Race, Theology and the UK Academy: A Conversation with Anthony Reddie

Professor Anthony G. Reddie is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture. He is the author of numerous books including Is God Colour-Blind? Insights from Black Theology for Christian Faith and Ministry (2009, revised edition 2020) and Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (2019). He spoke to Rachel Muers on 6th October 2020. 

RM: Thank you Anthony for agreeing to contribute to our Religion in Public blog! Can I start by asking you about your reactions to the events of this summer – the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed in the US and the UK?

AR: On the one hand, there’s a part of me that is very sceptical and critical – of the way that for some people, this has come as a huge surprise. I’ve had emails saying things like “I wasn’t aware that there was so much racism”, and I’ve had to say – you know, Black people did die before George Floyd! The fact that it was captured on camera and we actually saw him take his dying breath, that was new; but the fact that Black people die in police custody or at the hands of police, that’s not an unusual thing. So I had to say to some of these people, where have you been all this time?  

Peter Storey, a radical white South African Methodist bishop in the time of apartheid, once told a story about a family who go on holiday to a new resort, and when they arrive they find there’s a horrible smell from a pig farm next door. They decide to stay anyway, and a week later another family arrive and ask them “How do you put up with this awful smell?” And the family who’ve been there a week say “What smell?” Peter Storey said, that’s what it’s like with a lot of white people in South Africa – there’s this awful smell of systemic racism, of apartheid, and they just can’t smell it. They’ve become habituated to it. And I think there’s an element of that in what we’re seeing here. There’s been this smell of racism, which people of colour have known about all our lives – but now some white people are noticing it for the first time. 

So there’s an element of cynicism in my response, but I also have to balance that with hopeful optimism. Even if some people have come late to the party, at least they’re now engaging in conversation! Black theologians have been saying for years that we don’t want to have to do all the heavy lifting, we want white people to take the responsibility. And I think that’s starting to happen. I’ve had more conversations about race in the last six months than I’ve had in years – and not just with the usual suspects. So for example, the University of Oxford have put an enormous amount of effort in to confronting these issues that they’ve been avoiding for a long time. I’m on the committee for galleries, libraries and museums, and they’re now thinking about how to decolonise, reflecting critically on the collections, and asking how they can be anti-racist. I can’t just be critical now that people are starting to do the very things I’ve been asking for all this time!

RM: Where else do you see big opportunities for sustained change in higher education institutions?

AR: Curriculum reform is very important. I think there’s already work going on. The Society for the Study of Theology, in which we’re both involved, has been trying to think about how to change and be more inclusive. In terms of curriculum I think there are opportunities, not just to have special courses on these subjects, but to critically examine the so-called “mainstream” courses we’re operating. How are we interrogating different narratives, different perspectives, different ways of reading history? Clearly it’s going to require a lot of “unlearning” as well as re-learning. But I’m seeing a lot of energy around this at the moment. There are a lot of conversations here at Oxford about developing teaching that’s more postcolonial, bringing voices from the margins into the centre – and paying attention to how we recruit a wider range of students. 

RM: It sounds as if you feel there’s been a shift in momentum, a step-change. Would you go that far?

AR: I would say tentatively, yes. I want to believe, and I’m hopeful, that this is the start of something much more substantive. You’ve got quite conservative institutions saying, we feel convicted by this moment, we know that what we teach doesn’t reflect our student body, doesn’t reflect the world in which we live, and in the case of Christian theology doesn’t reflect the concerns we believe God has for the world in which we live. 

Professor Anthony Reddie

RM: We know there’s a lot of work going on across many arts and humanities subjects – do you think there are any specific opportunities and challenges in Theology and Religious Studies around race equality?

AR: I’ve always thought it was harder! I think for two reasons – particularly if we look at theology specifically. Theology’s closely connected to churches, so it’s been affected by the way churches operate – especially the Church of England, which historically has been so powerful in shaping theology in England. It’s a question of patronage, how opportunities are given to people. It’s never been egalitarian, it’s very opaque, very archaic, it’s very hard to see how a revolutionary approach could gain a foothold. The same kind of thing happens in a lot of places – I’m a cradle Methodist, and our whole narrative is about how we’re not like Anglicans, but we’re more like them than we’d ever want to admit. It’s about how you are viewed by various authorities, how your persona is presented – whether you are seen, or not seen, as the right kind of person for certain opportunities.

