By Amber Noel
I interviewed my fellow Covenant contributor, Esau McCaulley about the possibilities and problems of a multiethnic Anglicanism in the United States, and how they relate to the multiethnic present and future of the country.
Demographically speaking, the U.S. will no longer be majority white within just a handful of years. During Black History Month in February, I found myself wondering, “What about the black future?” Specifically, “What is the future of the Anglican Communion in relation to this black/brown future of our nation?” I know the secular world is increasingly aware of this reality, and responding to it in various ways. What’s the relation of this racial and cultural reality to God’s Kingdom?
No single culture is fully in line with God’s purposes. But there are times when shifts within the culture help the Church see things in biblical texts that it has ignored. I see this as a manifestation of God’s providential care. There’s tremendous interest in multiculturalism and ethnic identity. But is this cultural interest in multiethnicity fully congruent with the way Christianity thinks about ethnicity? No, but it is tapping into something that the Bible addresses.
But I can say that the whole point of the great commission is that everyone ought to know the good news of who Jesus is. Paul’s mission strategy is culturally flexible (not compromising values) for the sake of evangelization: “I’m a Greek to the Greeks and a Jew to the Jews. I am the apostle who is here to evangelize people from a different culture than me.” America is changing. Demographics of race and culture are changing. We can live out like never before what the great commission can do in local communities. America has the chance to be a unique manifestation of the truth that the gospel is for everyone, and simultaneously embodied in local communities. America has this unique opportunity if we’re willing. In Uganda, overcoming tribalism says something about the nature of the gospel. In the U.S., multiculturalism says something unique about the nature of the gospel.
You also can’t tell the story of the New Testament without telling the story of multiethnicity. The book of Revelation ends with “every tribe, nation and tongue” before the throne of God.
I’ve been an Anglican for a while now, and in congregations I’ve been part of, I have often thought, “Oh, we’re so white…” The way we design and decorate buildings, choose certain aesthetics, “brand” ourselves, play music, all signal something. To many people that signal seems to include, “White people belong here.”
Our chosen or inherited expressions of Anglicanism in music, preaching, and reserve encode a certain culture. That is not wrong; it is just not for everyone. There is nothing preventing Kirk Franklin or Tasha Cobb from being included in the liturgy but the will to do so. There is nothing preventing passion in more of our preaching than the will to do so. The question that Anglicanism has to answer is this: do we want to be a boutique faith for people who are into this or that kind of thing? Are we Anglophiles — lovers of British culture — or Anglicans, a communion with roots in England, but with varied expressions across the globe? I love C.S. Lewis as much as the next person, but do we actually want to reach everybody? If we want to do that, and spread the gospel to anyone hungry for it, we’ve got to be willing to adjust some things. I am not saying that Anglicans need to give up the liturgy or the calendar. God forbid. What would be the point of being Anglican then? I am saying that we need to look at all the ways beyond the liturgy that we establish a culture in our congregations that is unwelcoming to different groups.
So what does our culture’s current interest in race and multiculturalism not mean for the Church? In other words, are there places where priorities of the City of God and priorities of the City of Man do not coincide here? Where do you perceive areas where discernment and caution are needed?
In our context, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” in a purely secular sense often means to affirm whatever cultural values people have. It aspires to community, but the inability to question another’s values is not real community. There is no love without critique. In Christ we do not simply get to “live our truth.” Real community says, “I love you, but you’ve got to pull yourself together.” What unites us in the kingdom is that shared belief that Jesus speaks a word of affirmation and rebuke to all of us. Our present multiculturalism is much more one of affirmation to the individual, and the rebuke is often related to power structures. The Christian tradition affirms and critiques individuals and structures.
Another area of caution I’d point out resides in this question: “Who owns the black story?” I hate to tell white progressives or conservatives that they don’t own that story. You can’t put the conclusions you want onto our story. The black Christian narrative gets weaponized for whatever one group wants to argue for. “Martin Luther King, Jr. cared about the content of our character, therefore here is this talking point that I developed completely apart from black Christians that I want to say MLK would have supported.” “The Bible supported enslaved black people, therefore here is the theological idea that I want to argue for that I developed on my own apart from any significant engagement with the black Christian Community.” But the black Christian narrative is first and foremost a manifestation of Christ’s glory, so the story and its end are in his hands.
How many people do I want to be mad at me? Black Christians are, for the most part, theologically traditional. All the research bears this out. There are definitely black Christians who are more radical or progressive theologically. We are not a monolith. But the majority voice ought to be taken seriously. Therefore, when you talk about the meaning of the black Christian story and what is happening [within it], this fact needs to be forefront. Our story shouldn’t be weaponized against what the majority of the black Christian tradition believes.
What do you see in the Anglican Communion that’s exciting? Where do you see the reality of God’s Kingdom and the reality of our world coming into contact with one another, and good things happening?
I’m in the ACNA, so I can speak to the ACNA here. There has never more interest from African Americans and other ethnic groups in joining the ACNA than there is now. Many have been burned by the culture wars in wider Evangelicalism and want something with a bit more generosity, but that maintains the theological clarity. Also, black people can fall in love with the liturgy just like anyone else. The Anglican tradition has a lot to offer all people. The question is whether we will be a hospitable home for them.
If the ACNA cares about multiethnicity, it must also take seriously the African American Christian tradition and its historical combination of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. If there’s a certain political speech that’s required for membership, it’s never going to be diverse.
How do white people learn more about this? Are there good things to read, watch, or listen to you’d recommend?
Go to black churches. Google “Church of God in Christ” or “National Baptist Convention of America” and look at their confession statements. Listen to podcasts of the sermons. Charlie Dates is a preacher whose podcast I highly recommend. If you want to understand the Church Fathers, you have to read the Fathers. There’s no substitution for a primary source. Through exposure, eventually you get a feel for what it’s like. In the same way, I am saying go to the primary sources.
Let’s say you have 40 white Christians, and they ask the one black Christian in the room: “Tell us about black Christianity.” This person is thinking: “How can I explain this to you in a way you all understand?” If there are 40 black Christians in a room and one white Christian listening, you’ll hear a lot more that’s unfiltered. You’ve got to be in the room.
Does there always have to be an African American church and a white church? Is there any future of a “joined” church?
African American denominations (with the exception of Pentecostal denominations) were formed because racists kicked them out or wouldn’t let them live out their faith. So it’s not that black Christians didn’t want to worship with others. Today, when you live as a minority in the majority culture, the black Church can sometimes be the only place where African Americans get to choose their own leaders and be in leadership. We need all three: multi-ethnic churches, churches in black denominations, and churches that are African American in white denominations. None of these has a monopoly on faithfulness.
In Japan, where I’ve also ministered, it’s hard to have a multiethnic church if 98% of the people in Japan are Japanese. That’s not sinful. If you live in a suburb where there are no black people, you’re going to have a white church. The question is, does our mission strategy lead to a certain kind of church that is monocultural?
In Christianity, our eschatology is formed by current ethics. If we know how the story ends, then it becomes the job of the church today to embody God’s future now. That’s what I hope we’re doing.
Amber D. Noel is associate editor of The Living Church and associate director of The Living Church Institute.
The Rev. Esau McCaulley, PhD currently serves as assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.