In one of my former parishes there was a very energetic ecumenical group which prided itself on the variety of spiritual experiences it could provide for its membership in any given year. When I was approached for the use of the parish church for the annual visit of a linked West African congregation from Birmingham, I asked what the link was about. The reply was that the group liked to watch Africans worship, they are much better at it than we are.
I spent a couple of years in the eighties studying Black theology in an American seminary. During that time I had had to come to terms with some uncomfortable truths about my own race, particularly around the subject of slavery. As I didn’t feel comfortable with hosting African worship as a spectator sport I phoned a friend in Birmingham who is a Black theologian, who introduced me to a further uncomfortable truth. He said that slavery was not the only aspect of our past that I had to take into account when I was thinking about the relationship between our races; there was also colonialism. As an example he cited the way in which members of a colonised people would vie for invitations to social events at the local colonial residence, taking their status by being A-listers at a white event over solidarity with their fellow dominated blacks. He said that he would be thinking in these terms about a professional African congregation which was prepared to make the two-hour journey to a white church in the stockbroker belt, but have next-to-nothing to do with the Jamaican church in their own neighbourhood.
This episode from my past came to mind when we heard on the news this week that a careless Tweet, from Member of Parliament Diane Abbott, to a colleague about how whites tended to divide black people. When the news of this Tweet broke, she was immediately disciplined, and her party machinery moved at lightning speed to mend the damage from the outrage. If Diane Abbott was in error it was in the means by which she expressed the view. The truth that whites have divided blacks is incontestable, and I have no reason to doubt that it remains a present reality. I believe the Labour Party leadership missed an opportunity here, which Ms Abbott unwittingly provided, and it has to do with our national identity, which is inseparable from our national narrative. Who we think we are depends on who we think we have been. Politicians have understandably been cautious about articulating a narrative which has been about the decline of our status as a nation for most of the last century.
On the other hand, much has been made of our status as a multi-cultural nation. When the chef Jamie Oliver can tour the nation, and then produce a best-selling cookbook, full of recipes which we have inherited from the communities which have moved to these islands, then we know that multi-cultural Britain is an idea that his generation is ready to appropriate.
But there’s a catch. Almost thirty years ago I was told by my Afro-American Black Theology professor that it was not possible for a black person and a white person to have any kind of genuine relationship without agreeing a common version of history. In other words, unless the white person could appropriate the uncomfortable facts from our history about our nation’s role in slavery and colonial subjugation, then we would be blind to the key historical events which have shaped people of the African diaspora, and even why they come to call these islands home.
To begin to work on such a narrative is a big ask for politicians. It means becoming a target for tabloid ire, and having to face the anger of members of the public who cling to our colonial past and the notion of our identity being centred on imperial power. A party in the early period of Opposition has much less to lose that the Government, and this may be a way to serve the nation in a way that would bring healing and wholeness. There is a spiritual task here, about seeking the truth, even painful truth, about ourselves in order then to be able to seek harmony with our neighbours, and I include neighbours of all former-colonial races. In the absence of a story on which we can all agree, the vacuum will continue to be filled by the versions of who-we-are peddled by extreme right-wing groups, and we will still see racial violence on our streets. A shared story of how we came to be would be a substantial beginning to how we account for who we are, and what is keeping us from where we need to be as a nation.
Vicar of Evesham