance to overturn a secularised agenda in the UK and to bring about revival. In other words some consideration of the political impact of African churches is needed.
How important then is ethnicity in religion? We will consider 2 views. One is the vital significance of ethnicity and the other that ethnicity is relatively unimportant.
i) Ethnic identity is vitally important in religion
African-Caribbeans were mainly Christian on arrival but had to deal with racism in religious institutions. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had to establish their own places of worship. Religion was part of their difference. For African-Caribbean’s then religion was not a significant part of their ethnic difference, at least as expressed in their religious affiliation.
Yet charismatic and Pentecostal African churches with their own church affiliation have grown rapidly in recent years. These are those who are in general agreement with the evangelical community in the UK with some doctrinal differences. Since 1998 (Christian research) found 3 new churches per week. Half this growth is from Black churches. Also of note is growth in Chinese, Croatian, Portuguese and Tamil churches. By contrast 3 older churches per week in the Auk have been closing.
Religion is not simply a matter of spiritual fulfilment for these new churches. They are necessary in order to affirm the significance of ethnic identity in religion. Not only is this necessary for these churches themselves they are vital to encourage and realign ethnic religious identity among the English. New churches of this particular type should be celebrated as a positive development, and a movement towards the mutual affirmation of one another’s ethnic identity as a deeply rooted aspect of faith. Ethnic identity in religion matters a great deal.
ii) The case against
There are still significant examples of historic churches in which Africans are participating. E.g. Anglican Church in Peckham, which was recently featured in songs of praise. Many other denominations have a black membership. In principle therefore it is not necessary for there to be such a strong assertion of ethnic religious identity. The new African Pentecostal churches are overstating their case.
The adoption of different styles of worship in these churches would tend to suggest the incapability of the white churches to assimilate the ethnic difference or vice versa Maybe it is better to simply remain independent and not raise the issue too much. Focusing on ethnic difference simply highlights an unbridgeable cultural difference. It really isn’t that important if we keep ourselves to ourselves. We shouldn’t stir up a hornet’s nest. Things are fine as they are.
What is more there is too much emphasis on experience in Pentecostal churches, too much exuberance, dancing and joyful expression. This contrasts too deeply with historic denominations. Some reserve and order is an essential aspect of the character of the UK. By contrast Africans are louder, more expressive and ‘fit’ the Pentecostal faith more.
Secondly the ‘religious’ aspect is also too extreme. For example Pryce (1979) notes how African churches encourage hard work, sexual morality, prudent management and strong support of family and community. But some may well argue that although these are the same Christian values as the white evangelical churches there is a cultural and religious difference in the way that this is undertaken in African churches.
Simply to present a cultural and ethnic contrast is an inadequate way of dealing with the issue. Ethnic identity is too much of an essential aspect of how God has created people to be to be ignored or sidelined. What is required is a more general appreciation of our common humanity in which there are exciting differences that are to be mutually affirmed. Ethnicity in Christianity really does matter.
The difference in culture between African and English culture that exists has on the one hand been overemphasised and on the other not celebrated enough. The great benefits of dynamic interface have been passed over. Are they being passed over by you?
Come and visit Victory Church, Oxford at 10 am this Sunday and see for yourself what God is beginning to do. We meet at Cheney School, Headington, Oxford.
This article was written by Nick Bensted, Principal of the embryonic All Nations Tutorial College