Shaping debate on religion in public life.


23 Jan 2024

For nearly 50 years now I have been a Hammer; for the uninitiated that means a fan of West Ham United FC. I have supported them through triumph (The FA cup in 1980), disaster of  two relegations, and back to success in European competition in 2023.  So I start by making my identity and position clear even if in football not all players do. For example Michail Antonio was signed as a right-back in 2015 from Nottingham Forest; few could have foreseen that he would go on to become West Ham’s all-time Premier League leading goalscorer.

Increasingly academic authors are adding statements of positionality and identity comparable to the previous paragraph to published writings. It is often helpful to know where people are “coming from”, though this is not without problems. Most of us inhabit multiple or intersecting identity categories, which may change over time. For example, in my own case I am not only a Hammer, but a committed Christian, a white, well educated man with working class roots, and as from last week a first time grandfather. Furthermore, as Massoud (2022)  points out the practice comes with a price, and especially for scholars from a minoritized background an unjust burden, while others assumed to  be privileged white males, do not consider such qualifying statements on their work necessary, and may present themselves as totally objective in their thinking.

In my own research on religion and community work in multiethnic contexts, which has spanned four decades, I have always sought to be reflexive and open. In my early years in sociology I benefited from attending the Ilkley Group of Christian Sociologists where we discussed how our work might best reflect a Christian worldview (drawing on insights from Kuyper and Dooyeweerd) and Max Weber’s views on verstehen and non positivist sociology.

This served me well in research I carried out in the early 1980s with Sylheti speaking Bangladeshis employed in low paid roles in the clothing industry of East London. I was directly challenged by Bangladeshi colleagues, who were struggling to establish their community rights and identity in an oppressive and racist context, about my own privilege as an external, white, English monolingual, Christian academic. Was I anything more than a classic colonial anthropologist condoning and contributing to their oppression?

Recently I have  been working on a longer autobiographical paper around the challenge of coming to terms with my own whiteness. My community work in Newham made me very conscious of racial injustice, the street violence faced by black friends, and the racist attitudes and practices of the police, long before anyone had heard of Stephen Lawrence. I researched and wrote about the growth and experiences of black majority churches and was involved for many years with Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice alongside several younger generation Black and Asian heritage activists. We held conferences, networked with other Christian Racial Justice groups and produced a journal, “Racial Justice”. We developed a biblically based Manifesto for Racial justice and the “New Humanity” resource pack to help Christians see the importance of combating personal and institutional racism.  We lobbied within the denominations, the British Council of Churches and especially the Evangelical Alliance (EA). In the EA I think we had some success in the recognition of the contribution of Black Majority Churches and the representation of some of their leaders on their Council.   Sadly racial justice was largely absent from the agenda of the UK church in the early years of the 21st Century. In 2018 following the xenophobia that came out in the Brexit vote  I wrote a Temple Tract “The Revenge of the Racists”  in which I attempted to review recent changes and new challenges to multiculturalism and reflected on my own position and context as a privileged white man. 

Since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in the summer of 2020 the debates about racial justice, the colonial legacy, and contextual Black liberation theologies have run with new energy.  Writers such as Anthony Reddie, Sanjee Perera, and Chine Mcdonald have made important contributions. The Church of England, while failing at many levels, has made some imaginative appointments to senior positions. But there has also been a pushback from conservative voices who dismiss everything as “woke” and have tried to invent and use a bogey man of “Critical Race Theory”, portrayed  as an organised movement which is anti-Christian, Marxist and even demonic.   

With these conflicts in mind, the point I want to share in this blog, is that in a fallen world an hermeneutic of suspicion is essential. For me as Christian that means I need to be suspicious of my own hermeneutic as well as that of others. This means openness and reflexivity regarding my  own positionality and context. I think William Temple could help us tackle some of these issues. His Mens Creatrix, is aimed at those with training in philosophy, but nonetheless, this stood out “No amount of development of my mind can make irrelevant the circumstances of my birth and early training” (Temple, 1917, p82).  And in an article by Philips 2022 he attributes to Temple the thought that “no one thinker is able to access the entire scope of the real or the true”.  

It seems that Temple would agree that positionality and playing as a member of a team matters, whether it be in academic writing, sociology, in football, and increasingly so, in our theology. With this in mind I will conclude by asking, what difference might this kind of self awareness make to the tone of our debate and to the quality of our public life? 

Senior Research Fellow Greg Smith has published extensively on religion in the inner city, faith involvement in urban regeneration, and urban theology. Until retirement in 2019 Greg worked for Together Lancashire, a joint venture of Church Urban Fund, Diocese of Blackburn and the Lancashire Methodist District supporting faith based social action and urban churches in the western half of the county. He continues to be active in the City of Sanctuary movement in Preston, in his local inner city parish and in projects and networks addressing food poverty and financial inclusion. From 2011 to 2016 he also worked for the Evangelical Alliance managing the 21st Century Evangelicals research programme and continues to analyse and publish academic papers based on the data. See more on  Greg’s work and publications. In his spare time he enjoys photography, bird watching, railways and walking with his dog.

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