An interesting story has cropped up at the Daily Telegraph which tells us: “The Church of England will appoint a new bishop to reach out to ethnic minorities because it is seen as too ‘quintessentially English'”.
This is loaded with historical ironies. If you are going to have a national Church, this surely is the danger you will run: it will appeal to the nation, but not to others outside the nation. National appeal will come at the expense of catholicity. This is something that Henry VIII never thought about: how is the Church of England to serve all the people in England, including those who are not English? But the Tudor monarch lived in a time before mass immigration.
The main reason behind the creation of a new bishop with a roving commission for welcoming ethnic minorities is that historically, when many people arrived here from the West Indies and elsewhere in the 1950s, they were not warmly welcomed by existing Anglican congregations, despite the fact that so many of these new arrivals were from Anglican churches in the countries of their birth.
What lesson can be drawn from this? Firstly, being “quintessentially English”, while very charming in some ways, is not an advantage when it comes to evangelisation, as the values of the Gospel transcend time and place. That seems pretty obvious. At the same time, a Church, any Church, has to be rooted in the local culture if it is to hold onto its adherents. So, one has to do a careful balancing act between the two: one has to be “rooted” and at the same time, dreaded word, “open.” This will make demands on the existing members of the congregation and their pastors. Every parish loves to describe itself as welcoming, but some may discover that this requires a certain level of sacrifice.
The second thing is also very basic: a parish needs to appeal to people in the state they find themselves, and provide them with what they are looking for, rather than expect people to conform to some sort of preconceived stereotype. This may well boil down to something as simple as the choice of music, which, as we all know, is one of the great battlegrounds of contemporary church life.
Thirdly, just how is the new bishop going to approach people of ethnic minority backgrounds? Their concept of what is right doctrine may be rather different to that held by your average person in the pew. In fact, as we all know, Africans like what one lady once termed to me “strong doctrine.” Some of the things coming out of the Church of England and the Catholic Church in Britain today would be met with a polite lack of enthusiasm.
One thing that the arrival of people from abroad means for all of us is an opportunity to learn. It is true that Europe is the heartland of the faith, but if you want to look for lively parishes these days, I would recommend places like Nairobi and Lagos, rather than Brussels and Vienna. If you ever preach in a church in Nairobi, as I have, the one thing that strikes you is the intense seriousness of the way people listen to the sermon. Moreover, in parishes in Kenya, it is common for Catholic associations with which we are familiar, such as the SVP and the Legion of Mary, to have many hundreds of members. Community bonds there are strong. The job of most parish priests in Britain is somehow or another to try to build community in a culture where bonds of community are fragile. In Africa, the bonds of community are strong, and it is through these bonds that religious allegiances flow.
I do not know what the new bishop will do. My advice to him would be to get into communities and talk to people and invite them to church. He may be pleasantly surprised by their reaction. These strong communities do exist among recent and not so recent arrivals in Britain. All of us, Anglican and Catholic, need to engage with them. That is why the appointment of this new bishop, far from being yet another sign of Anglican dottiness, is a good idea and a sign of hope. The Catholic Church should do the same and soon.