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25 August 2017

Race and the UK Church: a personal reflection

Steve Clifford is general director of the Evangelical Alliance.

The issue of race and racism has been a hot topic over the last few weeks, with the twittersphere abuzz with comment and reflections following the violent scenes in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 12 August, and President Trump's subsequent comments [i].

As I've reflected on the scenes over the water, I can't help but turn my gaze to the UK Church, asking myself where racial prejudice, injustices and divides still exist in our churches and institutions. It's easy to have a view about what's going on "over there", but we also need to look at our own backyard. In the words of Jesus in the greatest sermon of all time - 'Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?' (Matthew 7:3)

It's caused me to reflect on the journey we've been on as an Evangelical Alliance over the last seven years, and the profound realisations and challenges which I've personally experienced during this time.

Seven years ago, shortly after I'd taken up the role of general director, our September 2010 Council meeting was the scene of an extraordinary challenge from God. Our gathering of senior UK church leaders was addressed by Bishop Wilton Powell of the Church of God of Prophecy and Pastor Agu Irukwu of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, who simply but profoundly challenged us that we must push for a unity in the Church that was not monoethnic.

In what I can only describe as a "God-moment", the whole room responded to this challenge by kneeling and praying together, calling out to God in repentance as we realised that so much of our supposed 'unity' to that point had overlooked the vibrant ethnic diversity of the UK Church. Since then, we've committed ourselves to making evangelical unity across all ethnic expressions a key priority. It's a journey we continue on today, working alongside leaders in our One People Commission, with an awareness that there's still a lot of work to be done.

Personally, I have been unspeakably enriched by the friendships which have emerged as I've got to know wider expressions of our Church family - many of which I admit I wasn't even aware of before. I thank God for the vibrancy which minority ethnic Christians continue to bring to the UK Church. Their passionate faith, fervent prayer, wonderful hospitality, strong heart for evangelism and respect of the authority scripture have all blessed and challenged me in equal measure.

But I wouldn't be being honest if I didn't admit that it's been a challenging journey at times. As I started building relationships with many of my brothers and sisters in Christ who were from different ethnic backgrounds to myself, things were graciously pointed out to me which I'd been blind to before. In spending time chatting over coffees and teas, pizzas and curries, I was brought face-to-face with my own patterns of behaviour which, I realised, had in fact been damaging the unity I thought I'd been promoting.

I suddenly recalled the countless occasions I'd been part of a team who'd come up with a great vision, and decided at a late stage to connect with black and Asian leaders, sharing our brilliant plans with them. But, as was graciously explained to me, this was not real unity. These leaders wanted to be part of the conversations and the planning leading up to these events and initiatives, not included in at the last minute to rubber stamp what we (the white leaders) had already decided on.

I've had to be willing to be made uncomfortable, facing up to the realities of what's really happening in my own life and in the wider UK Church, and recognising the work which still needs to be done. I've heard heart-breaking stories of a church in the UK locking beakers away from a 'black' children's crèche, for fear of 'contamination'. I've heard of new converts turned away from baptism for fear they might be illegal immigrants, and of missionaries coming here from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, and facing rejection and prejudice within our churches. And these aren't stories from the 1960s, but twenty-first century Britain [ii].

I've also realised more recently that I'm not even aware of many of the issues which affect members of my family in Christ, and the communities they are based in. Whether it's the disproportionate number of black young men in prisons, or the gun and knife crime particularly affecting black and minority ethnic communities, or the way the NHS is considered to respond to people of minority backgrounds who have mental health issues.

"If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it." (1 Corinthians 12 v 26) But is that really the reality in our UK Church today? It's a question we're continuing to ask ourselves as the Evangelical Alliance.

I wonder what patterns of behaviour God might want to be challenging in our lives today, as Christians and churches who make up this diverse body of Christ in the UK?

Might God be challenging you about some of the opinions you hold, deep down, about people from particular minority ethnic groups? Have you ever examined where these views have come from?

Might God be challenging your church to make the effort to get to know the Christian community around the corner from you (or even renting your own building), which looks and sounds very different from yours? Have you ever visited a church with a predominantly different ethnic culture from your own?  If not, then why not try it?

Might God be prompting you to examine why your unity movement doesn't reflect the ethnic diversity of your area?

If we're serious about unity as a UK Church - fulfilling Jesus' prayer in John 17 that his people might be one - then this has to be a unity which includes all of the rich tapestry of ethnic diversity in our Church today. I encourage you to start, or to continue, on this journey of self-reflection, asking God how he might want to challenge you and your church today.

You can explore more of Steve's story in his book One: Unity in diversity.

You can also join Steve at Movement Day this October , where the One People Commission will be hosting a seminar exploring how we can build truly multi-ethnic unity movements.

[i] The World Evangelical Alliance, of which the UK Evangelical Alliance is a part, joined the USA's National Association of Evangelicals in condemning white supremacy and other forms of racism.

[ii] These stories can be found in Turning the Tables in Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK by Israel Olofinjana (Instant Apostle, 2013)