Empire has embedded itself into British theology - Dr Anthony Reddie

(Photo: Unsplash/Emily Wang)

Dr Anthony Reddie, Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, has spoken about the influence he believes Empire still has on British theology today.

He also opened up about how he learned to feel a sense of belonging as a black person in the white-majority British Church where the stereotypical image of Jesus was "blonde-haired" and blue-eyed.

He made the comments during an online seminar on Thursday evening hosted by HeartEdge as part of the 'Living God's Future Now'.

Reddie, whose main research interests lie in the 'intersection of Black liberation theology and Practical theology', led the online seminar on the impact of postcolonialism on society and theology in Britain today.

"Empire has been a feature of human life for over a millennia. A lot of the ideas and the tropes that help us determine Empire are still with us and have embedded themselves into theology, into what we perceive as being normal, and what we see as problematic or transgressive," he said.

He continued, "When you think about Christian faith, we are shaped by tradition and scripture, both of which are not in the future, but behind us. I think there is a larger corporate spirit that Christianity and the Church struggles with in Britain because of that history, that 'glorious' history. When we have struggles with our contemporary life, the temptation then is to go into the past."

Chairing the talk on behalf of HeartEdge was Rev Sam Wells, who asked Reddie to speak on how the Holy Spirit 'decolonised' his faith.

"We were one of only two black families at our church. Three hundred-plus people would turn up on a Sunday, both morning and evening, and of that 300-odd membership, we were only nine black people," he said.

Reddie recalled an "existential moment" when he was 11-years-old in Sunday school that reshaped his faith.

"On the far wall was a picture of Jesus. What I remember was he had piercing blue eyes and long, stylized hair with a beard. Handsome-looking, blonde-haired man. Wherever you walked, the eyes of Jesus always followed you. I used to find this picture fascinating and eventually I summoned up the courage to ask my Sunday school teacher 'if we are all created in the image and likeness of God, who am I? There was this long silence and she said 'it doesn't matter, Anthony'."

He continued, "That answer helped and didn't help in equal measure. One way it helped is that it didn't matter. I was born into a family that said that God had no colour and God loved everyone and in fairness I never sensed that I was not loved by God and I never sensed that I was not a member of the body of Christ."

But he said the real transformation to something "much more contextual" was when he began to work as a church youth worker in Handsworth, Birmingham, one of the oldest black communities in Birmingham and home to many Windrush settlers.

"They are still very poor and diverse. My job was to work with children and grandchildren. The thing I began to wrestle with in this context is 'where is God in this?' and 'what is God doing in the midst of this poverty?'," he said.

His answer came when he saw what churches in these communities were doing.

"In the midst of this major social alienation of the people who are living there, I began to think about what is the good news of Jesus Christ in this context," he said.

"The churches were doing good work in terms of keeping people going, giving them a sense of not giving up against all the social forces that were against them."

He ended on a note of hope, saying that he sees signs of renewal in the Church.

"I remain faithful to Him because within the church I see the greatest sparks of renewal that come from a God that is always improvising, that is always challenging us to change," he said.

"What gives us hope is that this Jesus we read about is actually someone who is alive where two or three are gathered and is constantly nudging us and challenging us to say actually we can be different."