In 1997, the United Reformed Church (URC) in the United Kingdom embarked on an adventure in mission. It received a missionary from Jamaica through the Council for World Mission (CWM) to work as multi-racial, multi-cultural development worker for a period of three years, Ms Marjorie Lewis-Cooper. She was interviewed by the URC and we have extracted parts of this interview for Echoes.
So what is the problem that needs to be tackled?
The sin of racism is unfortunately a reality - not only in the wider society but within the Church. People have been hurt and have experienced racism; in fact some of the people that went into the so-called "Black-led" churches were actually from more traditional churches but when they came over in the 50ís they where not made welcome. We have also the data collected by the Equal Opportunities Committee which shows that the percentage of Black people in the leadership of the URC is smaller than the percentage of Black people in the membership, so we have a problem. I think the problem does not only have to do with overt racism but it has to do with institutional blocks with the way power is used. I would say in some cases there is a lack of effort to make sure that everyone is included.
So there is a problem and we need to be able to identify how this prejudice plus power - which is a kind of raw definition of racism - is played out in the church, to name it as the evil it is and to move towards removing that evil from our midst.
I donít want to suggest that our problems are easy. There are things that will have to be worked through, some of them seemingly trite, like peoplesí preference for liturgy. Some people like lots of singing and hand clapping and others are quite incensed by the thought that there would be any sound above a murmur in church or any kind of emotional expression. So there are a lot of things that we are going to have to negotiate but we need to understand that if we accept that we are all made in the image of God then it is not enough to accept it in theory; we have to work actively for the establishment of the reign of God, including in the church.
How much is the problem a cultural difficulty that churches find it difficult to make room for people who have different preferences in worship?
I think the racism is the more serious problem because many of the churches in the colonies have basically the same kind of liturgy. But I would say that there are also cultural problems, not so much in terms of overt racism, but people just not making the effort. They say "well they donít stay to morning coffee, they just come to worship and they go away" rather then making the effort to reach out to those minority elements who come in quietly to worship and just slip away. I think the first place we need to start is meaningful encounters finding spaces where people can hear and experience each other as people and not as stereotypes.
Given what you say about the presence of racism in the church, itís a wonder that Black members have bothered to stay with a mainstream White church.
At least two people have raised with me questions on those lines. One person, not somebody from the URC, felt that the only authentic place for a Black person was in a Black majority church. Someone else raised with me a pastoral concern that perhaps it would be just too discouraging for a Black person in majority White congregation. I have problems with both those approaches because I believe that we were called to be one and that is not just interdenominational rhetoric but it means across all the boundaries - Jew and Greek, male and female and so on - and that includes interracial divides. I see differences in culture and ethnicity as rich resources: different gifts brought by individuals and by groups for the enrichment and the building of the church. I also think itís very important for us if we are to witness to the world that we have to show the signs of the Kingdom in all churches and one of those signs is a congregation in which different races can worship or a congregation in a single ethnic community which reaches out and has contacts in a meaningful way with congregations and peoples of other ethnicity both here in the UK and overseas.
What is it about an ordinary church member who is not making the effort to welcome the stranger? What is the root of that: is it fear, is it discomfort?
I hesitate to answer because itís complex and it may not be the same for everybody. I think we have been socialised through schools, our parents, the media - in all kinds of ways, including the Church. How often in Sunday school would people have seen pictures of Jesus and his angels as nice blue eyed blond cherubs and the devil and his angels as Black people? People have been socialised in all kinds of overt and subtle ways. I think itís also ignorance, because a lot of people have not had meaningful contact. What they know of people from ethnic minority groups is the distortion in the newspapers which says they are criminals, they are drug smugglers, theyíve come to live of the welfare system - those kinds of stereotypes. So I think there is fear of the unknown, there is ignorance and generations of programming that combine to make people behave this way.
How have you found the task so far?
I would say that I am quite impressed by what is already happening in the URC. I think a lot is already happening but it hasnít been given its politically correct label of "multi-racial multi-cultural whatever". I think to a large extent individuals and congregations are soldiering on in their different areas without others knowing about it. Maybe if we can get this documented, other people in the church who want to develop their own programmes could know where the expertise is, which would really help.
Many churches might say "We donít have any coloured members and there arenít many coloured people in our area". What do you say to them?
I think there are a range of options for involvement both within the UK and outside. We have the Jubilee 2000 campaign which is an important campaign for people in the developing countries. We have some rather alarming statistics about the suspiciously high proportion of Black people who are dia-gnosed as schizophrenics; the high proportion of Black people in the penal system; their absence in the police force. I would say there is scope for involvement with such justice issues. Some churches have been twinned with other congregations, perhaps in communities with more Asians and Africans and Caribbean people, so there is a range of things that can actually be done. Then again we are a tradition that believes in the priesthood of all believers and a number of people in so-called White congregations are teachers, policemen and women, civil servants and health service workers and they are meeting on a day to day basis with people from African, Asian and Caribbean origins. What is the nature of their ministry and their mission as Christians at that place of work? So I think that there are different options and it doesnít necessarily mean that each congregation will have the exact same programme. There is space for everybody to be involved.
Copyright © 1998, United Reformed Church
(used with permission)