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/ 19 October 2020

What is at stake in the sin of Racism?

Why should the Church care about the sin of racism? The Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, reflects on why Christians should be particularly concerned whenever racial prejudice rears its head in our society, our church and our hearts.

We live in a world where many people are becoming more aware of the pervading reality of racism. The issue has huge impact, socially, psychologically and emotionally, on those communities where people of colour live in countries like the UK, but for a moment, I want to ask why Christians in particular should care about it. Will cathedrals or parish churches have to foot the bill for removing statues or reparations from past gains though links with and complicity in slavery? Might white leaders need to step aside to make way for global majority colleagues? Will educational curricula need to change? Maybe all of these. Yet there is something else at stake – something that strikes even closer to the heart of the church’s very identity.

In Act 9.31 we are given a picture of the earliest church: “meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” The Greek phrase translated here as ‘throughout’ is καθ’ ὅλης – Catholic. It’s the only time that term is explicitly used in the New Testament. The church in Judea was deeply Jewish, with Jerusalem at its centre. Galilee was ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ – always a mixed area ethnically due to the various invasions that had left their mark in the northern kingdom over the years, and Samaria was, of course, the home of Samaritans as well as Jews. The ‘Catholic church’ was therefore the church of Jesus Christ as expressed in these varied cultures and ethnicities across Roman Palestine and beyond.

That word ‘Catholic’ describes the universality of the church. Cyril of Jerusalem, in one of his Catechetical Lectures, delivered in the C4th, states it clearly: “It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge… and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind.”

Catholicity means that the church has a common core of doctrine – a belief in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a God who creates, redeems and perfects. Yet that belief is expressed in various geographical and cultural forms across the whole world. It also reaches across cultures to span what Cyril calls ‘the whole race of mankind’, or in another translation, ‘every sort of person’.

Yet what is the centre of this Catholicity? The church of God has no other centre than Jesus Christ. St Paul says that the head of the church is Christ. Salvation comes through Christ alone, not through our human efforts. We know God primarily through Jesus Christ, rather than through a separate revelation in nature or history, so that Christ is our ultimate guide to the character and nature of God. Karl Barth’s insistence that it is in Christ alone that we see God revealed sets down a marker that when we get to Christology, “here we are standing at the centre.”[1]

In other words, the centre of gravity of the Catholic faith is not one particular cultural expression of it, but Christ himself. ‘Culture’ is a notoriously slippery concept but it can be defined as the “customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories” of a particular group. To say that the centre of Catholic faith is Christ is to say that the only ‘culture’ that can be normative in the Christian church is not English, or French, or Nigerian, or Indian culture, but its belief in the God of Jesus Christ articulated in the creeds, the ‘rules and arts’ of Christian life, namely “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”, and the collective memory of the church in history, however they might be expressed in the varied cultures of the world.

Now this is a particular temptation for those of us in national churches. We can feel that because we are the Church of England, then Englishness, often defined as restrained, polite, white, middle class Englishness, takes the central place, and everyone else has to fit into that cultural form. It is why our church has struggled to accept and welcome the gifts of black and minority ethnic Christians, whether in the Windrush generation who came to the UK after the second world war to help rebuild the nation, African or American Pentecostals, Asian Christians of different denominations, eastern European Catholics and many more. To believe that Anglicanism, or any other kind of Christianity for that matter, takes one particular fixed liturgical and social form can lead to a resistance to receiving the gifts of the worship styles and forms of spirituality that come from other parts of the world, as was bound to happen in the aftermath of empire. Anglicanism’s capacity to embrace a wide range of styles of prayer and worship is an expression and not a denial of its Catholicity.

There is a form of inter-church relations called ‘Receptive Ecumenism’. It is an approach to ecumenical work that focusses not on doctrinal agreements or crafting common statements but on recognising the gift that each part of the church has to bring to the rest. Rather than asking ‘what do we have to give to others who don’t understand the gospel as fully as we do?’, it asks ‘what do we have to learn from them, to help us see the goodness and glory of God more clearly?’

We can never see the full glory of Jesus Christ on our own. Many of us have had the experience where we see Christ through the eyes of someone else and suddenly see something we have never seen before – his forgiveness of the sinner, his anger at injustice, his compassion for the hungry, his power to heal. Only the whole church can see the full glory of Jesus Christ. This too is an expression of Catholicity. We need each other in the various human cultures in which the church has taken root, to do justice to the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. Racism is a sin. Of course, it’s possible to sin without knowing it, which is why at present there needs to be a period of soul-searching, as the Psalmists often to do, to explore hearts “to see if there is any wicked way in me”. Sin always diminishes, shrinks, empties us of life. Racism diminishes the church because it denies us the opportunity to see the fullness of the glory of God and takes away our rightful mutual heritage. It refuses the gifts that different cultures bring to it. Because it is a sin, those of us who are part of a church that has allowed racist assumptions and structures to persist need to repent, resolve to act differently and to change our behaviour and assumptions about each other, because we are compelled to do so by the radical idea that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

St Paul’s determination to see the financial gift of the Gentiles accepted by the Jewish church in Jerusalem, as well as the vision in the book of Revelation of “the eternal gospel proclaim(ed) to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev 14.6) is testimony to the importance of this idea – that the gifts of all cultures belong in the church of Jesus Christ. The church is Catholic because it welcomes and accepts the gifts of all those varying human cultures in which the church has grown. And if it refuses those gifts, suggesting that it only really extends to some of those geographical territories and not others, its Catholicity is in danger.

This is what is at stake for the church in the sin of racism: not financial ruin or reputational damage, but its very identity as the Catholic church. And at stake in Catholicity is the church’s true centre in Christ alone. If Catholicity is the ability of the church to receive the gifts of all cultures in which it has found root, to enable it to see glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ more clearly, then we can begin to see why in Christian terms, racism is such a problem. Racism prevents us from receiving the gift that others bring that might help us to know God in Jesus Christ better.

When we enthrone one particular ethnic culture as the ‘norm’ within the church rather than finding its centre in Christ alone, we miss the mark. If a church in any given place is blind to the gifts of other cultures, unwilling to receive what they have to give, nobody wins. We are all impoverished. Yet if we can receive each other’s gifts, we might just find our vision and enjoyment of God is enlarged, and as happened in that moment in the book of Acts, we might “have peace, live in the fear of the Lord, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and increase in numbers.”

The Rt Revd Dr Graham Tomlin
Bishop of Kensington

[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p66


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About Graham Tomlin

The Rt Revd Graham Tomlin is Bishop of Kensington. He is the author of many books, most recently, The Widening Circle: Priesthood as God’s Way of Blessing the World (2015). Bishop Graham is also President of St Mellitus College.

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