Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) presence within British Historic Churches

The phenomenon of Reverse Missions, that is, Africans, Asians and South Americans doing mission in Europe and North America is becoming well documented. PHDs are being written as I write this, books are also being published and careers have been made as both western and non-western scholars have specialised in the subject. The Churches involved in these reverse missions are Independent Churches, organisations and Church denominations. Some of them have sent missionaries, Church planters and Pastors from their head quarter Churches from their country of origins, while others have started Churches in Britain and other European countries sending missionaries to other parts of the world. Caribbean Churches, African Churches, Latin American Churches and Asian Churches have all been founded in Britain since the 1930s for various reasons. These reasons include missions, Church planting, creating community for immigrants in Diaspora, rejection from Historic Churches and racial discrimination from the wider society. These Churches, of which many of them have humble beginnings, have emerged to be some of the largest and fastest growing Churches in Britain.  This spectacle has captured the eyes of anthropologists, sociologist, religious scholars and historians. While these Churches are growing and the public’s attention is drawn to them, what is obscured is the fact that there is a concentration and growing presence of Africans, Caribbeans, Latin Americans and Asians within British Historic Churches (British Historic Churches within this context are the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Baptist Church, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church).For example, Black Anglicans virtually doubled between 1992 and 1998, from 27,000 to 58,200 attenders. In addition, the largest Black Church concentration is found in the Roman Catholic Church with 61,000, set against a total Pentecostal population of 70,000 (Brierley, 2000).

The general assumption at times is that when British Historic Churches rejected black Christians from around the 1940s they left to start their own Churches, hence the founding of Black Majority Churches. A similar assumption is that all black people were rejected by these Churches. These assumptions are not true as there were other reasons such as mission and loyalty to brand Churches back home that led to the founding of some of the BMCs. A good example that counters these assumptions is the story of the late Rev. Oliver Lyseight, founding father of the New Testament Church of God (NTGC) in Britain. Rev. Lyseight was well received by a Methodist Church and a white Pentecostal Church, but because he was already a NTGC minister back in Jamaica he left to establish a branch of NTGC in Wolverhampton (Aldred, 2005: 94-95).  This example points to the fact that not all black people were rejected and that there are other reasons beside racism that led to the founding of some of the BMCs. Does this mean all black people were accepted into fellowship? I am afraid no is the answer, but despite rejection, discrimination and exclusion some of them still stayed within these Churches. It is the story of those who stayed that are easily forgotten and lost today in the midst of the successes of BMCs. Take for example, the story of Sybil Phoenix MBE, who came from Guyana to London in 1956. Despite much racial discrimination within and outside the Church and personal tragedy, she remained part of the Methodist Church. Sybil did not start her own Church or join a BMC but worked within the Methodist Church structures creating independent agencies such as foster homes, youth clubs and community projects to cater for the needs of black young people. It was in recognition of her work in the community (Lewisham) that she was awarded an MBE in 1972 (Newbury, 1985: 14-15).

The question is why did Black and other Ethnic Minority people stay within British Historic Churches? There are several reasons for this and among them is loyalty to Church brands back home. Many who were Anglicans in their mother country preferred to remain Anglicans in Britain and the same applied to the other Historic Churches such as Baptists, Methodists, URC and Catholics. Another reason which may come as a surprise is the fact that not all Africans, Asians, Caribbeans or Latin Americans like independent Pentecostal Churches (either white or black). Some African and Caribbean Christians within Historic Churches cannot even bear the fact that some of these Churches exist because they consider some of their teachings strange. An example is the Pentecostal doctrine of speaking in tongues. Another reason why Black and Ethnic Minority people are in Historic Churches is the fact they want their children to attend Church schools because of the standard of education within these schools. In order for their children to gain admission into these schools the parents have to at least attend these Churches if only to be recognised by the Vicar. We now have a situation where some people belong to two Churches, attending mass in the morning and going to a Pentecostal Church in the evening. One of the effects of this is that second and third generation Africans and Caribbeans are growing up in the Historic Churches.

As a result of Africans, Caribbeans, Asians and Latin Americans staying or joining British Historic Churches racial justice ministries or agencies were founded within these Churches. These ministries were set up to care for BME Christians and to tackle racism within the Historic Churches. These agencies have also led to discourses and practices on multicultural Churches.  In the Church of England this led to the founding of the Committee for Black Anglican Concerns, later renamed the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC). Another of these agencies within the Anglican Church is Minority Ethnic Christian Affairs (MECA) which actually comes under Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. In the Baptist Union of Great Britain the ministry is known as Racial Justice coming under the Faith and Unity Department of the Union. In the United Reformed Church (URC) it is known as the Committee for Racial Justice and Multicultural Ministries, in the Methodist Church the Committee for Racial Justice (CRJ), and in the Catholic Church the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ).

There is not only a large concentration of BME Christians within British Historic Churches; they are also taking up significant posts within these Church structures. An example is Rev. Dr Michael Jagessar who is currently serving as the secretary of Racial Justice and Multicultural Ministry in the United Reformed Church.  He is also serving as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church. Another good example is Rev. David Shosanya who is the Regional Minister for mission at the London Baptist Association (LBA). Another is Rev. Ermal Kirby, Chair of the London District Methodist Church. There are also increasing numbers of ministers within these churches from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of these ministers are continuing in the denomination they were part of back home, however a small number including myself intentionally chose to join British Historic Churches in the aim of integrating, engaging in multicultural congregations, and reaching out to indigenous British people. While there is the need for more BME Christians to take significant positions within the Historic Church structures, we must remember that about 60 years ago it was a struggle to be a member of these Churches, therefore progress has been made!

Aldred, J. (2005) Respect: Understanding Caribbean British Christianity, Peterborough, Epworth Publishers.

Brierley, P. (2000) The Tide is Running Out: What the English Church Attendance Survey Reveals, London 2000.

Newbury, J (1985) Living in Harmony: The Story of Sybil Phoenix, Oxford, Pergamon Press.

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About israelolofinjana

Rev Israel Oluwole Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister and has pastored Crofton Park Baptist Church (2007-2011) and Catford Community Church (2011-2013). He is currently the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a multicultural church in south east London. He is Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background. He holds a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and MTh from Carolina University of Theology (CUT). Israel is the editor of “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK” and author of “Reverse in Ministry and Missions: Africans in the Dark Continent of Europe” and “20 Pentecostal Pioneers in Nigeria” He has spoken in a number of conferences regarding reverse mission and Black Majority Churches (BMCs) and has also contributed to academic journals and Christian magazines on the subject of Black Majority Churches (BMC) in Britain. He is currently co-opted as a member of the Baptist Union Council. Israel is also one of the Directors of Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World an initiative design to train and equip pastors and missionaries from the South. He is a member of the Global Connections council. When he is not preaching or writing he is playing with Lego! He is happily married to Lucy who works as an administrator and research co-ordinator for the Evangelical Alliance. She is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), earning a BA in Social Anthropology and International Development. Lucy loves baking and watching movies!
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