Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Racial Justice : Reflections of an Old White Christian Man

Racial Justice : 

Reflections of an Old White Christian Man


How I became aware of racial injustice and my own  whiteness.

Greg Smith   March 2024

This paper is biographical and represents an attempt to set out my position on racial justice in terms of positionality and context, as summarised in my Temple blog of January 2024 I don't want it to be read as an apologia for my life or an attempt at self justification, but I hope it will help people to understand what I have learned over many years, and why it is important for people like me to stand against injustice, prejudice, discrimination and hatred. 

A pdf file for this document can be accessed here

Early Experiences

I grew up in the flat fens of Lincolnshire in an isolated farmhouse which until 1963 was not even connected to mains electricity. Through my parent's large extended families it turned out that I was related to almost 50% of the population living within a ten mile radius of our home. We were all white English and Lincolnshire born and bred, and almost everyone we knew worked on the land, as poor small farmers, or low paid labourers.. We were also strongly Methodist, and understood that the Church of England was for bosses and posh people, while the Catholic Church was for the Irish. The only foreigners I ever encountered were occasional Polish, Ukrainian and Irish itinerant farm labourers who helped my uncles with the potato harvest.

Before we acquired our first TV, just in time for coverage of the JFK assassination, the only setting in which I had seen brown or black faces was in film strips or films shown at overseas missions evenings at the local Methodist  Chapel. Then in the mid 1960s I met my first Indian, a Sikh Pedlar based in Grimsby who travelled the rural roads attempting to sell clothes and fabrics to the locals. I remember my Dad bartering two live chickens in exchange  for a marvellous colourful table cloth. There was also a one off visit from a young Black South African who was covering huge distances on foot attempting to sell magazine subscriptions. We took pity on him and for the next two years I had a subscription to an electronics periodical, which helped me develop a short lived hobby building transistor radios.

We were a politically conscious, anti Tory family and this must have shaped our interpretation of the News we now received via TV. I remember being inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the USA, and the speeches of Martin Luther King in particular, and to some extent by the anti Apartheid struggle in the years after Sharpeville. It's interesting that  from that period of my life I can remember the name and voice of Bishop Trevor Huddleston more than that of Mandela. 

After benefitting from a Grammar School education, in 1969 I left home and went to University in Reading where I studied linguistics. One of the first societies I joined was SPEAR – the society for Peace and Equality Among Races. As one of their volunteers I made weekly visits to a Sikh family who lived in a terraced street in a working class area of the town. My task was to help a nine year old boy with his spoken and written English, while the two females who visited with me helped his sisters. Linguistics was a good base to develop an understanding of multiculturalism, with a year abroad in France and Croatia. Involvement in the Methodist Society and the Christian Union also brought me into contact with students from Africa and South Korea.

After graduation I applied to Voluntary Service Overseas and was fortunate to spend a year teaching English at a residential school in  rural South India. I discovered I was the only white person in a 5O mile radius, and was accountable to an Indian head teacher and ultimately to the Indian government and administrative system, which at the time was suspicious of Western influence. I experienced great hospitality, though I became aware of a postcolonial respect which in the mid 1970s still offered a place of honour to an English "sahib".

First Years in Newham

On my return to the UK I was beginning to explore a possible calling to full time ministry and ended up in the summer of 1975 as a trainee community worker with a Christian agency, the Newham Community Renewal Programme. I was thinking of staying in East London for a couple of years but it eventually added up to 27. The borough of Newham was already becoming one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the UK, and had recently welcomed a large influx of South Asian refugees from Uganda and adjoining African countries. My first job involved organising and teaching community English classes for people from these communities. I also helped manage a newly established community centre in a redundant Methodist Church.  

Here I soon became aware of ethnic and religious diversity.  There was the Karate club at the centre every Friday night. The instructor and all the members were you male Asian, who clearly thought that self defence through martial arts was an essential survival skill. There was the playgroup, run by a group of local white Mums, but catering for increasing numbers of South Asian heritage toddlers. There was the Asian EldersGroup, all male and supported by two community workers employed by the borough Council. One of these was an English guy who was fairly proficient in Urdu. It was he who encouraged me to have a go at learning the language, and eventually to organise a basic Hindustani summer school for community workers and church staff.  Meanwhile the traditional white pensioners groups and Old Time Dance clubs met weekly, enjoyed community singing the wartime favourite songs but couldn't quite understand why their newer black and brown neighbours didn't want to join them.

