He’s praying to white Jesus
The title of this article comes from a comment that appeared as I live-streamed Mass recently. Anyone in the world who opens the relevant app can see you are broadcasting and choose to tune in. Some for honest, heartfelt reasons, some through idle curiosity, and others to provoke, mock or disrupt (we have all been aware of the recent trend for ‘Zoom Bombing’).
This comment came from someone I do not know, who does not follow me on social media and whom I’ve never interacted with. It was amidst other comments such as ‘My nan wants her nightgown back’ – a response to my vestments – so it would be easy to ignore as someone scratching in order to get a reaction. But I pondered these words a bit more and, following a conversation with a black man of Jamaican heritage, born in this country and training to be a priest in the Church of England, it prompted me to write.
I am a very visual person, my study is packed with icons and images that help to focus my prayer and inform my imagination, drawing me into the lives of the saints, Mary the Mother of God, and Jesus Christ Himself. I have to admit, the images are very Western: Jesus is very white, Mary is very blonde. These are the enduring images of the great painters and sculptors of the Renaissance. Jesus looks more like me than He should. The theologically educated part of me knows that Jesus looks different, understands His context and has an awareness of the culture of which He was a part, and so I have always balanced in my mind that it does not matter much if the images I have before me look a particular way. But now I am thinking that perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I am being informed by these images to occupy a comfortable, middle class, Western Christianity that ignores those who look different.
In my previous article ‘For the love of God, don’t sacrifice the poor’ (https://allthingslawfulandhonest.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/for-the-love-of-god-dont-sacrifice-the-poor/) I wrote about the need to invest in poorer parishes, not to neglect those on the estates or to overlook the marginalised. What I did not make explicit, and I should have, was that disproportionately it is people of ethnic minority backgrounds that are most affected by deprivation. The structures and the systems in place in our society are broken when it comes to caring for and representing ethnic minority people, and worryingly our Church is not leading the way, as it should be, in addressing this.
(As ever, there is a problem in talking about ethnic minority communities as if they are a cohesive and homogenous whole – as in the descriptor ‘BAME’. It overlooks the diversity and multiculturalism across myriad ethnic minority backgrounds by attempting to cover all in one term. Can any single approach to ethnic minority issues really attempt to address the experiences of such different and distinct communities? For the sake of this article, I try therefore to speak in the plural, i.e. about ethnic minorities and minority communities, but occasionally have recourse to the term BAME whilst acknowledging its limits and weaknesses.)
The root of the problem
First and foremost the root of the problem must be exposed, so that it may be chopped out and prevented from re-growth. The information must come from the very people who are subject to this injustice. I was very heartened to see, during this pandemic, that the Church of England has taken a stand on certain issues, like Child Poverty, as highlighted in the Bishop of Durham’s drive to ask the Government to remove the two-child limit on benefits in the wake of the uncertainty of the pandemic (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/lift-two-child-limit-benefits-wake-coronavirus-pandemic-report-urges).
I was also very pleased to see that early in May the Bishops of The Society released a statement to the effect that the parishes they represent, parishes like mine, are disproportionately poor, and in which they called for more to be done to address this (https://www.sswsh.com/fullposts.php?id=290). One line of that statement stood out in particular: “Of equal concern to us is the disproportionate number of BAME people who are being impacted by the virus and we urge greater research into the reasons that lie behind this.”
The virus has highlighted a problem that already exists, and I am glad that this has been acknowledged, but that is not enough. I don’t think we can confidently state that this is ‘of equal concern’ when the problem has existed long before and we have not pushed, stood up and spoken out as strongly as we should have done. Partly that is because, if we are honest, we have been praying to white Jesus – where our concerns and compassion are more focused towards those that are ‘like us’ – maybe not consciously, but it occurs.
When presented with information about the issues faced by ethnic minorities we cannot approach it as a fact-finding mission, armed with questionnaires and statistical analysis, we cannot ask for reams of written research and typed out experiences – that is not to say such material couldn’t be produced, but it is certainly not the primary means by which rich heritage, culture and systematic oppression is best expressed. My congregation, my parishioners are proud people of story and song, they will tell you with passion and fervour all sorts of things from home. Over generous meals, cooked in community, they will sing songs that recount a history that we are often deaf to, though complicit in. To glean these insights means an investment of time and self, that says “you matter, what you have to say is valuable, and your voice will be heard.”
As you are reading this, the Church has just celebrated Pentecost – and we cannot be a Church that preaches the Good News to all the world when ignoring the injustice and inequality suffered by those in our own communities whose skin colour is different to our own. This is not some far flung corner of the world where we can hide behind the mantra of ‘out of sight and out of mind’; rather, we are focused on where we have been called to, locally. This is happening on our doorsteps, in our local communities, these are our actual neighbours, our congregations, our parishioners and our friends. A bold proclamation of the Gospel must be coupled with an active resistance to all that threatens to crush it – be that under the knee of a police officer in the USA or under the weight of a system designed to overlook those who are different.
There has been a drive across the Church of England recently to promote vocations from ethnic minority groups, especially in our towns and cities where there is a high proportion of BAME population. There has been some very good work done on the ground by the Diocesan Directors of Ordinands and their assistants, trying to open up, to those from a very different background, a discernment process that unthinkingly favours the white middle class.
