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/ 17 July 2020

Why should the church be interested in cultural diversity?

An insightful message from Bishop Graham Tomlin, looking at a passage from Acts 9.

‘Ever since the death of George Floyd back at the end of May, there’s been a great outpouring of anger and frustration across our world. Of course, this is nothing new. Black people have been discriminated against and mistreated for many, many years, and yet there feels something new happening here. Maybe it’s because of social media, maybe the frustration that people were feeling because of the lockdown. But there’s also been a great deal of soul searching from white people, people like myself becoming aware of my own whiteness and the privileges that it’s brought me.

Maybe the Holy Spirit is stirring something in the church and in the world and in our hearts, uncovering the hidden roots of racism that causes so much pain and injustice across our world. Yet how do we think of this as Christians? Because the terms that we sometimes use, terms of diversity and inclusion, are good terms, good ideas, but not necessarily Christian words. What is at stake for the church in all this? Why should the church be interested in cultural diversity?

Maybe it’s about reputational damage. Nobody wants to be known as institutionally racist. There’s a question mark as to whether the church should take down statues or cover up windows of people who were involved in the slave trade. But there’s something else, I suspect something deeper that goes to the very heart of the church’s identity that is at stake here. In Acts chapter nine, there’s a little glimpse we get of the church growing and thriving. It says this in verse 31, “Meanwhile, the church throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up, living in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. It increased in numbers.”

Now, that’s something we’d all love to see– the church having peace, being built up, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, increasing in numbers, and so on. And yet, what is the secret? And I wonder whether it’s because of the three places that are mentioned there– Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. They’re all culturally different. Judea was very Jewish. It was Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish nation. Galilee was often known as Galilee of the Gentiles because of the waves of invasions that had happened in the northern kingdom over the centuries. There was always a very strong Gentile, as well as Jewish, presence there. Samaria was the home of the Samaritans and it was not just the Jews. And as we know from the story of the good Samaritan, Samaritans and Jews didn’t always get on very well.

Yet the church had taken root in each of these three places and cultures. And when they all came together, then somehow something happened. They experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit. And they increased in numbers. Now, there’s a word that is used in the heart of that text, which is really interesting. When it says the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, it has the Greek phrase ecclesia catholis. In other words, the church Catholic. And that, I think, is the Christian word at the heart of it. And this is what is at stake in this issue of racism, our very Catholicity.

Now, what does that word mean? What does Catholic or Catholicity mean? Well, Cyril of Jerusalem was one of the great early fathers of the church. And he said this in one of his catechetical lectures in the fourth century, “The church is called Catholic because it is spread throughout the entire inhabited world from one end to the other and because it teaches in its totality and without leaving anything out every doctrine which people need to know and because it brings to obedience every sort of person.”

In other words, Catholicity means that the church has a common faith believed everywhere. We believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But that faith is expressed in different geographical and cultural forms across the world, and it reaches to every kind of person. In other words, Catholicity is all about the universal character of the church and the fact that we need the whole church. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that experience. You may be going on holiday or listening to a sermon from a different culture or maybe talking to a friend from a different cultural background.

And when they talk about Jesus, seeing something of Jesus that you’ve never seen before. That’s Catholicity. That’s the ability of the church to see the whole Jesus through the eyes of the whole church, because each of us has our own little narrow view of Jesus. We need to understand more of him by receiving the gifts that others have to bring. And when the church refuses that gift, refuses the gift of part of the church, then our Catholicity, our identity is under threat.

A little while ago on a Sunday morning, I dropped into one of our churches online worship to join in. And there was a sermon given there by a lay Asian Christian. And it was a brilliant sermon, really, really good, very rich, all kinds of interesting insights in it, and very much coming out of his experience as an Asian Christian. It struck me how tragic it would be if we had refused to receive the gift that he brought to the church that day simply because of the color of his skin.

Now, that seems increasingly so when you think about the growth in world Christianity at the moment. It’s not in the white areas of Europe and North America, but it’s in places like China. It’s in places like Africa and South America, and so on. There was an idea in ecumenical theology at the moment called receptive ecumenism, which is the idea that different parts of the church approach each other not in the spirit of saying, well, let me tell you where you’re wrong or even, let’s first work out a form of words that we can agree on, but what can I learn from you about God that I wouldn’t be able to learn just on my own?

Now, maybe we need that kind of spirit in this arena of racism when we think about our own church of England, because the problem of racism is that it stops us receiving the gifts of others. It blinds us to the glory of God that we can only see together. What is at stake in this issue of racism is the very Catholicity of the church. If we don’t receive the gifts that other cultures have to bring us, whatever culture we’re from, we’re kind of saying that the church doesn’t really extend to all cultures and all peoples.

And if we’re saying that, we’re impoverished. We cannot see the fullness, the glory, the greatness of the God of Jesus Christ just on our own. But if we do receive the gifts that other cultures, other ethnicities from our own have to bring, then it might just be that we, too, as a church will live in peace, in the fear of the Lord, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and that we, too, will begin to grow in numbers.’

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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