Then there were the three church groups that used the Centre.  The Moravians had their own church building nearby from 1912 until they merged with the remnants of the Methodist congregation and moved to the centre in the mid 1970s. By the late 1970s when I was working there the congregation, though led by a white English minister, was entirely black, with Caribbean roots. The Assemblies of the First  Born was a small congregation of a Pentecostal denomination, led by a Jamaican carpenter, Pastor Alf Reid and his wife. Their four teenage sons provided music, though it was clear from their expressions that they were there under sufferance rather than their own choice. From time to time I attended their midweek prayer meeting, gave a testimony or exhortation and  joined in singing old time favourite hymns, (noting the irony of verses including "whiter than the snow"). We became good friends and connected Alf and his church into the wider network of Newham churches. The third congregation was the Church of Jesus Christ, led by "the other Pastor Reid". They were n Apostolic, Jesus Only Pentecostal Group considered unorthodox in their theology and much more sectarian in their ethos. There were many other African-Caribbean majority churches in Newham by the end of the 1970s, including the two large congregations that used the Renewal Programmes other two centres, the Church of God at the Trinity Centre, and the Miracle Ministry Mission at Sebert Road in Forest Gate. It was to these that we directed visitors (urban mission tourists) to the borough who wished to get a taste of Black Pentecostal worship.

It was in this period that I took my first steps in interfaith encounter.  In the late 1970s Muslim, Sikhs, and Hindus were organising as faith communities, but did not yet have their own buildings for worship. Our community centres were approached to provide premises for religious activities and our team agonised long and hard about the boundaries of Christian hospitality. Local Hindus booked our centre for a lecture, by a notable swami visiting from India.   We talked with the group about what we thought appropriate in a Christian centre, especially that we would be uncomfortable if they brought in statues and did puja. The response was an invitation to talk to the whole group about Jesus and Christianity. I was glad to spend 15 minutes trying to explain the gospel and share some personal testimony. We also had a request from local Muslims  to use the Centre for Ramadan prayers as they did not have enough space in the private house where they normally met. This provoked a reaction among some white neighbours who had previously attended the Methodist church who were incensed about "these people bowing down to idols in our church".  However, this was the first stage in building some positive relationships with the local mosque committed, and a year or so later I spoke at a public enquiry as a local resident who supported their planning application to develop a large house they had bought nearby as a place of worship. Forty years later I am still not absolutely sure these were the right course of actions.  However, in the local historical context, while it was understandable that older white residents were often uncomfortable with the newcomers and the rapid pace of demographic and economic  change,  something had to be done to challenge overt racism and religious prejudice.

Discovering Racism in East London

Meanwhile across the East End  there were outbreaks of  racist violence as right wing extremists in the National Front were stoking up hatred  among the white Cockneys, especially in the Docklands district.   In 1978  10 year old Kenneth Singh was murdered barely a quarter of a mile from where I lived, and a fortnight later there was the more widely commemorated murder of Aftab Ali in Whitechapel. Clergy made numerous efforts along with other community leaders to mediate between communities and the police in an effort to lower the temperature and marginalise the National Front.  But it was the far left and young people in the minority communities who took to the streets in direct  confrontation with the Fascists.

 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/shine-a-light/remembering-altab-ali/  http://www.e7-nowandthen.org/2018/06/racism-in-forest-gate-in-1970s-and_12.html

I soon realised that there was serious cause for concern, and the ugly monster of racism repeatedly raised its head. The Metropolitan Police were undoubtedly racist in culture and behaviour, a decade or more before the term "institutional racism" came into official or popular discourse. Two incidents in particular impacted me personally.  In 1976 -77 some of the local black Pentecostal ministers began expressing their concerns that innocent male youths from their congregations were being repeatedly stopped and harassed by the police. In this context one of our Renewal programme team, who was also a pastor in the Church of God was arrested and charged with affray. One Sunday night he had been travelling home by bus after a church service in North London. He was subject to an unprovoked violent attack by a  white thug, and naturally made some attempt to defend himself. When the police arrived, despite the accounts of witnesses they arrested and charged the black victim and let the white assailant go free. Nerold was charged and brought to court, sent to the Crown Court for trial and was initially found guilty. Potentially facing a prison sentence the churches in Newham campaigned and prayed  hard and raised money to pay legal fees for top barristers. Eventually on appeal the conviction was overturned. I have never fully trusted the police and the justice system since.

From 1979 to 1982 I lived and worked in the Methodist church in Canning town. For most of that time I shared my flat with Antoine, a student with Methodist roots in the Ivory Coast. He had come to London to improve his English, and to enrol for a Chemistry degree  at North London Polytechnic. I was also on a learning curve trying to understand a West African form of French. Canning Town was probably one of the hardest places for a Black African to live at that period, as there was overt, crude and violent racism near to the surface, and even more hospitable people had limited cross cultural understanding and sensitivity. When Amtoine came with me on a weekend visit to my Mum in rural Lincolnshire he encountered total bewilderment  from the locals, and one or two people who spoke to him asked if the other black person who worked in Boston hospital was his brother.

