They didn’t teach her about James Cone at Cambridge.
Chine McDonald says she came late to the Black theologian but wishes she had been reading him at university. Lately, more Black American authors have stacked up on her book shelf: Esau McCaulley, Austin Channing Brown, Dante Stewart.
McDonald—the new director of the London-based evangelical think tank Theos—is one of the most prominent Black evangelical voices in Britain, but she has one eye gazing across the pond as she considers the dynamics of race and faith in her home country.
“I think one of the differences is that in the UK we have fooled ourselves to thinking we’re not like [America],” she told CT. “The past few years are showing us that actually we haven’t moved as forward as we would have liked to in terms of race and racial justice in our country.”
For one, “there’s almost this unwritten understanding in the UK that you can never be British if you’re not white,” she remarked.
Yet, Black Christians like McDonald represent one of the most vibrant and growing segments of the British church. Black-majority churches, filled with third- and fourth-generation immigrants, are responsible for boosting church attendance and growth in London as Anglican parishes shrink. McDonald spoke with CT in 2019 about how the growth of African and West Indian Christianity is changing the UK.
Both in England, where she grew up, and in Nigeria, where she was born, McDonald’s faith came through a British cultural lens. It wasn’t until her 20s that she began to rethink the expectations that came with it. Last year, she wrote a book called God is Not a White Man: And Other Revelations.
“I write about how actually that was one of many revelations for me as both a Black and a woman and a Christian in understanding my identity, my relationship with God,” she said.
Formerly on staff at the charity Christian Aid and the UK Evangelical Alliance, McDonald serves at the Bear Church in London. At the start of the year, she joined Theos, where she leads a team weighing in on religious and societal issues. She spoke with CT about race and the church, the influence of American evangelicalism, and her calling to her new role.
How vital do you think it is that all Christians, Christians everywhere get that realization that God is not a white man?
I think it is vital because it speaks to the heart of what the Christian faith is about. The Christian faith ultimately is about the Incarnation, about God becoming human, God becoming like us, and God entering into relationship with us. Now, obviously the Incarnation actually meant that God came into the form of a Middle Eastern man, despite the whitewashing of Jesus throughout centuries. But I think there is something really important in not excluding people who are not white from this understanding of what it is to be in relationship with God, a God who is like us, who steps into humanity and who steps into our mess. And through him we can come to a relationship with God.
There is something fundamental in understanding that God isn’t like just those people over there, God is like me, and God came to earth because of me also. So to me it’s vital. There is also a wider understanding around what it means to be children of God, family of God, the church as a place that reflects the diversity of the Trinity, reflects the diversity of creation and a God who is creative.
Tell me little about your background in the faith.
I grew up in a Christian home, with Nigerian parents who themselves are Christian. My great-grandfather was an Anglican priest in Nigeria, ordained in 1940, so he and my great-grandmother ran a school for Christian wives in Nigeria. I tell the story in the book, but I came to understand that what they meant by Christian school was a place where Nigerian women would come before they were about to get married and learn how to bake cakes and drink tea and basically act like English people. I think from many years before I was born, my Christianity has been intertwined with Englishness, but that’s a separate story.
We moved to the UK from Nigeria when I was four. Me and my parents and two younger sisters arrived in the UK, lived in London and the southeast of England. I guess most of my life I’ve been to lots of different types of churches, Baptist churches, and for many years I was part of a movement called New Frontiers in the UK where I spent most of my formative faith years. I got baptized at 14 when I came to understand the Christian faith was something not just from my parents or something I did, but actually something that I had to take a decision for myself.
What was it like to study at Cambridge?
I came to a crisis point during that first year at university where I hadn’t really questioned my faith much before, and I was presented with all these existential questions about what I believe, why I believed things, and was presented with lots of challenges from people who believed in academics and their field and all these areas. And almost to counteract that, on a Sunday morning I would sometimes go to three different church services. I wanted more of God to kind of displace the anti-God stuff I was learning at university. I would go to an evangelical Anglican church in the morning, I would go to a new church mid-morning, and then go to college chapel in the evenings because I was so desperate.
But then I remember coming to a point where I realized that God is big enough to handle these questions. God is big enough to handle all these challenges to the Christian faith, and my relationship with God couldn’t be questioned. I came to a place where I felt at peace with studying these theories. As an academic, as a journalist I wanted to be, you could ask questions but could rest in the knowledge that God was big enough to handle them.
I’m really grateful for those three years at university because I feel like I have a robust faith. I’m not thrown about why people may question this. There’s no argument against God’s existence I haven’t heard. I’m really grateful for that.
