National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

Being black in Britain


What’s in a name? For many, a great deal, or so it would seem depending on where you live and your country of origin. In the United States, to be called black signifies that you are a person of African ancestry, regardless of how long ago you or your ancestors may have left that continent. Indeed, it is still more often the rule than not that one drop of African blood, that is, one ancestor of African descent, makes you black regardless of how ancient that connection might be. Thus, it came as an interesting shift in understanding to discover that in the United Kingdom, blackness signifies much more.

In May 2000, I made a trip to the United Kingdom, hoping if possible to connect with other theologians and possibly black Catholics like myself. I had extraordinary good fortune in that I arrived just when the editorial board for a new journal, Black Theology in Britain (now simply Black Theology), was meeting at the University of Birmingham, England. Upon arriving for the meeting, I was surprised to find not only Afro-Brits of Caribbean and African descent as members of the board but Asian Brits as well. This was my first introduction to blackness from another perspective.

I quickly learned that to be black in the United Kingdom basically meant to be anyone who was not Anglo-Saxon. Obviously, this can create some confusion, as Celts, Normans, Jews and Arabs are not Anglo-Saxon either. But the basic inference is that if you are a person whose national origins were originally outside the United Kingdom, you are black. Accompanying this understanding, at least in the church, is an emphasis on all persons being persons of color regardless of race or ethnicity, again an inclusiveness not found in the United States. I cannot help but wonder about the impact such an understanding could have in the United States, where we are still caught up in a black-white dichotomy despite the growing presence, both in the nation and in our church, of Asians, Latinos/as and Native Americans.

As a result of those chance meetings in 2000, I was invited to participate in the 2003 Catholic Association for Racial Justice Congress held in Roehampton, London, one of the most diverse dioceses in the United Kingdom. The congress, like those held every five years in the United States, celebrates the presence and participation of black Catholics in the Catholic church in the United Kingdom and addresses issues of representation and discrimination within the church. Delegates came from every diocese in England and Wales and traced their origins from the islands of the Caribbean, the continent of Africa, the subcontinent of India and various other Asian countries as well.

I had been invited to give one of the keynotes for the congress. The delegates, 300 strong, were interested in many of the same things that interest black U.S. Catholics: the history of their presence in the early church and of their struggles for acceptance within the contemporary church. I shared with them some of the rich history of the presence and participation of Catholics of African and Asian descent dating back, for some, to the earliest beginnings of Christianity. I also shared with them the history of the struggle for recognition and acceptance that persons of color, especially blacks, had endured in the U.S. church and listed several challenges that we are still facing. They, in turn, in their workshops, spoke of ongoing challenges in terms of the closing of inner city parishes, the reluctance to encourage black children to attend Catholic schools, the alienation many feel in parishes where they are tolerated but not truly welcomed, and the continuing presence of racism in both the church and British society.

Other speakers included Baroness Patricia Scotland, one of the first black peers, who described her experiences growing up as a poor black Catholic woman, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who acknowledged that the church and British society still had significant problems to overcome with regard to the presence of Catholics of Asian and African descent and pledged himself to continue working to root out institutional racism and its effects at every level of the church. He affirmed the delegates’ call for a truly inclusive church representative of all the faithful. This means encouraging more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, for the numbers of faithful are disproportionate, as in the United States. Today there are fewer than 30 black parish priests of more than 5,600 priests in the 22 dioceses of England and Wales. Only six of these are British-born, and many Catholics of ethnic minority communities have been and continue to be frozen out of leadership positions at the parish level. For many, the Catholic church in the United Kingdom, as in the United States, is still an institution with a white face.

The message of this and the earlier congress was clear: that black Catholics, however they are defined, are here to stay and will celebrate their faith in Jesus Christ as only they can while inviting all within the church to learn of and from them.

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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