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Why it’s important to hear Black voices

16 February 2024

The author of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2024, Selina Stone, examines what can be learned from Black Christian spirituality

Diocese of London

Marking Racial Justice Sunday, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett; the Revd Adeloa Eleyae; the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy; and the Revd Sandra McCallain in front of Tributaries of Knowledge, by the British-Trinidadian artist Bryony Benge-Abbott, part of the “World Reimagined” art education project

Marking Racial Justice Sunday, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Andrew Tremlett; the Revd Adeloa Eleyae; the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Lusa...

IN A recent sermon, Pastor Otis Moss III, in discussing how we live in the “in-between time” — the liminal space — quoted the African-American saying that we are often caught somewhere between “O Lord” and “Thank you, Jesus.”

What he meant was that, in Black church tradition, there is a distinct awareness of living between, or sometimes in the overlap of, lament and hope, fear and courage, loss and gratitude. For Black people, faith is a navigation of tensions.

This is, of course, true for all of us in some way. Our lives are rarely straightforward: we are often in-between. We may believe in the possibility of healing even as we live with a long-term health issue. We may hold the promise of resurrection close to us, even as we are overwhelmed with grief, as we lose a loved one. We may pray and organise for peace, even as genocide and war rage.

But, for Black Christians in particular, the tensions are even more stark, because of their location in the family of God. In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, we find the first encounter of an African person with the message of Jesus. He is known to have taken the message back to his homeland. But Christianity, formed by and for white Europeans, was also used as a weapon to subjugate and exploit Black people. What then does it mean to be a Black Christian? These are the deep theological tensions that so often lead people away from faith, and yet, for many, God has seemed ever present, bringing life and hope.

God has a pattern of remaining present in tension rather than avoiding it. God chooses to inhabit places that we might consider messy, complicated, or less than ideal. We see this in the incarnation, of course. God chooses a body we would not have considered beautiful or attractive (Isaiah 53.2), and a town no one expected anything good to come from (John 1.46).

God is born into a complicated family situation which had the potential for scandal, and was born not to the wealthy, but to a young couple of limited means, in a stable. God encounters us in the spaces we have been taught to be wary of, and in a body that was not treated with honour, nor given power and status, except that which was due to men at his time.


IT IS with this lens that we might explore the importance of Black Christian spirituality: God’s encounter among those of us the wider world often treats with suspicion. This is true, though not something people are often willing to admit.

It begins with how we hold up particular figures as being the right sort to teach us about God and the life of faith. These tend to be white men with white facial hair, and a few white women — all of whom have gone to the right universities and speak with a particular accent and tone that are believed to convey wisdom and authority.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with the work done by such people — there is some great wisdom here — but there is much more to be said than what can be said by such a similar group. If God is making Godself known to all of God’s children, then we are missing out when we have such a limited idea of who might teach us about God.

And, more importantly, if Jesus himself came to us, not as a member of the elite of his day, but as one of the everyday people, then what are we missing by not looking for him there today?

Not all Black people can be considered to be among “the least of these”, and this is important to say. Race is one of many elements of inequality which shape our life together, alongside class, gender, disability, sexuality, and so on. There are many different experiences of identity and privilege among Black groups, as there are among whites. To state it clearly, Black groups in the UK tend to include African Caribbeans, Africans, and those with mixed African/Caribbean heritage.

There are also significant Black communities in other parts of Western Europe, such as France, the United States, Brazil, and Latin America, and those living in the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. The African diaspora — a term we use to describe the global presence of Africans outside of Africa — is rich and varied in language, culture, social norms, and politics.


IN THE UK, the Church has, for a long time benefited from this richness through the development of Black congregations and denominations. As people moved from the Caribbean, and then from West Africa in particular, churches sprang up reflecting the particular flavour of Black faith around the world. In these spaces, Black people have the space to worship, pray, and sing in ways that feel authentic to us.

We can, in a sense, let our guard down in the presence of God not only collectively, but as a group. They have been essential spaces as our parents and grandparents found their feet in a new context and sought to live out their faith. They have been spaces for building social networks, running supplementary schools for children, organising credit unions, and planning how to deal with housing crises.

And yet, in terms of theology, spirituality and faith, these spaces have often remained a mystery to the mainstream white population. While their significance may be reduced to “vibrant worship”, or a gospel choir, there is more going on that is often overlooked. They are spaces in which the dualisms that teach us to view the body with suspicion are challenged, as the body dances, sways, and even jumps during worship.

In this space, we are encouraged to see all creation as one integrated reality, in which we must also be aware of those aspects of existence which we cannot see. There is an openness to the Holy Spirit — the often overlooked Person of the Trinity — and the process of being formed into the image of Christ as we abide with her.

While this space might be imagined to be associated only with sound, there is also a tradition of hushed silence, quietness, and contemplation, which adds something to a world in which there are often too many words, but also the silencing of particular people.


ATTENDING to Black spirituality and faith also calls us to attend to the urgent crises affecting our human family and creation as a whole. Life in the diaspora is life predicated on movement — sometimes forced, sometimes chosen, and potentially a combination of both. Human beings have always migrated, though today migration is talked about predominantly as a crisis or a threat. The crisis is clear where migration occurs because of war and climate disasters, but it is also true that we are living in the midst of a crisis of conviction when it comes to care and compassion for our fellow human beings.

This crisis has, of course, been experienced all too frequently by Black people, from colonial violence and slavery through to the deaths of Belly Mujinga and Chris Kaba, and the genocide occurring today in the Congo and Sudan. Thinking about Christian spirituality and faith, through the experiences of Black people, is to bring us face to face with the brutality with which we as human beings treat and mistreat one another.

We are approaching Lent at a time of war, and a genocide, despite the many denials that this is so. In this truth-telling season of Lent, we, as Christians, are invited to face harsh realities. In facing our mortality, we remember that we are made from dust, we do not control the number of our days. The length of human life is too often determined by the violent whims of the powerful. We are asked to reflect on the sins we commit and the sins we allow.

We have an opportunity to recall the harm that we do — individually and collectively — to those we have decided do not matter, or at least do not matter as much as others. We are encouraged to recognise the idols we have created, for what they are: deaf, blind, unable to speak, and powerless to save us. Our worship of greed, power, and control is revealed to us in this time. Finally, we are invited to remember the past — both what we have done and not done, and who God has shown Godself to be. In this way, we receive again the chance to repent, to turn to Christ and one another.

Reflecting on life, faith, and spirituality through elements of Black experience, as I have known it, connects us to what is human: trauma but also healing, tragedy as well as overcoming, weeping and joy.


Tarry Awhile: Wisdom from Black spirituality for people of faith by Selina Stone, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, is published by SPCK at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.59); 978-0-281-09010-5 (Books, 19 January).

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