Black History Month
Black History Month is an important cultural observance in society’s calendar and consciousness which remembers the contributions, events, and history of the African Diaspora. Deriving from the United States, Black History Month was first recognised in the UK in 1987 to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Caribbean, African and Asian people to the cultural, political, social, and economic life in the UK. This piece will celebrate the contribution of Black Majority Churches and the role they have played in positively shaping the religious and social landscape of British society.
Presence of the Black Majority Church in the UK
“The Christian landscape in Britain now has a definitive imprint of African and Caribbean Christianity and is best described using the metaphor of Joseph’s ‘coat of many colours.’”- Babatunde Adedibu, ‘Origin, Mission, Globalisation, and the Mission Encounter of Britain’s Black Majority Churches’.
The presence of the Black Majority Church (BMC) in the UK is diverse, unique, and nuanced. They are often characterised for their vibrancy, commitment to social action, responding to the pastoral needs of immigration and have missional/reverse missional imperatives. The highest assemblage of BMCs are in South London which has been identified as the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world outside of Africa. Whilst many BMCs are often identified through a racial lens, it would be misleading to assume that BMCs are monocultural, homogenous in theology, ecclesiology and that they are solely Pentecostal in tradition. In fact, the advent of British Pentecostalism was in the Church of England in the twentieth century through a series of revival meetings led by Anglican priest, Revd Alexander Boddy. Within the UK, BMCs also exist within the major historic church traditions such as the Anglican communion, Baptist Union, and Methodist Church to mention a few.
“The Christian landscape in Britain now has a definitive imprint of African and Caribbean Christianity and is best described using the metaphor of Joseph’s ‘coat of many colours.’”- Babatunde Adedibu
A brief History
To give a brief history of some of the significant cultural moments in the emergence of the BMCs in the UK, let us introduce you to Methodist preacher and author John Jea. In the early 19th century, John travelled extensively while preaching, first in the US and then in the UK and Ireland, where he set up the first black majority church in England around 1805 when he settled down in Portsmouth. You can read more about his life here: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/jeajohn/menu.html. The first black led Pentecostal church in London was led by Revd Thomas Kwame Brem-Wilson who was a transcultural leader, ecumenist, philanthropist, and evangelist who ministered across Britain from 1901.
Another significant cultural epoch in the life of BMCs in the UK was the arrival of the Caribbean Windrush generation in the 1940s and 1950s. They were initially invited by the British Government as commonwealth citizens to help rebuild the country after the decimation of the second world war and some also followed their missiological calling. Despite a hostile and frosty reception from both society and the church, many Caribbean Pentecostal BMCs were founded and pioneered by first generation migrant pastors who defied the odds and planted churches across the UK, the first of which was Calvary Church of God in Christ which started in London in 1948. The New Testament Church of God shortly followed which held its first service in the YMCA in Wolverhampton in 1953 and the Church of God of Prophecy was established in the same year. Although these churches have a black majority in the UK, they are connected to international headquarters in the United Stated and are a part of a global communion of churches and Christians from all races and ethnicities.
The Wesleyan Holiness Church was then founded in 1958 and New Testament Assembly was founded in 1961 to mention a few. These BMC churches still operate today and contribute to the religious, spiritual, and social life of the UK.
In the 1980s to 1990s the BMC landscape then evolved through the emergence of new African Churches who followed the call of reverse mission to re-evangelise Britain. Some of these Churches are The Church of Pentecost founded in London in 1988, The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) founded in London in 1988, Trinity Baptist Church founded in South Norwood in 1988, Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) founded in London in 1992 and many others. A second generation of Caribbean Pentecostal Churches with British headquarters also started in the 1990s who were contextual, visionary, and entrepreneurial such as Ruach Ministries founded in London in 1994, Christian Life City founded in 1996 in London and many more.
New Black British Churches attracting millennials
The 2000s and particularly in the imminent years before and during the pandemic saw an emergence of new distinctively Black British Churches such as The Arch Network of Churches, led by Pastor Peter Nembhard and The Tab, led by Pastor Mike White. These dynamic intergenerational churches distinctively represent the hybridity and nuance of Black British culture and are pioneering and inspiring a generation of Black British millennials and Gen Z church goers which may have parted with traditional Pentecostal churches due to the disconnect with Caribbean/African culture and from intercultural, evangelical churches that didn’t always honour their blackness - especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. These Black British BMCs make use of media, social media and have a distinct, culturally relevant message which is not afraid to theologically speak into the issues facing a generation who are often university educated and have grown in an era of postmodern secularisation, relativism, and pluralism.