I was at a meeting connected with theological education in England earlier this year – a group of academic theologians, nine white, three Black. The three Black theologians, all of us had stumbled in to academic theology, as it were by accident, from other career paths. The nine white people had all had a much more deliberate path – from undergraduate degrees, to postgraduate, to academic jobs. It’s an entirely different perspective. Now, I was a contemporary of some of those people – and nobody ever said to me, as a young British-born Black man, “Why don’t you study theology and become an academic?” It wasn’t overt racism, it was just that when they looked at me, they didn’t see someone who would replicate the kind of work that they were doing and then teach it to the next generation.

RM: It’s about whether people think the face fits…

AR: Yes. And I think the other reason it’s harder to tackle issues of race in theology is methodological. In theology you can say “It’s not about us, it’s about God”. And that gives the possibility of being able to distance yourself from social location and social or political commitment, in a way that wouldn’t be possible in other disciplines. Philosophical theology and systematic theology are more prone to that. In biblical studies for example, R.S. Sugirtharajah argues that because you’re dealing with the material reality of text you’re forced to engage with social location – but that isn’t so much the case in systematic theology, because you can say “it’s not about us”. 

RM: You’ve just brought out a new edition of Is God Colour-Blind? and I wondered if you wanted to say anything else about why the message of that book is important at the moment.

AR: I think the key thing to emphasise is that social location does matter. The questions we choose to ask in theology say something about us. James Cone said that all theology is on some level a form of biography. And it’s not about critiquing people’s point of departure, it’s about being honest about it. Contrary to what some people might think, I don’t have a problem with dead white German theologians! Some of that theology is absolutely brilliant. It’s about this presumption that your words have universal applicability and mine don’t. 

RM: So we’ve talked a lot about context, and one question I had was about the relationship between Black theology in the US and the UK context. What do you see as the specific challenges for a UK-based Black theologian?

AR: I think one of the biggest differences is sheer weight of numbers. For example, every time I go to the American Academy of Religion conference I go to the Fund for Theological Education reception – it’s one of the ones with the best food and alcohol, though as a good Methodist of course I’m very restrained – and every year I look around and I think, there are more Black theology academics in this one room than there are in the whole of the UK. In this one room in the USA. And they’re working on a whole range of subjects and approaches. And more and more of them coming through. It’s a conveyor belt of theological production, where in the UK it’s just a cottage industry.

And I think the other big issue is that in Britain we have to wrestle with empire – everywhere, in all its different guises, in all the institutions. In the nonconformist and dissenting churches as well, they all took part in empire. We’re trying to do theology within a framework within which empire always looms large. Whereas by contrast in the USA you have the independent Black church tradition, creating places of resistance for people to do theological work outside of the mainstream. Even though one of the big successes of the civil rights movement was to gain access to the elite institutions, long before that you had Black institutions that enabled people to do theology from a much more subversive place. I edit a journal here that gets a lot of support from US Black theologians.

I sometimes say, although racism’s much more visceral in America, in some ways that makes it easier to fight. In Britain, until the Macpherson report, there wasn’t even acknowledgement that there was systemic racism in this country. Before then when there were major riots in Brixton and Chapeltown and other places, the report talked about poverty, not about racism.

RM: You mentioned the journal you edit, and in a way that is a ‘place of resistance’ in the UK. Where else do you see places of resistance within the UK academy? 

AR: Obviously Queens (Birmingham) is very important, going right back to the work of John Wilkinson who pioneered Black theology there in the late 1980s; that’s the main centre in the UK. More recently there’s the course at Roehampton in Ministerial Theology that has been very successful in recruiting Black students and also teaching Black theology. Obviously it’s important to distinguish between doing Black theology, and Black people doing theology – but recruiting Black students is normalising the presence of Black bodies in the rooms where we do theology, and that’s really important. There are some institutions in London, such as the London School of Theology and Spurgeon’s, that are good examples of that.

RM: Lastly, what message would you want to give to people who are reading our blog who are just starting out in theology and religious studies?

AR: Thinking back to that meeting of theologians I mentioned – I want to be really intentional about speaking to a younger generation of people of colour, and saying to them “you can do theology!” Not everyone has to do sociology or cultural studies! If you want to engage in critical discourse, if you want to change things, theology can be part of that. Think of the impact of nonconformist Christianity on socialist politics in this country. Think of all the big movements for Black liberation – they’ve been movements of faith, whether it was Marcus Garvey in the 1920s who was working within the context of Coptic Christianity, or the civil rights movements in the 1960s that were led by churches. If you believe you have a vocation to try to change the world or to understand the world better – theology is as good a discipline to do as any! I’d want to encourage more people to think about that so we have a greater diversity of students coming in, and hopefully carrying on to postgraduate work and academic careers.

RM: Let’s hope so! Thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us.

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