Growing into Multi-Ethnic Ministry # 22 25/03/2021

'Out of Many, One People'

Welcome. This blog is especially intended for those training for ministry, or already ministering in multi-ethnic situations. I would be grateful if you could forward it to anyone you think might find it useful. As always, comments in the bubble, or by email are very appreciated.

Growing into Multi-Ethnic Ministry.

In a recent London Diocesan Mailing the Kensington Area Bishop, Graham Tomlin, wrote the following:

‘Let’s be honest. Many of us (though not all) in the church have often felt in the past that questions of race and ethnicity are at best marginal, at worst a distraction from the gospel. When I did my initial training theological training in the 1980s, I don’t recall any particular discussion of race. It seemed like a special interest of a few people, and not something essential to think or do anything about.”

At the risk of seeming to make an ungenerous response to an honest and wise article it should be said that eleven or so years back the bishop, as principal of St Mellitus, the London Diocesan training college, turned down our offer to run a course on cross-cultural ministry. Also in 2015 a college graduate, Rev Dr Mohan Seeveratnam, wrote: “At a recent Anglican retreat, I informally asked a number of fellow ordinands from different training colleges whether they felt their training equipped them for intercultural/crosscultural ministry? Without exception they all felt not.”

If one mark of institutional racism in the Church of England is how often books about ‘radical’ pastoral strategies have failed to recognise that we are a multi-racial society (see Blog for 14/01/2021), another mark has been - as Bishop Graham recognises – how little we have done, and are still not doing, to equip leaders for such ministry. It is an absence which requires not just recognition but heart-felt confession of our disinterest in a substantial slice of our population.

An important moment in my own ministry preparation was that my college principal invited Rev Clifford Hill to speak to his book ‘West Indian migrants and the London Churches’, which for me led on to a term placement. But that was in 1967! I suspect that I got better preparation than a great many theological students have had since then. Whilst the book of stories about the Rev Adam Smallbone - the central character of the TV series ‘Rev’ - is fictional, the blurb which describes the shock for him coming from a ‘sleepy rural parish to gritty inner-city Hackney’ may well be too close to the truth. It assumes little is being done to prepare clergy to minister in multi-ethnic, urban areas - possibly the reason for Adam’s rather sad congregation. 

Such being the case, this blog aims to give an approach to learning to minister in multi-racial communities - adapting a framework from the management trainer, John Maxwell. I also draw on the understanding of Cultural Intelligence (CI; or Cultural Quotient, CQ) developed by David Livermore and others. 

Malcolm Patten’s book ‘Leading a Multi-Cultural church’ is an excellent primer and should be essential reading in theological colleges; my Latimer booklet ‘Building Multi-Racial Churches’ is shorter and has just been reprinted.

So this blog is a white minister seeking to share his thoughts and experience with other (I am tending to assume) white ministers.

Maxwell offers a four-stage framework:

Unconscious Incompetence > Conscious Incompetence > Conscious Competence > Unconscious Competence

1. Unconscious Incompetence

‘I am colour blind’ were the fateful words of a senior church leader to a group of black clergy. He got roasted. Whilst you may feel sorry for the man, he was being unconsciously incompetent. Being aware that there are issues that need to be recognised and worked with in any inter-ethnic relationship is a necessary and basic competence. The two main issues that are covered by ‘race’ or ethnicity are, on the one hand the historic imbalance of power and wealth that leads to assumptions and policies of superiority/inferiority; and on the other hand, the differences, at times quite profound, between cultures. Skin colour - trivial in itself - is nonetheless a significant though unreliable guide to the presence of those issues, so that by being ‘colour blind’ we refuse to attend to differences which most probably have had a major impact on the other person’s life experience. Professing ‘colour blindness’ blinds a person to realities of racial injustice and cultural difference which therefore distorts relationships with people for whom colour has been, unavoidably, a basic factor of their experience. 

