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England’s Christian heritage is important to diasporic communities, too

04 February 2022

Those who are nostalgic for England's religious past should not ignore the impact of historic legacies, argues Renie Chow Choy

IF ONE looks at conceptions of Christian heritage through the prism of identity and belonging, one is immediately struck by the gulf that separates the assumptions of the white British from ethnic-minority Christians.

The National Trust — which protects many historic sites of Christian interest — has a membership that is less than one per cent black. The national past — “our Christian heritage” — like all aspects of heritage, as Patrick Wright has noted, seems “to be identifiable as the historicised image of an instinctively conservative establishment”.

Thus the Conservative peer Lord Cormack’s definition of “heritage” not as significant places and things but as “certain sights and sounds” implies that heritage is inherent and incommunicable, something with which “one must have grown up in the midst of ancestral continuities”: the sights and sounds of “the Eucharist in a quiet Norfolk Church with the mediaeval glass filtering the colours, and the early noise of the harvesting coming through the open door; or of standing at any time before the Wilton Diptych”. I could go on: the sight of church steeples, the sound of church bells, the smell of climbing roses on a church wall.

Of such cultivated senses, Stanley Baldwin said: “These are the things that make England, and I grieve for it that they are not the childish inheritance of the majority of the people today in our country.”

Are they not? If so, it is not for lack of appreciation by the majority, but because Baldwin implies that this heritage reflects quintessentially English sensibilities, the property of the well-established, landed class who, out for a walk on an autumnal evening, would be moved by the smell of “that wood smoke that our ancestors . . . must have caught on the air when they were coming home with the result of the day’s forage”.

The irony of this, as Corinne Fowler has pointed out in her book Green Unpleasant Land (Peepal Tree Press), is that heritage sites attract nostalgia for an era when Britain was connected with colonised countries around the world: a fact that is forgotten at best, and covered up at worst, in the discourse on “our Christian heritage”. As Fowler argues, in this country, we continue to think of the colonial action as having taken place elsewhere, off stage. So, naval battles were fought in faraway oceans; sugar was planted and harvested in exotic islands; tea was picked in the Orient — and the Christianisation of dark, brown, yellow-skinned people occurred in the heat of the Tropics.

Yet it was this global empire that, having evangelised the people of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, galvanised them to believe they were part of the Christianity of England.

We need to see the legacies of empire through a single frame. We ought not to be satisfied with the assumption that Christians from the colonies have only changed the face of Christianity in England by making it more ethnically diverse: we must also insist that the impact be historiographical, necessitating an adjustment to the definition of “heritage”.

For the vast majority of the white British public, England’s Christian heritage might denote cassocks and stained glass and church bells, but, for Christians from former British colonies — statistically more Evangelical and Charismatic — this heritage is impregnated, enlivened, activated by something more ahistorical and expressed in more devotional terms.

Some of my ethnic-minority students say that Christian heritage, for them, means scripture, justice, morality, humility; Christians from former colonies are much more likely to interpret the historical marks that English Christianity has left on them in terms of worship, doctrine, ethics, mission, evangelism. And these aspects, in turn, make the “national heritage” of things such as medieval manuscripts and Norman baptismal fonts take on religious — as opposed to national or ethnic — significance.


THUS, claiming “Christian heritage” as something that primarily pertains to those with white British ancestry has as much logic as claiming the same for British weather, and does as much damage as claiming the same for civility.

Christianity, in this country, has paid a high price for its associations with national and ethnic identity, and its failure to understand how much it represents “home and family” to diasporic people. The undervaluing of members of the Windrush generation when they arrived from the colonies to the metropole included the undervaluing of their commitment to English Protestant Christianity — to the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and other traditions.

It has often been the case that “white Christians” did not take seriously the part that England has played in the lives of those Christianised under its influence, and have not entirely understood the depth of identification with Western Christianity as a forebear in the family of faith.

The answer to post-colonial dilemmas is, therefore, not to foist a separate lineage on ethnic-minority Christians who have been touched by empire; the answer must lie in stripping the “our” in “our Christian heritage” of its nationalistic and racial connotations.

Dr Renie Chow Choy is Lecturer in Church History at St Mellitus College. This is an edited extract from her book Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial thoughts on Western Christian heritage, published by SCM Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.99); 978-0-334-06090-1.

She will be taking part in an online panel discussion on Christian heritage, identity, and place, on 14 March. For more information and to book tickets, visit here.

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