Antoine came from a highly political family and was always happy to discuss the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and to discuss Franz Fanon's work on negritude. His residential status under a student visa ran out and I was introduced to the complexities of Home Office immigration procedures, right up to an appeal tribunal, which eventually ruled against him and resulted in his departure to Paris. In the meantime there were repeated encounters with the harsh realities of racism, at the hands of local youth and the police. In his own words Antoine reported 3 incidents. 

 EERG and  ECRJ     

From the context of doing life, church, and community work in Newham by the end of the 1970s I had become an active member of the Evangelical Race Relations Group. In the early days this consisted mainly of white male clergy   and educators working in multi-ethnic parishes, but by the mid 1980s the membership had broadened and diversified and the group was renamed Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice. I served on the managing committee for two spells between 1980 and 1995 alongside several younger generation Black and Asian heritage activists. Our concerns were about highlighting racial justice issues especially in immigration, education, employment,  policing  and the church, in the UK and the anti- apartheid struggle in South Africa.. We held conferences, networked with other Christian Racial Justice groups and produced a journal, "Racial Justice". We developed a biblically based Manifesto for Racial justice and the "New Humanity" resource pack to help Christians see the importance of combating personal and institutional racism.  We lobbied within the denominations, the British Council of Churches and especially the Evangelical Alliance. In the EA I think we had some success in the recognition of the contribution of Black Majority Churches and the representation of some of their leaders on their Council. During this period I was employed by the Evangelical Coalition for Urban Mission and in my development role across the inner cities of the UK constantly advocated the cause of anti-racism and sought to build networks of friendship and partnership between the mainline churches and the newer Black Majority Churches. One highlight was a short residential conference at the New Testament Church of God College which brought together church leaders from Pentecostal and Mainline denominations and was inspired by the contribution of radical Anglo Catholic anti-racist activist, Fr. Ken Leach.

 All the ECRJ journals and much more on racial justice from the 1980s are in this shared folder

Life as a Researcher

From 1979 until the present about half of my working life has been devoted to practical community based  and academic research, specialising on the interaction between ethnicity and faith in multicultural urban settings. (you can find all my published writings via my Website here.)  My first  paid employment as a researcher was with the Linguistic Minorities Project between 1979 and 1985.  Our focus was on minority heritage languages as the living "Other Languages of England". We carried out surveys in schools and a dozen adult language communities in Bradford, Coventry and London.  I have set up an archive of papers from this project here  

Although the focus of this work was on language and culture it was very obvious that multiculturalism and racism were related issues. The case study I carried out with Sylheti speaking Bangladeshis employed in low paid roles in the clothing industry of East London was a significant learning moment. I was directly challenged by Bangladeshi colleagues, who were struggling to establish their community rights and identity in an oppressive and racist context, about my own privilege as an external, white, English monolingual, Christian academic. Was I anything more than a classic Colonial anthropologist condoning and contributing to their oppression?

In the late 1980s in the period following the Faith in the City Report  I was employed by the Evangelical Coalition for Urban Mission networking and resourcing inner city churches and Christian organisations across the UK.  Within this role there was an element of research, which brought me into contact with the experiences of white led mainstream churches grappling with mission and ministry in multi ethnic and multi-faith neighbourhoods, and with Black majority churches seeking partnership and respect for their distinctive identities and mission emphases  as they engaged with other churches, and local and national government. I produced two significant papers, one on the Biblical theology of ethnicity, and another on the diversity of Christianity in our inner city setting from a sociological perspective.. 

In the 1990s I worked as community researcher for Aston Charities, advising and empowering Voluntary and Faith Sector groups in Newham to carry out their own participatory action research. Issues of ethnic and faith diversity and the experience of racial injustice and marginalisation were always high on the agenda. One major project was the mapping of changing religious life in the borough, with three editions of the Directory of Religious Groups. Writing up the findings in a series of sociologically informed academic papers led to growing involvement and eventually employment with the University of East London. People often turned to me as a source of expertise in the relationship between ethnicity and Urban religion, both Christianity, and other world Faiths. 