Therefore to say ‘We treat everyone alike’ may sound accepting, but raises the question of ‘Like who?’; to which the assumed answer tends to be ‘Like me’. The need for any sort of adjustment to racial or ethnic difference is denied. The result is that only to the extent that they approximate to traditional English norms do minority ethnic people find a place in churches where such a mindset prevails. In a survey of Anglican churches in Birmingham in the 1980s, Renate Wilkinson wrote: ‘Several respondents to the questionnaire made comments like, ‘Black or White, I treat them all the same’. . . (H)owever . .when Black and White are treated the same, the outcome is not equality but inequality.” (In ‘Inheritors Together’, 1985, p 28 - italics mine). The bland assumption that everyone is like me distorts our ministry in multi-ethnic communities. 

Rowan Williams has written “The liberal assumption that ‘treating everyone alike’ is the answer rests on a view of human nature which is deeply problematic, It assumes that there is a basic ‘inner’ humanity, beyond flesh and skin pigmentation and history and conflict, which is the same for all people” (in the ‘Afterword’ to McGrandle’s biography of Trevor Huddleston, p 216). It is only in recognizing the realities of bodies, of cultures, of history, that we are able to live confidently in a plural society and a plural world. 

We can be locked into unconscious incompetence if we think that racism is so absolutely awful that it can’t apply to me, or that cultural differences are so trivial that I have no problems with them. That combination of fear and laziness suffocates the ambition to learn, grow and change which is essential if we are to relate competently across ethnic groups. 

2. Conscious Incompetence. 

‘Send only those who know what they don’t know’ were the wise words of an African bishop to Kenneth Grubb, a Church Mission Society leader of an earlier generation (in ‘Crypts of Power’, p 150). However, knowing how much we don’t know need not be crippling or demotivating; rather in moving from unconscious to conscious incompetence we set ourselves on an exciting and productive journey of discovery. We face an agenda that is intellectually vast and complex, and which is emotionally challenging and humbling, recognising that all Christian ministry stems from a sense of inadequacy, a theme particularly to the fore in 2 Corinthians

David Livermore writes “CQ strategy includes accepting confusion and maintaining a willingness to not know something” ( ‘Cultural Intelligence’, 2010, p 127.) The readiness to make mistakes and look slightly gauche; feeling free to ask questions, whilst trying to avoid patronizing assumptions in doing so; forming understanding only slowly and through experience rather than fitting people into a pre-formed grid – all these are part of the faltering steps of moving up through incompetence. To quote Livermore again: “thankfully, our mistakes can be one of the greatest ways to grow our cultural intelligence. . . Cross cultural conflict is inevitable’ (p 35). 

One problem today is that questions of race and ethnicity have become so infused with a judgemental or competitive spirit that it encourages us to adopt a façade of being aware and well-informed rather than allowing a humble and innocent readiness to learn. The syllabus that a multi-ethnic society presents us with is vast. It requires both close attention to how power relationships work out in both society and church, alongside the desire to grow in understanding of the background and cultures of the people we are relating to. Constant awareness of how much we have to learn is both realistic and vital. Friends of other backgrounds who we can talk to and learn from can be most helpful. Alongside of this goes giving ourselves permission to get things wrong. 

All the more important therefore that, as David Anderson (a black American pastor of a multi-ethnic church) writes: “Like a child who needs protection, so many people in the maturation process of race relations also need room to struggle, grow, disagree and fail. The principle of covering people or giving them space to mature in matters of reconciliation is extremely important to the safety of their process, lest their multi-cultural growth be stunted” (Multi-Cultural Ministry, 2007, p 71). Martin Luther is supposed to have said ‘Sin boldly’: the readiness to make mistakes (and confess and be forgiven) is more important in multi-ethnic ministry, than being inhibited by fear. “The use of negative experience as a source of inspiration for change is evidence of high CQ” (Livermore p194). 

But our incompetence is more than a lack of knowledge. Eager as we should be to learn more, we also need to recognise, if we are white, that there are aspects of non-white people’s experience that we can never fully enter into. We have not experienced outright rejection because of our colour; nor – often more damagingly – the uncertainty of whether or not a negative remark, a harsh look, a failed application was because of our colour or not. We have never been black, and to imply that we can enter into or share that experience is impertinent. 