As well as shaping the UK’s spiritual and religious landscape, BMCs have contributed to the socio-political landscape of the UK and have participated in national and local governmental policy/initiatives to ensure the flourishing and common good of all. For instance, The Redeemed Church of God holds the Festival of Life conference which attracts over 60,000 people and has attracted national government leaders and politicians including former prime minister David Cameron. In 2006 Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, paid tribute to the role of BMCs when he spoke at Ruach City Church in Brixton, southeast London. In 2007, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, in marking Prince Charles’ 59th birthday, attended a special thanksgiving service held at Jesus House in North London in recognition of the contribution of BMCs to their communities. One of the notable ecumenical campaigns which was pioneered by Pentecostal Churches in collaboration with Citizens UK and Lead Organizer Emmanuel Gottora, was the challenging of the payday loan companies that were taking advantage of many low-income households.
Many BMCs have also partnered with local authorities to intervene and reduce gang and youth violence, domestic abuse, provide free counselling services for the community, offer debt counselling and consolidation, and run hundreds of food banks across the country. They’ve also administered befriending services, prison and hospital chaplaincy and pastoral care. BMC leaders have also contributed to the educational system in the UK and on the 1st of September 2015 pioneered the first black led Christian school founded by Dr Cheron Byfield who is also the author the researched-based book, “Black boys Can Make it… how they Overcome Barriers to University in the UK and USA”. The King Solomon school and Excel 3 charity finds its roots in a Black majority Caribbean Pentecostal Church founded by first generation Windrush leaders in Acocks Green Birmingham.
Throughout the Pandemic, BMCs also heavily contributed to vaccine messaging for UKMEC communities.
BMCs have also made significant contributions to the social housing sector and particularly in the 1980s when growing housing needs, urban deprivation and an aging African-Caribbean population posed problems, exacerbated by riots in Handsworth in 1981 and 1985. The African-Caribbean community, through a variety of churches, responded with the creation of the Nehemiah and United Churches Housing Association (UCHA) in 1989. Throughout the 1990s Nehemiah and UCHA began to develop sheltered schemes for black elders and family housing, and accommodation for singles in Birmingham, Kingstanding and Mosely, and expanded into Wolverhampton. Today, Nehemiah housing is one of the largest housing providers and has a portfolio of 1100 properties serving the multicultural African Caribbean, Asian, Irish, and European communities within the West Midlands.
Throughout the Pandemic, BMCs also heavily contributed to vaccine messaging for UKMEC communities. Over 60 of the UK’s most senior black church leaders from both historic and black majority churches joined forces to counter false information about the vaccine and to encourage the take up of the vaccine to their community which consist of many Global majority, UK ethnic minority communities who had been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 due to health, economic and social injustices. Leaders held webinars which attracted thousands of viewers and turned their Church buildings into vaccine centres. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, visited Jesus House RCCGUK’s vaccine centre and commended their work. The alliance of Christian leaders included Bishop Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Bishop Tedroy Powell, Reverend Canon Yemi Adedeji, Bishop Mike Royal, Reverend Yinka Oyekan and Bishop Dexter Edmund and they encouraged how getting the vaccine is a way to show love for their neighbours.
Music and public life
The Black Majority Church in the UK has also produced incredible broadcasters, musicians and choirs that have contributed to the global media and music industry. Some of which are BAFTA award documentary filmmaker Professor Robert Beckford, Integrity artist Noel Robinson, Mobo award winning Lurine Cato MBE and Volney Morgan and New Ye, Nicky Brown who is a musical director, Gospel singer, songwriter, keyboardist, drummer and has played/has been credited on the works of artists such as Emily Sandae, Take That, Ellie Goulding, Little Mix, Craig David to mention a few. Most notably is the Kingdom Choir which performed to a global TV audience of 1.9 billion people at the royal wedding on 19 May. The lead Choir conductor, Karen Gibson, originated and nurtured her musical ability in The Church of God of Prophecy BMC.
So, as we honour the contributions of people from the African diaspora this month, let’s remember the contribution of BMCs who have positively shaped the religious, spiritual, cultural, and social landscape of the UK to ensure the flourishing and common good of all.