Family Life in Newham - the 1990s

More important still was my everyday life, as a husband, father and neighbour in an ordinary street in the heart of Newham.  Our two children were born in Newham hospital, the midwife who delivered our son was a lovely African woman. They went to the playgroup at the end of our road, and then to Selwyn primary school. In both settings they were a tiny minority of white children surrounded by peers of South Asian or African / Caribbean heritage. Their friends in the playground and who dropped in before and after school, were from Muslim, Sikh and Hindu families. At one time a classmate from an Ivoirian asylum seeking family stayed with us during the school week as her homeless family had been rehoused in a bed and breakfast hotel in a distant London borough. However they also had friends who were white, mainly through their parents' close friendships with other Christian families in the area. For most of their childhood we attended Woodgrange Baptist Church, with its majority black, predominantly Caribbean (Windrush generation) congregation (whose story  I wrote up in this piece.) Our son when he was eight or nine years old was a member of an award winning junior gospel choir, in which he was the only white face. As a church we celebrated the 50th anniversary of  the Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury by cancelling the evening service and watching TV coverage of Jamaica's match against Argentina in the World Cup. At one time we had a family home group that included people from Pakistan, China, Congo Nigeria and Britain. Each Christmas we attended a carol singing party with Iranian Christian friends and attempted to sing "we three kings of Orient are" in Farsi. These were for me relatively easy years of happy coexistence in a comfortably multi-ethnic local community.  While in many respects the 1990s was a decade of progress in the UK, as the Black contribution in culture, politics and sport became more visible  yet it was also marked by the murder of Stephen Lawrence,  ongoing police racism and youth alienation, and continuing inequality in education, housing, employment and health. 

Moving to Preston 2002

For a variety of complex and family reasons in late 2001, shortly after the horrendous attacks on New York, and my 50th birthday,  we decided to move to the north of England, and in May 2002 arrived at our new home in Preston. We had chosen to buy a house in a diverse inner area of the city which reminded us of the community in Newham, but with more open space and a more relaxed pace of life.  The population was and still is ethnically and religiously diverse, there is evidence of poverty and deprivation, and despite good connections to London and Manchester feels somewhat cut off from metropolitan city life and power networks. We soon settled into local church and community life, and before the year was out I became involved in voluntary sector activities and local regeneration projects. 

I soon concluded that the dynamics of interaction and patterns of  discrimination in Lancashire are significantly different from those of East London. There is evidence of personal and institutional racism, but it is structured primarily around faith and religious identity rather than ethnicity or skin colour. This was particularly so in the first years of the 21st Century in the context of recent "riots" in the Pennine "mill towns", the reaction to 9/11 and the "war on terror".  Islamophobia and the perception of "parallel lives" was heightened with the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.  In my research life I led a project looking at Children's Perspectives on Believing and Belonging, with comparative ethnographic work in primary school classes in East London and Lancashire. My own daughter (then aged 9) observed that in London it was easy to have friends of many different faith and ethnic  backgrounds; in fact she had not had much choice as the only white English child in her class. In contrast in Preston she made lasting friendships with white and mixed race "Christian" and Hindu  girls, but found it impossible to build relationships with Muslim classmates, in part because they lived in a more enclosed community, and spent the vast majority of their "spare" time after school in religious classes at the madressa.

In this context I developed some involvement in Interfaith activities in the city, through the activities of the Preston Forum of Faiths and involvement in developing the Faith Covenant with the City Council. I was never a great enthusiast for the forms of inter-religious dialogue that were in vogue at the time, which tended to explore similarities and differences in belief and spirituality. They tended to attract "nice" educated people who shared "tea and samosas" and were often dominated by Bahais, Hindus, Buddhists and modernist Christians who tended to see all religions as equal and different ways of seeking God. As someone thinking more often within a sociological rather than a spiritual framework, and as someone with an activist personality I was more interested in the practicalities of collaboration between faith communities for the common good, and in robust honest debates between people who had firm convictions which they wanted to proclaim to everyone, such as evangelical Christians and Muslims.

In this period I was involved in research about Faith Communities and urban regeneration, the contribution of faith communities in the civic life of Preston  understandings of religious and social capital undergirding social action. I also helped organise events on the meaning of conversion, blogged about muslim families attending our Messy Church and published research findings about Evangelicals' views on other faiths. I attempted a personal assessment of my story so far in living in urban and religious diversity. While race was always a dimension of social difference, and racial justice remained a concern it was clear that identity and social cohesion had other complex dimensions.

Sanctuary seekers

From the 1980s in Newham I had been aware of the struggles over immigration which had impacted the lives of many of our friends and neighbours. I joined campaigns to support people threatened with deportation such as Marian Gaima, and the Danso Family, and observed the increasing harshness of Home Office policy, which had become a "hostile environment" long before 2012, when  Theresa May, as Home Secretary declared "The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants".  In practice "illegal" broadened to include the majority of refugees and asylum seekers, and other undocumented long term UK residents such as the Windrush generation.  In 2014 this became a personal encounter when a young Pakistani woman and her 5 year old daughter came to live with us; originally for a few nights, but eventually for two years. She was claiming asylum on the grounds of conversion to Christianity. We offered hospitality and support, and helped with the paperwork of the asylum claim, encountering at first hand the suspicion and incompetence of Home Office officials. Eventually the right to remain was granted, and ten years on, the mother and daughter have just acquired British Citizenship . They are still significant members of our family. One result is that our dog responds to commands given in Urdu.