3. Conscious competence. 

He’s worked in a black area, so he thinks he ‘gets’ me’ was someone’s less than enthusiastic comment about their new boss. None of us like being ‘got’. Such knowledge diminishes us, puts us in a box, instead of affirming us in our individuality. We have all at some time felt irritated or depressed by someone implying they have ‘got’ us when they haven’t. Conscious competence, then, is tricky. Identifying with someone who feels they have been the victim of possibly subtle racism, or talking or acting in ways that show you are aware of and comfortable with someone’s cultural background can be important. Even being able to say ‘Hello’ or ‘Welcome’ in another language is a quick way of showing you take someone’s identity seriously. 

But too much or ostentatious identification can become counter-productive. Out of his wide experience of international business David Livermore comments that it can be “downright silly when outsiders try to wear native dress. Women dressing more modestly than they might at home or men dressing up or down more according to the cultural norm is appropriate. But going fully native in our dress isn’t usually the way to go” (p 156). In other cultures we are occasional guests who are privileged to be there, not members of the family with an unquestionable right. The chilling warning against over-familiarity at Proverbs 25:17: “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house, otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you”, can well be extended from our physical neighbour’s to insensitive intrusions into the culture of others. It is the lack of sensitivity that can make cultural ‘appropriation’ a term of offence.

If conscious incompetence is a bracing, challenging and potentially wisdom- generating place to be, so conscious competence is a slippery place of danger. We can be too confident of what we know; too ready to think that we have another person’s situation sorted. Much as we need to learn, we need even more to know our limitations. The person who has spent a short time in Africa, lived in the inner city, or seen the appropriate films can too easily vaunt their experience more highly than it deserves. We can use particular experiences to generalise far further than our knowledge entitles us to. (Maxwell’s ethos of business management can be misleading here – ‘competency’ is not a helpful term in evaluating relationships).

Faced with the over-confidence of those Corinthian Christians who just ‘knew’ that they had the issue of eating food offered to idols completely sorted, Paul wrote “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:1b,2 NIV). The inter-religious and inter-ethnic complexities of Corinth were too subtle for their confident assertions; in particular they were failing to show proper understanding and regard for the ‘weak’ whose consciences Paul was concerned to protect. Like the Corinthians, we can use knowledge to exclude other considerations rather than become open to them. Broadly speaking, if we need to flaunt our experience and expertise to others – including such non-verbal communication as wearing ‘ethnic’ clothes or household decorations - then it hasn’t been sufficiently grounded to become authentic. 

4. Unconscious Competence. 

‘There are some things you need to know and then forget that you know them’ were the wise words to me of a black youth leader many years ago. Such ‘knowing then forgetting’ is our goal – the place at which conversations, journeys, books, music have become so internalised that we relate to people from other backgrounds comfortable in who we are, and with them comfortable enough to be themselves with us. David Livermore writes of the goal of our learning: “With experience and growing levels of cultural intelligence, some of our adaptive behaviour may become so well learned that we will adapt naturally without much conscious thought. That’s the goal. We want to get to a point where this high level of thinking and action happens as naturally as the thoughts and behaviours enacted in our familiar cultural contexts” (p 156).

‘Adaptive behaviour’ comes only with the experience of trial and error, so that in any situation or relationship we have some instinct as to how far or in what ways we need to adapt. It is as though all we have heard, observed, read, learned becomes as it were boiled down so that it is an aroma, a flavour in our relationships, not a tangible, possibly obstructing presence. Such cultural understanding as we have becomes transparent. It is simply not noticed in the relationship. Unnecessary or intrusive display of our cosmopolitanism impede that. “I reflect a lot on cultural differences, but I don’t talk about this much in our church because I don’t want to highlight those differences. The gospel should generate self-forgetfulness” are the wise words of a council estate minister, Andy Mason (quoted in ‘Unreached’, Tim Chester , p75). 

Those ‘known’ things will inform our understanding of others, at times providing a helpful bridge into relationships, more often providing depth, balance and context to our understanding. But they do not provide a final resting place. Periodically our ‘competence’ will be exposed as partial, over confident or out-of-date, and we need to go back to Square 2 – the consciously incompetent learner again.