One common narrative about the recent history of Christianity in Britain is linear decline. Various academics and others who take this view might disagree about the timing of ‘secularisation’, or the main drivers for it, or how exactly ‘decline’ should be measured – but nevertheless there is a widely held view which asserts British Christianity is fading.
However, the fuller picture is rather complicated. While it is undoubtedly the case (by various measurements and criteria) that Christian influence and participation in the churches in Britain have declined over the longer term (and I, like some others, would argue that the “long sixties” were a key decade in some respects), there is also evidence of simultaneous Christian resurgence, depending on where we look. The historian David Goodhew, in Church Growth in Britain, 1980 to the present day, explains the situation as follows:
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that Christianity in Britain is in decline. However, not all universally acknowledged truths are actually true. Some churches in some regions are declining, but… substantial and sustained church growth has also taken place across Britain over the last 30 years.
One of the contributors to church growth alongside decline has been the rise of Black and Minority Ethnic expressions of the Christian tradition. Those churches which are led and primarily attended by Black British Christians of Caribbean and sub-Saharan African heritage are often known as Black Majority Churches (BMCs).
In a talk, presented at The Open University during Black History Month in 2020, I discussed the early emergence of Black Majority Churches. In the talk I wanted to highlight a few themes:
Diversity and significance
While ‘Black Majority Church(es)’ has been adopted by many Black Christian leaders as an umbrella label, this represents a significant theological and ecclesiological diversity. Many of the BMCs were distinctive church traditions which were transplanted with migration. The importance of these churches for many local communities has often been overlooked: they have been important contributors to religious and social ‘capital’. The BMCs have been one key component of Black British history.
Racism has been evident among Christians as well as the secular sphere. In some cases, White racism contributed to the formation of Black churches – many Black migrants were Anglicans, Methodists (etc.) who found upon arrival they were not welcome to attend their denomination in the Britain. Racism was very evident in some White Christian attitudes towards the Black Majority Churches once they were established. There were often, for example, parallels between the dynamics of the landlord/tenant model in the housing sector – and racist attitudes and practices which often came with this – and the treatment of some Black majority congregations as they rented buildings from mainline churches.
Just as multicultural perspectives and practices emerged in sections of secular society from the 1970s, so too at the local and national level various Black and White Christian leaders sought to pioneer mutual respect and partnership between the historic mainline churches and the British Black Majority Churches. In this talk, I call this the emergence of ecumenical multiculturalism. Initiatives to foster ecumenical multiculturalism continue to this day, and I would suggest that their success will continue to depend in part on awareness of the diversity and significance of the BMCs and facing up to histories of racism within British Christianity.
I am grateful to Sheena Daley, a colleague at The Open University, for writing a personal response and reflection to this talk.
There is an excellent article (in my opinion) by Dr Joe Aldred titled “Are Black Churches contributing to cohesion or polarising Christians and other faith groups?”. I agree with many of his observations and conclusions, not least his inclusion of Professor Robert Beckford’s description of Black Majority Churches (BMCs) as places of “shelter and rescue”.
John’s presentation during Black History Month on the “Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and the transformation of British Christianity” caused me to reflect on the very privileged experience of being raised in this environment. Please understand: the well-documented struggles were very real – and still continue behind politically correct language – but I want to publicly declare the indelible and positive impact the BMC has had on my life.
I was born in the 1970s (age is just a number), the last of seven girls to Jamaican-born parents that harboured so called middle-class dreams for their so-called working-class children. It was these dreams that brought them to the UK, dragging my eldest siblings from the sunshine of Jamaica to the cold and fog of the Motherland. Opportunity knocks. Mum and Dad had the “usual roles” of a nurse at the local hospital and semi-skilled worker at a car factory.
Every Sunday, most Wednesday evenings, lots of Friday evenings and a few Saturdays, our entire family would set off to our local branch of the New Testament Church of God (NTCOG), at the time the largest black majority church denomination in the UK. As my sisters left our town to pursue careers, I was eventually the only sibling left into 1990s.
“Church” wasn’t only a place of worship. It was a safe place in a very stormy world where I often didn’t fit because of the colour of my skin. It was a place of nurture, community, cultural identity (and challenges). It was in this environment I was taught public speaking, event planning, how to mentor others, critical thinking, how to be a leader without the need for a title, to be trusted with other people’s money, kindness, generosity, bravery and strength. There was a strong ethos of “all roles are open to all”, so at various times I was a band leader, Sunday school teacher to the over 50s, choir director, an events planner, prayer co-ordinator, preacher (going too far there – speaker on a Sunday morning) and a team member of the prison ministry. It was my own bespoke employability programme.
By the age of eight I had “discovered” classical music and was desperate for more. The Administrative Bishop of the NTCOG for England and Wales heard about my passion and personally drove myself and Mum to a music shop to buy my first instrument. That support was the first step in my decision to study classical music at university.
My reflection is not to suggest BMCs are perfect institutions and that all of my experiences were idyllic. There are some uncomfortable conversations that need to be had, including the discussion on the place of BMCs in a world where they could be perceived as resisting diversity. We need brave discussions grounded in a lot of love and patience so we can move forward together.
Nevertheless, BMCs remain places of sanctuary from life’s daily microaggressions and ignorant assumptions. The challenges haven’t gone away. I am certainly glad for the life lessons I learned in my sanctuary. They continue to guide my path to success and keep me grounded and strong.