Over the last ten years large numbers of Sanctuary seekers have come to live in Preston, under the asylum dispersal scheme, or the various refugee resettlement programmes, for Syrians, Afghans and Ukrainians. All face examples of discrimination and hostility, and life on a low income that sometimes amounts to destitution., which is related to their "othering" on grounds of ethnicity, religion, nationality or limited proficiency in English. But at the same time there is welcome and hospitality from many sectors of the community in Preston. In 2016 this came together in the formation of Preston City of Sanctuary , of which I was a founder member and continue to be an active member.  It is a broad coalition of individuals and organisations and represents a fascinating space in which Christians, Muslims, secularists and charities, statutory bodies such as schools, colleges and Councils work together with Sanctuary seekers and resettlers for the welfare of those on the margins.

The local churches are significantly impacted by the presence of new arrivals. Local churches in Blackburn and Preston have been at the forefront of offering support for sanctuary seekers, through English classes, drop in centres, and housing provision. Congregations have welcomed new members, especially Iranians, Eritreans, Hong Kong Chinese, Nigerians and Namibians among others. Our own small inner city parish has a number of Iranians. One of whom we are supporting through the long process of family reunion. We have also encountered several people who have come to the UK on the Care Visa scheme, and have been scammed and trapped in destitution and debt by unscrupulous recruitment agencies. This amounts to bonded labour and is clearly a justice issue which as Christians we should be praying and campaigning about.

Sadly even in the last few weeks one of our church's Iranian refugees was robbed and beaten up in the street by a gang of five young thugs. More than likely there was a racist or xenophobic element to this crime. Thankfully the police seem to have dealt with the issue with more understanding and compassion than the 1980s Metropolitan police did in the incidents highlighted earlier. However, it is clear that racist violence continues to be an issue, currently directed mainly toward people perceived as asylum seekers of "illegal migrants", and stoked up by the rhetoric of the government's "stop the boats" campaign and news coverage, especially in the tabloid press. Indeed looking back over 50 years it is clear that racist, Islamophobic and now Anti-semitic attacks tend to spike in response to high profile events and political interventions. In the 1960s Enoch Powell's notorious speech, in the 1970's and 1980s to National Front and BNP agitation, immediately after 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombs, after the Brexit Referendum, currently around the debates on small boats and the Rwanda policy, and now the war in Gaza have all been trigger events.

Brexit and Beyond

 Sadly racial justice was largely absent from the agenda of the UK church in the early years of the 21st Century. This was in the context of a number of emerging issues  which led up to the Brexit referendum.  Firstly the expansion of the EU led to significant migration to the UK, and to areas which had not previously experienced high levels of immigration. Most of the newcomers were from Eastern or Southern Europe, Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians and Portuguese, later followed by Romanians and Bulgarians. They were mostly white, and distinguished by language rather than skin colour. Many took low paid jobs in agriculture, food processing and construction. When I worked for the Salvation Army in Preston between 2005 and 2010 we managed teams of vendors of the Big Issue Magazine. At that time some EU nationalities had the right to live in the UK but not to regular employment. Large numbers of the Big Issue sales force, who were classed as self employed came from the new Romanian community.

Secondly it was a time when the government was promoting British Values as an essential part of the national curriculum in schools.  Though these were mostly "motherhood and apple pie" values they had a subtle way of "othering" and marginalising minority people and their cultures. In the context of growing support for Scottish Independence there was a growth in the notion of English identity, which had elements of nativism that was essentially  "white".  A third element was the promotion of solidarity with British militarism, partly in the context of overseas campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rituals around the return of bodies of the glorious dead, who had sacrificed their lives for "our" security and freedom. But it was also a narrative built around the centenary  of the great war, and the revival of national ceremonies, in which the established Church of England played an important role.  

This was the cultural context in which David Cameron called a referendum on EU membership, which provided a surprising, if narrow, and disastrous result.  I engaged in a number of ways in the debates about Brexit and focussed on the xenophobia that came out in the leave vote. With Linda Woodhead (Smith, G. and Woodhead, L., 2018. Religion and Brexit: populism and the Church of England) I undertook a statistical analysis of one of the exit polls. We found two-thirds (66%) of voters who identified as Church of England voted to leave the EU, though we argued about what this meant. In my view it was not a commitment as a faithful Anglican Christian that motivated votes to leave but a traditional white, older generation, English identity, most widespread in provincial monocultural rural and small town communities that was bundled with a nominal CofE identity, casually deployed in answer to "tick box" questions. I developed this line of argument in more theological depth in book reviews of Tomlin's pamphlet and the collection of essays produced by Chaplin and Bradstock. I had more sympathy with the positions taken in Reddie's book on Theologizing Brexit, although I felt that by reducing the issue to a black/white binary he ignored the dimensions of othering and xenophobia focussed on white EU immigration.  In 2018 following  I wrote a Temple Tract "The Revenge of the Racists"  in which I attempted to review recent changes and new challenges to multiculturalism and reflected on my own position and context as a privileged white man. 

