This blog hasn’t had much of my time and attention in the last couple of years. I intend things to be different this year, hand in hand with reducing the amount of material I will be posting on my economics blog. In part that will depend on whether I finally get back towards more normal health and energy. We’ll see.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve read two books on aspects of modern church history, both quite readable but adapted from the respective authors’ PhD theses.
The first book was Mississippi Praying, with the subtitle “Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, by Carolyn Dupont a US academic. The focus is on Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, the former two denominations being the two largest in the state of Mississippi, with only occasional references to other denominations (and I was left wondering whether another study might useful compare and – where appropriate – contrast the experience in these largely-decentralised Protestant denominations to that of the Catholics). Missisippi was, of course, one of the southern states most resistant to ending racial segregation, and the book’s title is presumably intended as an allusion to “Mississippi Burning”, the 1988 movie treatment of the murder of three civil rights activists. Mississippi was also, and remains, one of the states with the highest rates of church attendance anywhere in the United States.
The book was full of fascinating material (focused most heavily, as the PhD thesis had, on the 1954-66 period) on how denominations, congregations, and individuals (mostly ministers, mostly – but not entirely – white) reacted and responded to the changing social and legal imperatives. Sadly, ‘responded’ is the right word there, as there was distressingly little sign of churches providing any sort of leadership towards integration and equality. In all too many cases – as perhaps happens all too commonly whatever the era – churches served as chaplains to the wider surrounding culture, buttressing the legitimacy of an approach – on this occasion to racial issues – with its origins elsewhere. Dupont documents the pressure put on churches and ministers to stay in line, and resist even the mildest openings towards racial integration. And the resistance in Mississippi when the wider denominations to which these congregations belonged began to take steps to encourage the path towards integration.
Perhaps one of the things that struck me most about the book was the depth and reality/sincerity of the faith of so many of the Mississippi congregations and denominational groupings. Why do I say that? Well, church attendance was increasing – as it did in so much of the West in the 1950s – but it was more than that. The missionary giving and going was impressive, to say the least, as – and this surprised me more – was the scale of the resources put into evangelistic etc work among the local black population. Perhaps there were elements of a defensive ploy about that – fending off some external pressures to integrate by reference – by reference to this work, but these were substantial real resources being commited to the work, raised from individuals and decentralised congregations. I see no reason to doubt the reality of the faith, or the sense of urgency about evangelisation, even as we lament that rather severe blindspot that left most of these same people and congregations resistant to the idea of worshipping together, in the same congregation as, their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Aren’t such blindspots so frequently part of the Christian church’s experience – or indeed that of each of us as individuals? And which are typically much clearer in hindsight.
Perhaps the thing I found least persuasive about the book was Dupont’s attempt to argue that an evangelical version of the Christian faith, emphasising the individual and his/her need for salvation, goes a long way towards explaining how resistant to change, and integration, these Mississippi Christians were. It has some plausibility when thinking about public policy – what rules and laws should governments make? – where the old line that politics isn’t the church’s business seems to have been part of the story. Perhaps voting rights or even integration of public schools just didn’t, to many, seem like an issue for these churches. But that doesn’t explain – and the author doesn’t really make a distinct effort to do so – the resistance of churches themselves to integrating their own congregations. That was, first and foremost, a matter for Christian people, doing church. It was also about individuals being, or not being (in this area), conformed to Christlikeness, in their interactions with others, notably other Christians.
(And although the author – largely rightly it seems to me – commends those from the less individualistic denominations for their work in those decades championing civil rights and integration, it is sobering to reflect today that most of those denominations have been in near-catastrophic numerical decline in the US, while not only is Mississippi still one of the states with the highest rates of churchgoing, but that the Baptists – in many ways the most problematic of her denominations, perhaps because most decentralised (no bishop or synod tells a Baptist what to do, for good and ill) – are apparently by far the strongest of the denominations today in that state. Perhaps every tradition has a time when its perspective is uniquely needed?)
I read the book largely unsympathetic to the congregations and individual Christians who resisted integration – the more so to those congregations that ousted ministers who attempted even moderate calls towards putting some sort of integration into practice. (Although as I read I also wondered about how I’d have reacted behaved in those times, when the costs to pushing back became large for many – always a good reason to read about tough episodes in the church’s past, including 1930s Germany). How can it not be a scandal when a church bars its door to those who would worship solely because of the skin colour of those potential worshippers? Are we not as Christians, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, one in Christ Jesus?
