Black faith has held North American church and society to account for worldly injustice, theologians say
The chief influence of Black Christianity on the wider North American church has been to hold it to the idea of freedom in the here and now—with gains that aren’t going to wilt at resistance from the dominant culture, according to Black church leaders the Anglican Journal interviewed.
“The Black faith tradition has always been that prophetic, if you will, witness to the liberating God—that tradition that has tried to speak truth to power,” says Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the author of several books.
This aspect of Black Christianity arose from the history of people of African descent in North America, Douglas says. Brought to the continent as slaves, they saw in the Christian God the same high god they had worshipped in West Africa, who had created them to be free, she says.
“They somehow were able—or I should even put it another way: the God of the Exodus was able to find them. They were able to find the Exodus story and to see this God that liberated the Israelites from their oppression … and that seemed to be the god that they knew,” Douglas says. “That’s why the Exodus tradition continues to be a central tradition in Black faith…. The Black faith tradition begins as a tradition that, at its centre, has an understanding of a God who is a liberator and who is one with the oppressed.”
Many white Christians at the time did not understand Christian freedom in such worldly terms; indeed, the Anglican Edmund Gibson, who was bishop of London from 1723-1748, argued in favour of baptising slaves, Douglas says, on the grounds that “the salvation and freedom that come with baptism have nothing to do with earthly freedom and salvation.”
Historically, African-American spirituality has pressed the church, including the Anglican church, to understand liberation in earthly terms as well, she says, and “to see the face of Jesus in the face of the most oppressed—and in this country, that has typically meant in the face of Black people as they struggle for freedom.”
In the United States, Douglas says, the Episcopal Church—which has historically been the church of colonial authorities and slave owners—is increasingly recognizing its historical role in slavery and white supremacy, including taking seriously the idea of reparations, in response to calls from its Black members.
“That’s being done not all of a sudden out of the goodness of their hearts, but because of the voices that are the Black church within the Episcopal Church tradition,” she says.
Douglas says she hopes this tendency will manifest itself globally, and that white Anglicans will come to recognize that their communion is largely African.
“We still act like the Anglican Communion is synonymous with ‘Anglo,’” she says. “And so, I think that the more you hear voices erupting across the nation, across the globe, of people of colour—it is going to have an impact, I hope a cataclysmic impact, upon the way in which the Anglican Communion thinks of itself and conducts itself on the worldwide stage.”
In Canada, Black Christians have influenced Christianity in a number of ways, says Canon Stephen Fields, incumbent at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Thornhill, Ont., and founding chair of the diocese of Toronto’s Black Anglicans Coordinating Committee. For example, they’ve lived out their Christianity in uniquely or largely Black denominations, such as Black Baptist or British Methodist Episcopal (BME) churches. Yet it’s really only in recent decades that Blacks—particularly those of Caribbean descent—have begun to influence the Anglican church, he says.
There’s been a sizeable Black presence in the Canadian Anglican church since substantial numbers of people began to immigrate to Canada from the Caribbean in the 1940s and ’50s, Fields says. These early immigrants were coming from a Caribbean that was in many cases still very British, where the church was mostly Anglican, and so when they came to Canada they naturally joined Anglican churches here. But where they were welcomed, it was often because they were seen as bringing a touch of exotic culture to church events, rather than as potential church leaders, he says.
“For many, it was just a matter of ‘You’re from the Caribbean; the Caribbean is calypso, and colour, and food,’ so any influence that Blacks had in our church as Anglicans was around occasionally providing a local experience in Canada of Caribbean tourism,” he says. “That was all it was. You weren’t involved in synod, you weren’t involved in any power structure, no policy-making.”
Over time, Black Anglicans began to talk about taking on a bigger role for themselves; meanwhile, church leaders made increasing efforts to include and involve them more in decision-making, he says. In 1992 a report by the Rev. Romney Moseley, strongly recommending the church promote diversity and inclusion in worship and leadership, was endorsed by General Synod. Three years later, the Black Anglicans Coordinating Committee was formed, to advocate for and support Black Anglicans in the diocese of Toronto, with, among other things, an annual Black history service. In 2018, Black Anglicans of Canada was established to advocate for a larger role in the national church.
Black Canadian Anglicans, Fields says, have come to leave their mark on worship as well. While keeping the theology intact, many predominantly Black congregations have moved away from worshipping in a strictly British style. They have integrated dance and Caribbean music into their services, which typically involve a lot of colour, energy and spontaneity, he says.
Fields says that in his experience, however, this kind of worship is often not embraced by non-Black Anglican congregations.
“The sad thing about it is that for some in the dominant culture, even that is seen as ‘not as good as’—not Anglican or Canadian, not who we are,” he says. “It’s good ‘over there,’ we can go visit it and leave it, but to have it as part of who we are every Sunday is not on. Not in every case, but generally that’s the attitude: ‘It’s not our thing.’”
A parishioner once wrote him a letter, Fields says, telling him that “that’s not our music, to get back to Barbados.”
But Black Anglicans in Canada, he says, have no intention of walking back any of the gains they’ve made.
“The one thing you can be sure about is that as Black Anglicans, we are home—we aren’t going anywhere,” he says. “This is our home, and we are going to make sure that we get a share in the work that’s being done and a share in how we make decisions.”