October was Black History month, 31 days out of 365 when we are invited to stop and consider the stories of our brothers and sisters of darker hues. This year the month culminated in Kent with a half-day event in Rochester Cathedral.
The event, which took place on the morning of Saturday 29 October, was organised by the Revd Canon Gordon Giles, Canon Chancellor of the Cathedral, and the Revd Belinda Beckhelling, Cathedral Curate.
Why Black History Month?
During Black History Month we are encouraged to focus on the stories of Black people: slavery; colonialism; migrancy; asylum. The whole month of October is designated “Black History Month”, and this year it was marked by a special event in Rochester Cathedral, entitled “The Amazing Graciousness of a Diverse God”.
The speakers were Professor Antony Reddie, Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, and The Reverend Canon Doctor Gordon Giles, the Canon Chancellor of the Cathedral, and the Reverend Belinda Beckhelling. Professor Reddie spoke on ‘The Legacy of James H. Cone, the founding father of Black Liberation Theology’; Canon Giles gave an impassioned talk on the hymn, “Amazing Grace” under the title, “The bittersweet sound of grace in John Newton’s hymn”, and the Reverend Mrs Beckhelling introduced us to the story of Adjai Crowtherr, the first African to be ordained Bishop in the Anglican Church.
To start with
For domestic Cathedral reasons, the opening part of the event was fairly low-key. We had a video presentation from the Medway African and Caribbean Association, introduced by the Association’s Chair, Carol Stewart.
Ms Stewart spoke about the need for the Association and the work that it still does in support of Black members of the community.
This was then followed by an African choir, Unique Igbo Melodies, who led us in some African singing.
Canon Giles knows his hymns! Not only has he served as Precentor in another Cathedral, but he has a doctorate in music, and is on the editorial boards of Hymns Ancient and Modern, and the English Hymnal.
In his talk he set out to disabuse his audience of the story that John Newton, a successful trader in African slaves, converted (and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”) because he was caught in a storm at sea and, fearing for his life, he made a pact with God that, if his life was spared, he’d give up the slave trade and serve God. As Canon Giles insisted, volubly, “He did not!” (Nor, Canon Giles assured us, did Newton write the last verse of the hymn, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” which was added later in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.)
Although Newton did eventually give up the sea and take Holy Orders, there is no indication that in the meantime he stopped trading in slaves. Furthermore, the hymn is about God’s grace in the assurance of sins forgiven, see, for example verse 4: “The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures…”; it is not about agonizing over dealing in human traffic. It was written for New Year’s Day 1773.
Canon Giles reminded us that the blindness referred to in the first verse does not refer to Newton’s inability to perceive the evil of the slave trade, but the belief in Jesus’ own time that blindness was the result of sin. (“Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents?”)
For a while John Newton served in the Royal Navy, having been ‘pressed’ into service in Chatham. He married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Cattlet, also of Chatham at St Margaret’s Church, Rochester, by Licence on 12 February 1749.
Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther
Mrs Beckhelling started with a bit of a surprise for many in her audience: Bishop Crowther’s great-great-grandson is a member of Rochester Cathedral’s congregation and community.
Adjai Crowther was born around 1809 in Osogun, Nigeria, a member of the Yoruba people. He was taken into slavery, along with his whole village, by fellow Yoruba and sold to Portuguese traders. At the time the Royal Navy was enforcing the newly imposed ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and he and his fellow slaves were freed at the coast. They were settled in Sierra Leone, where Adjai took the name Samuel Crowther and adopted the Christian faith.
From the start his story was one of triumph. He was taken in hand by the Church Mission Society, who set about teaching him English and sending him to school. In time he was sent to school in London. Upon returning to Sierra Leone, he went to college where he studied languages, first classical Latin and Greek, then a local African language. Eventually he returned to England to be ordained, and where he received his doctorate from Oxford University.
From his fascination with languages, he set about producing a translation into Yoruba of the Book of Common Prayer. He produced an enormous collection of linguistic work, not only in Yoruba, but in a growing number of other languages.
Crowther was consecrated Bishop of the Niger in Canterbury Cathedral, on St Peter’s Day (29 June) 1864 by Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Sadly no one informed him that his authority would apply only to his fellow Africans, and not to his fellow Anglicans with white skin.
Black liberation theology
Professor Reddie then introduced us to James H Cone and Black Liberation Theology. Cone was born in Arkansas, in the Southern USA, in 1938, and died in New York in 2018. At his death he was the Charles A Briggs Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Seminary, Columbia University, New York.
Cone promoted the idea of both Liberation Theology and, more particularly, Black Liberation Theology. The problem was basically that those in power, essentially the light skinned people with money and authority, proclaimed the Christian faith in terms of white supremacy. They used it as a means of control of the poor and the weak.
Cone’s reading of scripture made plain that Jesus of Nazareth had a particular concern for the outcast, the poor, the sick, the powerless. In his teaching, Cone therefore took the gospel of Jesus back to its roots. Sadly, as Professor Reddie made plain to us, the churches still have to learn much of what he taught.