Black Lives Matter 2020 and beyond

Since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in the USA  the debates about racial justice, the colonial legacy, and contextual Black liberation theologies have run with new energy.  Writers such as Anthony Reddie, Sanjee Perera, and Chine Mcdonald have made important contributions. The Church of England, while failing at many levels, has made some imaginative appointments to senior positions. As part of the debate in 2021 I was invited to write  How can we create multicultural church? Blog Article for Psephizo 

But there has also been a pushback from conservative voices who dismiss everything as "woke"  and have tried to invent and use a bogey man of "Critical Race Theory", portrayed  as an organised movement which is anti- Christian, Marxist and even demonic.  I am still sceptical that this is coherent enough to be labelled "critical race theory" but the concerns for justice and about racism, and the call to reflect seriously about white privilege still resonate for me.  Much of this controversy has been shaped by the polarised politics of the USA, and the idolatrous nationalism (see my review of Chris Wright's book) of the Trumpite White Evangelicals. In  another Temple Tract drawing on my research on UK evangelicals I discussed evangelical identities and the contrast between "evangelicals" on different sides of the Atlantic. However in populist right wing, and some Christian circles these anti-woke, and anti-church discourses have increasingly been deployed in Britain.

Recently I have been engaging on social media about Nigel Biggar's book "Colonialism a Moral Reckoning" involving some conservative (mostly white male and conservative evangelical Anglican) theologians and others such as Anthony Reddie. I have to admit I only  managed to read the first half of B iggar's book and put it aside, frustrated . I can see that he has made some valid points that some people, especially Christians involved in the Imperial project made efforts to mitigate the brutality and exploitation. My friend of many years, John Root, has read it properly and provides an extensive but in my view over generous review.    I think Biggar relies mostly on sources written by White male British imperialists, or colonial subjects who had been incorporated in the Imperial regime and culture. His book comes over as a salvo in the anti woke culture wars. A crucial point is that a the author doesn't seem to reflect much on his own positionality as a white male Conservative and one of the founding members of the New Conservatives, a movement which seems to have much in common with the populist, nativist christianism of Trump's white evangelicals and Victor Orban. I fully understand why my Black theologian friends hate it.  According to Reddie "It's a risible book full of poor scholarship".  I would love to see him and other post colonial theologians engage with the text and the sources, rather than dismiss it out of hand. 

Clearly I have much sympathy after a lifelong commitment to racial justice and flourishing in superdiverse communities and churches, I have much sympathy with both Black Lives Matter and Black contextual Liberation theologies. Yet I have some unease that both these movements seem bounded by the sides of the Transatlantic Triangle of Trade and the experience of slavery and colonialism. They do not seem to take account of other theatres of oppression and demands for liberation in a wider global and historical setting, or fit very well with the contemporary experience in British cities. They can come across as trapping Black and white people in a perpetual binary of victim and oppressor. My friend and former colleague in the work of Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice, articulates these question and applies them to the context of the church in Britain in his regular blog "out of many one people".  John is another old, white man like me, and though I don't agree with everything he writes, he raises important questions that need to be debated.

Root is right that the empirical evidence shows the increasing diversity and complexity of the situation in the UK, and that class, alongside cultural background and ethnicity rather than race, is a crucial variable impacting differential outcomes for various groups. I am not so convinced by his view that differing family structures, in particular the low prevalence of stable marriage in some groups, plays a significant part. I think some of the social analysis of the 1980s ..(I'm thinking about writers such as Sivanandan and John Rex) gave a strong account that was rooted in Marxist analysis. I would be happy if we could rediscover that emphasis. It would certainly help me to articulate and channel my concerns about poverty and disadvantage in support of both white and minoritized working class people in communities like my own. I would also have less reason to grieve for the rich and powerful Black and Asian professionals and business people who currently hold high profile positions in the Conservative party and UK government, or have broken through glass ceilings in the media and entertainment sectors.

My identities.. White, woke and well grounded

In conclusion I want to reflect on my 70 year journey in pursuit of racial and social justice in the context of my discipleship as a follower of Jesus and on my current identity as an old white Christian man.