How big of an influence has American Christianity been on your faith? How much does it affect Christianity in the UK?
In the evangelical churches that I grew up in, we listened to American Christian music, we watched American Christian TV. There was much less of that in the UK anyway; there was one British Christian band I could name—Delirious?—and we didn’t have many Christian fiction authors, didn’t have many famous Christian TV people. America has a huge influence on British Christianity and mirrored parts of that. Growing up in an immigrant community and an immigrant family in the UK, we often looked to America. We have family over there, so a huge influence.
In recent years, I’ve looked at lots of American Christian writers who talk about these issues—issues of race particularly—more than we have in the UK. Often British people kid ourselves into thinking that race issues are really bad in America but they’re not so bad here; but it’s just in different forms.
When I came to write my book, I realized I hadn’t ever read a book about race and Christianity written by a Black British woman, and lots of writers on this subject are people that are from America. I couldn’t get away from the fact that so much of Black theology, Black Christian culture, comes from America.
What experiences have you had as a Black Christian woman in the UK that altered or determined the trajectory of your faith walk?
I’ve never had any big racist incidents. I’ve never been called the N-word, I’ve never experienced violence because of being Black. But many times over my life I’ve experienced an othering, or what we call microaggression, where there are subtle ways in which we are made to feel like we don’t belong. I guess I’ve been most disappointed when I’ve experienced that in church.
I’ll always remember being maybe like 10 or 11 years old where we visited a Baptist church, my family. We arrived at the door, and then the person who welcomed us said, “Welcome, what made you choose this church to come to today, rather than the Black church down the road?” What? My parents, growing up in Nigeria, had gone to lots of different types of churches; I don’t think they ever expected that they would come to the UK to a church, their family too, and someone would say, “Oh, why are you here?”
Those kinds of instances have been profoundly disappointing because I think the church should be better than that. The church should be the place where you go and everyone is welcome, no matter where you come from. [Those experiences] have altered my faith journey in that I have felt called to call those things out, to write about those things, challenge the predominantly white church that I have been part of all my life. God calls us into communities that are diverse, are beautifully messy, and I think that’s increasingly what I feel called to speak about, and that’s the way it’s altered.
How did you come to feel called to Theos and the work you’re doing now?
My sweet spot is that intersection between Christianity or faith in general and the secular and the mainstream.So here I present something called Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, which is the opinion-forming daily news program. They have a three-minute segment in which people of different faith lead a reflection on what’s happening in the world. I’m a regular presenter of that, and that for me is the exact space I want to be in: the place that highlights the relevance of the Christian faith for today, for what’s happening in society and culture and politics and entertainment and economics.
Theos is something that’s been very close to my heart for many years, and when the role came up, almost every day someone would send me a message; people I knew and people I didn’t know would say, “Have you thought about applying for this job?” I would wake up in the middle of the night looking at the job description, and I just really felt a call from God to just go for it and see what would happen, because it’s the only job like that in the UK: “seeks to enrich the conversation about the role of faith and Christianity in Western society.”
It brings together lots of the things I had been doing in my life: journalism, theology, and thinking about contemporary issues and how Christianity might have something to say, to be useful and wise in the biggest issues of our day. So yeah, absolutely felt called to Theos.
I can get a sense of what it will mean for you, but what do you think it will mean for Theos and public theological debate in the UK to have a Black woman at the helm?
I think having a Black woman at the helm really sends a message, and although, yes, I’m a Black woman, also I feel like I’m the right person to be leading at this time because of my identity but also because of my experience in journalism and theology.
I’m not in any doubt that I will potentially find myself in more situations in which I will be the only Black person or the only Black woman, because lots of the kind of public intellectuals who speak from a theological perspective…the voices come from white men of a certain age. I think as the Black woman, I’m able enter those conversations in a way that some cannot.
What would you say are maybe the top one or two important issues for UK Christians in the next couple of years that Theos will be engaging with?
We are coming to the end of a big three-year project on looking at science and Christianity. In a world where, increasingly, people think that those two things are incompatible, we are going to show how theology and science are not enemies. So that’s one major thing.
We’re also exploring issues around death and dying and how we speak about those things well in a post-COVID world. We’ve experienced so much grief and been confronted with our mortality in ways that I’ve not experienced in my lifetime. There are lots of other things around, economic justice and equality, artificial intelligence, lots of things that we are exploring this year and will continue to.
Chandra White-Cummings is a freelance writer. She is the founder of CWC Media Group and creator of the Race@Home project.