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New way to live with diversity

03 May 2024

Martyn Snow proposes a kind of relating which surpasses tolerance or assimilation


HOW should the Church of England respond to increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in the UK? Recent events have shown how live and often contested a question that truly is. The Church has been embroiled in media storms around asylum case decisions (even receiving an apology from the Daily Mail, after it wrongly claimed that the Church of England helped Abdul Ezedi to “beat the system”).

Similarly, as the Church Commissioners have been reckoning with the legacy of transatlantic chattel enslavement, the announcement of the Fund for Healing, Justice and Repair triggered a lively debate about what repentance from the Church’s previous support for, and substantial profit from, the trade in human lives should look like.

These questions confront us all, within and without the Church of England. Growing diversity is an irrefutable fact of our society. Asserting greater control of our borders has proved a popular political slogan, but has hardly come to fruition: net migration to the UK was 745,000 in 2022, up from 184,000 in 2019. Nevertheless, we do have a choice when it comes to deciding how we respond.

One option is assimilation: demanding others change and become like us. Another is multiculturalism: tolerating difference, but often at arm’s length. In Leicester, for example, we celebrate all the main festivals of our different cultures and religions; but one can still live here and only ever engage with “people like me”: those of one’s own culture.

I believe that we need something richer: a narrative that not only combats fear, but also makes love of one’s neighbour tangibly real, seeing them as a gift to you, just as you can be a gift to them. Hence, a third option: interculturalism.

INTERCULTURALISM involves reflecting on how different cultures interact and how we are all changed by this process. None of us is culturally “pure”: even if you descend from generations of white British ancestors, your culture will probably differ from that of your forebears; the various regions and countries within the UK have different traditions, histories, and norms; and different socio-economic classes can also shape their own distinct cultures.

So, even in churches where “everyone looks like me,” how to communicate, listen, give, and receive across cultural difference remains pertinent.

And, for those of us with the privilege and power to insist that others change while we remain the same, Jesus models to us that we should empty ourselves of that power and forgo a life of ease and convenience for the sake of others (e.g. Philippians 2).

In my book An Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World, I reflect on how gift exchange can provide a useful approach to understanding interculturalism, and what it could mean for our Church and wider society.

Gift exchange is one way in which we can conceive of relating to others who differ from us, as it compels us to think about how each person is a gift in and of themselves, what gifts they have, and how we might bless them in turn.

This is one dimension of the power of the eucharist. As we give thanks for the gift of God’s Son, so we are invited to offer “our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice” to God. And, in this exchange of gifts, we are transformed, growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Gift exchange, as I explain more in the book, also invites us to reflect on the complexity and uneven power dynamics within those relationships, which prevent some people from being able to see themselves as a gift at all, and hinder others from recognising the giftings of their neighbours.

THE relevance of gift exchange to today’s Church of England cannot be understated. I sense a real anxiety from so many corners that people’s gifts are not valued or represented in what they expect to be the Church’s future: the gift of the small but longstanding parish church and the gift of the Fresh Expression; the gift of the person who supports same-sex blessings; and the gift of the person who disagrees.

There is always a temptation to play politics with those gifts. But this is one of the challenges of the Christian faith: we need the gifts of the whole body of Christ, and no part can say to the other “I do not need you” (1 Corinthians 12.21).

I believe that the missionary imperative is reconciliation — with God and with our neighbour — and that interculturalism could enable that reconciliation across racial, ethnic, and cultural divides. It invites us first to attend to and repent of the injustices of our past and present, the unconscious biases that might threaten our future, and collectively create a Church in which all are welcome, and, together, we reflect the glory of God.

The Rt Revd Martyn Snow is the Bishop of Leicester. His book, written with Lusa Nsenga Ngoy, Saju Muthalaly, Jessie Tang, and Florence Gildea
, Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World: Reflections on gift exchange is published by Church House Publishing at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-781-40472-0.

He will be speaking at a webinar, “Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World”, organised by the Church Times and Church House Publishing, on 28 May at 6 p.m. Tickets are free. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit here.

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