Privileged   First of all I recognize that as an educated, white, male, living in the UK I hold far more power, privilege and resources than the vast majority of minoritized and poor  people, women and children in my own city and across the world. As a follower of Jesus I seek, very imperfectly, to deploy my privilege, resources, cultural and social capital, not in my own personal interest. I attempt to use it in the service of others, to enable and empower the agency and corporate struggles of disadvantaged people. I try to do this without patronising or presenting as a "white saviour".  I need to be told if others perceive me differently from what I intend to be, and how I might be more focussed and effective in struggles for justice. However, in a society where racism and privilege is embedded deep in structures, organisations, institutions and mainstream culture it is impossible not to benefit from the systems of privilege and whiteness.

Secure Secondly I am secure in my person, my relationships and my identity. I live in a country largely free of war and violence, I have a secure and more than adequate income, a comfortable home and family life, and so far at least, good health.  I have a supportive network of friendly relationships, in community and church life.  I am secure in my personal identity first of all as a child of God and follower of Jesus and a member of the church universal. I have local loyalties to the places I have lived, and though I own a British passport, pay taxes to the UK government, and receive benefits from them, I have little or no patriotic sense of Britishness or Englishness. I am a member of the human race and a citizen of the world, but also (in St Paul's words) a citizen of heaven.


Informed   Part of my privilege comes from being educated and informed, as does my understanding and commitment to anti-racism and social justice. I have had plenty of time over the years to read, listen, discuss, think and write extensively. As a researcher and data nerd I have familiarity with evidence and statistics from surveys, censuses and my own research projects. I have specialist knowledge in the field of ethnicity, religion and community work. I have been in this field long enough to see the trends and currents in social life. I find it frustrating that most people, including political and church leaders don't have this depth of understanding and that debates about ethnic and religious diversity betray ignorance and are conducted in sound bytes and around personalities.

Grounded; Having lived and worked locally in two urban, diverse and deprived urban communities I keep in touch with neighbours, friends and church members who have very different stories and experiences to my own.  As I am able I seek to listen to their accounts and views, and to accompany them in their struggles. I don't always do listening, empathy  and compassion very well, though I am married to someone who does, and who keeps me connected to everyday life.

Anabaptist Sympathies Theologically I have drawn inspiration from many streams but  at the core I am an Evangelical non-conformist.  In ecclesiology and religious politics I am drawn to the Anabaptist tradition. This means I am peace loving, indeed largely pacifist and hopefully a shalom maker. It also means I am anti establishment and have no time for hierarchies, bureaucratic rules or priest craft. I sit rather uncomfortably in our Anglican parish church!

Angry  : Since I first encountered racism, prejudice, discrimination and hatred in the 1970's I remain angry, and desperate to see greater equality and justice, and freedom for people who are oppressed. While I can see some signs of improvement, upward social mobility for some and greater social harmony over recent decades, I am greatly disturbed by some of the current trends, and probably more angry than ever about the direction of policies and culture. I am angry about poverty whoever it affects, and about unfairness where I see it affect particular groups or individuals.

Getting it wrong   :  I am conscious as a Christian that I am an imperfect person, living in a fallen world, and that I constantly do things I ought not to have done, and fail to do things that I ought to have done. I seek forgiveness from God and others for these failings. In terms of racism I recognize that I sometimes have wrong attitudes and thoughts, and that words come out of my mouth at times that are wrong, and sometimes can be interpreted as micro aggressions. I am painfully aware that I lack the courage and wisdom to directly challenge racism when I hear it expressed in personal interactions with other white people, as I tend to avoid conflict wherever possible. Even when I speak out or write in favour of racial or social justice I often don't have enough passion or clarity, and don't do it very effectively.

In conclusion I want to say that in today's context where every debate and disagreement is so easily polarised, and personalised, it feels difficult for an affluent white person to make a constructive contribution to the cause of  racial and social justice. Sometimespeople feel damned if they speak their opinions and damned if they stay silent. I hope that I have shown that it is possible for an old white Christian man to continue to contribute as an ally in struggles against oppression and injustice. Just as I believe Jesus did and still does.

Tuesday 5 March 2024

Book Review Jesus and Justice: Stories of radical Christian Living.

 Book Review to be published in Preach Magazine 

 Jesus and Justice: Stories of radical Christian Living.

Produced by Red Letter Christians & edited by Simon Jones

ISBN 9798873935086 https://redletterchristians.org.uk/jesus-justice-stories-of-radical-christian-living-in-the-uk-book-release-feb-2024/


This edited collection brings together 26 authors from across the UK, writing about their lived experience of seeking Jesus and justice in their communities. Some of the contributors are well known, such as Steve Chalke, Anthony Reddie, Shane Claiborne and Stephen Timms MP, while others are grass roots disciples of Jesus, living and working in deprived and overlooked communities across the country. I have known lots of them and some of their contexts personally for many years and consider them co-conspirators for the upside down Kingdom (or as some prefer Kindom or Commonwealth) of God.