But it also got me thinking about other trends we’ve seen in the church in recent decades. In almost any city in countries like New Zealand, we find a wide range of ethnic minority congregations. There is a Chinese Baptist church quite near where I currently live, and as kid I mowed the lawns for the Auckland Chinese Baptist church, just across the road from our own Baptist congregation. There was no particular tension between the two congregations – the Chinese one had bought a building we no longer needed, my father (minister of our congregation) was often invited to Chinese Baptist events (I remember some superb – Chinese – church lunches). They could easily be seen as separate but equal (in that phrase of somewhat infamous memory). Sometimes the justification for these ethnic churches is linguistic – enough new immigrants with limited English that services in that other language are really needed. But sometimes it seems to be rather more cultural than that, and I’m left wondering about the similarities and differences with those white congregations in Mississippi. There are (important) differences: I’m sure no congregation in New Zealand formally bars the door to those of other races, but is it a difference of degree more than kind? Perhaps also there is a difference in that most of the explicitly-ethnic congregations serve minority communities. But that probably wouldn’t have washed – to the rest of the world – if white communities in South Africa today wanted such congregations.
And it brought to mind the ideas of Peter McGavran and the church growth movement of a few decades ago, who argued that evangelisation was more likely to be successful if focused on “homogenous units” – groups of similar class, ethnic or whatever background. It was contentious in its day – personally I was always uneasy (to say the least) about it. Because even if it “works” – builds numbers – can it really be right? I don’t know whether the evangelicals in Mississippi in the 60s had had much exposure then to McGavran’s ideas, but – in bastardised form at least – they surely have been useful in their cause: the church will prosper best when people are free to worship with those “most like them”, or lines to that effect.
Oh, and then there was the threefold – three tikanga – governance model of the Anglican church in this part of the world.
For Christmas I’d received the gift of a copy of Hirini Kaa’s book, Te Mahi Mihinare: The Maori Anglican Church. Kaa is both an academic and an ordained Anglican priest, and his book was a really interesting read. The evangelisation of the Maori population in the 19th century, initially by CMS missionaries and increasingly by Maori Christians themselves is an inspiring story, full of individual tales of heroism, humility, and faith. (Sadly, the decline of Christianity – including Anglicanism – in New Zealand whether among Maori or non-Maori populations is the dominant story now). And the interest in Kaa’s historical material continues well through the 20th century (he stops at about 1990 just before he himself became a member of the General Synod), including the development of Maori bishoprics.
But it is hard not to read Kaa’s book as also that of a man with a mission, that mission being the construction and maintenance of separate Maori entities and structures within the Anglican church in New Zealand. And I’m left wondering – as I have been for some decades since the move to the three tikanga governance model brought the issue to my attention – quite how consistent with the gospel this move is. The risk is that the church serves as chaplain to certain strands in the wider political Maori community. (For clarity, I’m not an Anglican, but worshipped in Anglican churches for more than a decade, and our three kids were all baptised in Anglican churches, one here in New Zealand. For a year or so – ended only when my term in the country ended – I was part of a Anglican congregation that was 99 per cent African.)
Kaa’s model seems to be one in which Christianty – and Anglicanism specifically – is a Western thing. It isn’t of course, even if the first missionaries (and later settlers) were themselves mostly from Britain, itself converted to Christianity by missionary movements centuries earlier. And he seems strangely content with the idea that Christians of British descent (and those of Asian, or other European, or African?) descent should have one form of Christianity, and Maori another.
To be honest, I’m not fully sure how the Anglican system works in New Zealand. There don’t seem to be distinctly Maori parishes at least in the parts of cities I’ve lived in, and yet there are clearly places in New Zealand – we drove round East Cape on our recent holidays – where the population, and presumably the churches, are largely comprised of Maori people. Quite how the governance works – what powers the Bishop of Waiapu has, what powers the relevant Maori-stream bishop has etc – isn’t clear, and isn’t actually developed in the book. But I’m left uneasy. Hark back to the possible reasons for separate congregations etc. There are very few people in New Zealand who are monolingual in Maori only, and probably not many more Maori who can’t also function in English. But perhaps it makes sense, in some areas, to have Maori-language services, for those more comfortable worshipping in that language (as, say, the small number of English language churches in Paris). But the theology is – or should be – the same: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And it isn’t obvious that Kaa is fully convinced of that – almost 200 years on, he seems to keep wanting to hark back to pre-contact, pre-Christian, ways of thinking. And separate streams of governance, separate institutions?
To some it could sound like the US south of the 1950s. That might be mostly unfair. After all, Maori in modern New Zealand are a minority, whereas the white churches of the US South were (mostly) majority populations. And language is an issue for some. Is there a difference that Maori were in New Zealand before Europeans (and others arrived)? Perhaps it is in a wider political sense, but it isn’t obvious what it has to do with the gospel or the church. I hope I don’t go to church to celebrate, protect or defend, some particular English, European, or even Anglo-New Zealand heritage or identity, but to worship the one living God, who – in Jesus – sent his disciples out to make followers of people in every nation under heaven – initially in the near-east, then in Europe and North Africa, then…then…and in these much later days even to the islands of New Zealand. And to be, little by painful little, conformed into his likeness, alongside sisters and brothers of every nation.
Having read the two books in quick succession – that more by good fortune than anything else, they turning up in the house just a couple of weeks apart – I was still left with more puzzles than answers, but a distinct discomfort when race-based structures seep into God’s church.