But I think this could, if we are not careful, be a sticking plaster on a much deeper wound. A programme that focuses on driving more BAME vocations can, without much thought and all too easily, treat people from these communities as a project, or even worse implicitly say “come and join the ranks of clergy in OUR Church”, rather than “take your place in the ordained ministry of your Church.”
The ‘us’ and ‘them’ ‘othering’ of BAME communities is still felt acutely here in Notting Hill, where every year the carnival celebrates Caribbean culture. It began as an expression of solidarity following the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959 and has grown to be the largest street carnival in Europe, and yet it attracts much ire from some local residents. Whilst some concerns may be about noise and crowds, not far below the surface for others are racially motivated objections.
Notting Hill is also home to All Saints, a huge Victorian Anglo-Catholic church and the first church in England to open its doors to the black people who arrived in this country. Many of the Caribbean community who came to England were Anglicans, having received the faith from missionaries. When they arrived on these shores to drive our buses, nurse our sick and care for our elderly, they went to join Sunday worship in the mother Church, their Church, and were promptly told that they were not welcome, they could not come in. This is in living memory for some of my congregation, who, with their grandmothers, were turned away – not just from church, but from the bedsits and flats that displayed the signs ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’.
One aspect that is often overlooked is the attachment many feel to the place where they have come from. At the end of May in most years members of my parish will tell me that I won’t see them until September because they are “going home.” Even though they have lived here for many decades, some since they were children, home is not the house they return to after Mass, it is the island of their birth. The concept of home becomes extraordinarily complex. Second or third generations may feel home is very much in the UK, but the language of home is also inherited so that home becomes both a UK address and a designator of ethnic heritage.
In the West, especially in the comfortable middle of the Church of England, we are all too keen to write off the theology and views expressed by the Church in Africa and the Caribbean, because those expressions are often tempered with a more conservative tone than it is generally deemed acceptable to represent in the Church of England. I have followed conversations on Twitter that are dismissive in the extreme after African Anglican Bishops have made pronouncements – ‘that is not how we do things’, ‘the sooner they schism the better’, ‘once they are gone we can move forward.’ Rather than engage in debate and invest personal time to understand, listen and be open to learn, modern liberal Western minds would prefer to casually disregard. Minority voices are once again told they are not welcome, that the faith they hold and how they express it is not the right fit – despite it being simply what they were taught by Western missionaries and have maintained religiously since. It is the very worse of imperialist attitudes still creeping in.
How can we hope to promote BAME vocations when we are so keen to write off our Anglican brothers and sisters who are in the Church “back home”? Come and help to change our make-up and fill our quota but, please, don’t be anything like the communities you and your forebears came from – in other words, be black but in every other way, please, be like ‘us’.
I do not have the answers to address this problem at a systemic level and I hope and pray that work is already being done to engage with the whole process of vocation to make it look and feel different to those that are not from the culture within which it has been crafted. Personally, I never felt uncomfortable with the process but then, why would I? It is made for people like me – straight, white, middle-class. I know that any changes cannot be a dumbing down of what is already there in a patronising attempt at accessibility, as though being black were an intellectual disability that needed particular methods of engagement. These often well-meaning attempts can leave the recipients cold at best and completely, and rightly, enraged at worst.
Know when to speak
It is absolutely vital that voices from ethnic minority communities are heard, far and wide, and that leadership in our Church and society has decent representation from ethnic minorities, not as some token gesture to inclusivity but out of a genuine recognition that they are not just valued but vital. The Church of England should be leading the way on this issue – we as members of it, whether Bishops, Priests, Deacons or Laity, especially those of us who look like the culture out of which the Church of England arose. If we want to demonstrate that we are not just ‘praying to white Jesus’ then we need to not think of ourselves as the white saviour who will fix things.
However, we do need to use our voices to help amplify those that need to be heard more widely. When people from the ethnic minority communities speak out they receive far more criticism than I ever will – they are always ‘too loud’, ‘too angry’ or speaking with a ‘bad tone’. You only have to see the reports in media about the private letters MPs get with abusive messages – most often women, more often BAME women – simply for speaking out.
In moments of such overt racism the strongest voice in support of those who are being abused should be the Church. Our bishops especially, as representatives of the body, as successors to the Apostles on whom the Spirit fell at Pentecost, should express our collective outrage, should push back those who abuse, mock and deride in unabashed racism and ensure the space is opened for the voices that must be heard. The Spirit of Pentecost did not come so that the Church could be indifferent.
As I am writing this article over seven thousand people are protesting in America over the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck. Live on CNN Professor Cornel West said he was glad that people were on the streets, because if they were not there would be no engagement. If we are watching the news, applauding the protesters and angry over this injustice, can we tolerate apathy in the face of racism from the Church and society of which we are part?
To borrow a phrase from sociology we need, as the Church, to lend out social capital to the cause to tear down racism. Failure to do so is a dereliction of our duty to God, the Gospel and our neighbour. Do we want it said of the Church that we are ‘praying to white Jesus’, and that nothing else matters? Or do we want as a Church to model the equality, dignity and honour that should be afforded to all people in society?
This article offers more reflection than answer, but it can be the start of an important conversation.
The Rev’d Sam McNally-Cross – Vicar of St Thomas’ Church, Kensal Town