The stories and the structure of the volume is based around verses from the beautiful vision of Shalom in Isaiah 65:17-23. They explore eco-justice, poverty and placemaking, housing, migration, racial justice, economics, youth deprivation and criminal justice. The hope of the authors is that "Our book will inspire you with what is possible when a Jesus-centred faith is at the heart of activism.' I think that for the most part the book succeeds in this, and would recommend it to anyone who seeks to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God".

The writing style is accessible, with fascinating personal stories, testimonies and reflections, including a number of panel discussions about different themes. The theological issues are important and deep, but not buried in academic jargon. The doctrinal stances of authors are varied; and some chapters may be "too inclusive" for some evangelical readers. Yet all of them clearly love Jesus and the Bible. I think it is inevitable, and indeed right, that when Christians are living and working in a context where there are real world injustices impacting them and the people and churches they love, we interpret Scripture with new eyes, as verses and stories leap out from the text and make connections with the world we inhabit. Our faith is far more than mere head knowledge as taught in Bible College or from the pulpit, and is no longer confined to worship events and prayer meetings. Rather as the book argues it is about following and living with Jesus in a messed up world.

Reviewed by Greg Smith https://gregsmith.synthasite.com/

Greg Smith has worked for over forty years in urban mission, community development and social research in London and Preston. He is a senior research fellow of the William Temple Foundation and has published extensively on religion in the inner city, faith involvement in urban regeneration, and urban theology. He is a lay leader in an inner city parish and a volunteer in work with asylum seekers and refugees.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Book review :Finding the Treasure: Good news from the estates edited by Al Barrett Published by SPCK

This short book comprises a collection of reflections from the Church of England Estates Theology Project with five case studies from parishes on social housing estates in various urban and suburban settings across England. It is intended to be an encouragement to church leaders working in such settings and to break the stereotype that all is grim and the church is dead or dying in the less affluent areas. It arises from the Anglican commitment promoted by Bishop Philip North to strengthen and renew parish life and spread the gospel among people living in such neighbourhoods. In my opinion (and personal lifelong calling) this is exactly where Christians should be directing their prayers, resources, time and effort, not so much because there is spiritual, social and economic need, but it is in such places that we will find remarkable signs of God at work and encounter Jesus in surprising ways, not just on Sundays. That I think, is the message the book attempts to convey, though I am not fully convinced it achieves its aim.

First of all the case studies in the book are exclusively Anglican, which inevitably will narrow the potential readership to clergy working in parish settings, and those tasked with training them. The Wythenshawe case study concentrates on a community weaving project based at the William Temple Church. It comes over as a good story of an interesting example of a community art project, which at certain points touches Christian values and faith. But over the years I have heard or read numerous other accounts of church life in Wythenshawe, from different denominations and mission perspectives, which are not represented in the chapter. As a result I am reminded of a comment originally made by Anne Morissey (who write a foreword to the book) about the way the Church of England exudes "a sense of effortless superiority" in it's approach to community ministry.

The rest of the book continues in the same vein. The majority of the parishes involved are from a liberal catholic or radical tradition. Only the chapter from Eltham, with input from the Church Army, uses any evangelical language in its theological framing of the local story. Yet in doing so it largely rejects the evangelical priorities of sharing the Gospel, and calling people to repent, believe, follow Jesus and be baptised into the community of his church. Long experience of urban mission has shown there are big problems with such a formulaic approach, and that preaching AT people is mostly ineffective. However, if the local church on estates is to survive, become self supporting and self propagating, we need to work hard on talking about Jesus, making disciples, strengthening socially diverse worshipping communities, who engage with and serve their neighbourhood, and developing local Christian leaders. There doesn't seem to be much of this sort of good news reflected in the book, though there are many other places where it is happening.


I find the theological method of the book curious. It is based on pairing an academic theologian with a church leader and trying to listen to the voices of local residents. They then reflected on what they heard and produced chapters which still feel rather abstract and academic in style. While listening is always to be recommended, and contextual reflection on local stories is foundational for urban theology, it might have been helpful to use a more participatory approach where local people (Christians and others) worked together to generate conclusions and linking with Bible stories and themes. It is only in the final section of the book that the editor makes reference to Laurie Green's "Let's do Theology" which would have been my personal starting point for the whole project.


Reviewed by Greg Smith ,

Associate Research Fellow William Temple Foundation and Trustee of Urban Theology Union.

May 2023