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01 September 2009

Changing Church - changing society

Changing Church - changing society

The Alliance's Executive Director for Public Policy Dr R David Muir takes a timely look at what's being called the "new" black Church...

Black History Month in October provides an occasion for reflection and celebration of the lives, institutions and achievements of black people in Britain and worldwide. After Barack Obama's election, I suspect that Black History Month will never be the same again. And if that is too radical a suggestion for some, there must surely be a concession that we need a renewed belief both in self and in Paul's message that all things are possible through Christ's strength (Philippians 4.13).

This message finds rich resonance in the black-majority Church and the wider black Christian leadership in Britain today. It also partially accounts for their dynamic growth and success as places for social change. In the 61 years since the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury with the first wave of Caribbean immigrants, the black Church has become the most cohesive and coherent section of black communities.

It is now fashionable for Church of England bishops, as well as cultural critics and journalists, to hold up black-majority churches as a mirror of the centrality of faith in establishing personal and cultural identities. They are also the fruit of historic missionary endeavour in the former colonies, returning the favour as citizens of the former British Empire bringing new life, vitality and celebratory authenticity to post-Christian Britain.

But this acceptance has taken six decades to materialise. After the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948, 11 Labour MPs, led by J Murray, wrote to the Prime Minister complaining about the "discord and unhappiness" this wave of Caribbean immigrants would cause to the nation. Today they are accepted as an integral part of Christian life and worship. Indeed, there is now a Church of England envoy (Bishop David Hawkins) to black-majority churches, while the Prime Minister and senior officials meet regularly with black Church leaders.

Growth and development

Black churches present real opportunities for inter-cultural learning and shared ministry

There is certainly a rich and challenging history here. Beyond the question of race and rejection, there are many explanations for the development of the black-majority churches and the wider black Christian leadership.

In Let's Praise Him Again (Kingsway, 1992), Arlington Trotman argues that the term "black-led" was imposed terminology originally seen to carry separatist overtones and that the distinction presents difficulties for ministries that pursue Christian unity (John 17.21).

But the reality of black-majority churches will remain an entrenched part of British religious life partly because they fulfill a significant cultural and pastoral role in our pluralist society and offer alternative methods of evangelisation.

In his book Believing in Britain (Tauris, 2007), Ian Bradley argues that "black Christianity may well prove to be a key agent in the re-evangelisation of Christian Britain". Over the last two decades, we have witnessed an explosion of independent
African Pentecostal and charismatic churches, many with an international reach and roots in Africa. The dominant one is
Redeemed Christian Church of God, under the international leadership of the inimitable Pastor Enoch Adeboye in Nigeria and Rev Agu Irukwu of Jesus House in the UK.

There is a remarkable history and legacy of pioneering leadership in black Christian leadership in Britain, including Philip
Mohabir (the Guyanese missionary who founded the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance), Ira Brooks, Io Smith, Andrew Adeleke, Bishop Dunn, Esme Beswick and Joel Edwards. If the UK has its own megachurches, then Matthew Ashimolowo's
Kingsway International Christian Centre falls into this category. With a membership exceeding 12,000 and a congregation often greater than 5,000, it's not surprising that the Nigerian-born Ashimolowo is was called "Britain's most successful preacher" in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's recent book about the global rise of faith, God Is Back (Penguin, 2009).

Action and engagement

Integral to the Church's ministry and mission is its social action and community engagement. Rev Annie Ingram's prison ministry, the Peace Alliance initiative of Rev Nims Obunge and Street Pastors founded by Rev Les Isaac are just three examples of the vision of black Christian leaders. And on a strategic level, the Black Christian Leaders' Forum represents the concerns of the community to Government policy makers. Add to this Dr Jonathan Oloyede's remarkable leadership of the Global Day of Prayer.

As an institution, black-majority churches are here to stay. Historically, black churches have been what Eric Lincoln, the scholar of black religion in America, refers to as the "peculiar sustaining force" and organising principle around which lives were structured.

It is not surprising, therefore, to hear President Barack Obama write in his book The Audacity of Hope (Crown, 2006) of the black Church as the place where he discovered "a vessel for my beliefs" and a community where they "fortified my racial identity and confirmed my belief in the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things".

Black History Month offers an opportunity to look at the history and contribution black Christians are making to our communities. It will also be a time to debate ways in which mission and partnerships can be more effective.

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