Jamaican-born Joe Aldred is an influential figure in the UK Church and has earned the respect of both black and white majority churches. Here, he talks integration, accountability and the prevalence of racism.
As we step into a radio studio to conduct our interview, Joe Aldred must feel at home. Every week he hosts his own phone-in show on BBC West Midlands, broadcasting to his home town of Birmingham on Wednesday evenings. The listeners are largely drawn from the African-Caribbean heritage population there. That Aldred has naturally assumed the role of a spokesperson to the black community is a testament to his influence, both in society and the Church.
His suit and tie strike a formal note, but it doesn’t take long to discover that Aldred is a relaxed character. Cheery and conversational, he relates an extraordinary tale he has heard that morning from the pulpit of a black American TV pastor. In a voice that still has the lilt of his Jamaican upbringing, he chuckles, ‘I didn’t believe a word of it!’ As a spokesperson for ethnic minorities for Churches Together in England, Aldred is as analytical and erudite as I expected. His academic degrees and vast experience of sitting on inter-cultural task groups stand him in good stead. But talk to him about his early life and everything changes. The warmth of nostalgia spreads over him. ‘I remember aged about 10, saying with my sister, under a Nesberry tree in Jamaica, “We’re gonna go to church tonight, and we’re gonna get saved!” I remember it so well! And then one of us said, “Well, let’s dance the last dance.” So we did a little jig under the Nesberry tree and went to church that night.’ His story sounds as much about the memory of the fondly remembered Nesberry tree that they ‘danced the last dance’ under, as it is about his early Christian faith.
After a lifetime ministering in and working alongside the black church in Britain, Aldred knows both its strengths and weaknesses. He’s also seen racism both in and outside the Church. ‘I remember one day, driving to college to deliver some academic papers. A small group of white men were passing. One of them had a banana in his hand and called out, “Do you know who’s lost this mate?” And I knew exactly what he was on about.’
Aldred seems happy to fight the battles one at time – the current black and white divide in the UK Church doesn’t seem to bother him greatly. He’s more concerned about people owning up to their own prejudices, whatever the colour of their skin. Sharply critical of his own denomination, the Church of God of Prophecy, he accuses its white leadership in America of institutional racism. But he’s also frustrated with the partisan nature of some of the independent black churches in Britain, where insularity breeds its own form of exclusivity.
Sixty years on from the Windrush generation, the black Church in Britain has come of age. Those who once ‘sang the lord’s song in a strange land’ have become as representative of British Christianity as their white counterparts. Now, says Aldred, it is time to ask instead, ‘Who is my neighbour?’
Almost 50% of black adults regularly attend church in the UK, compared to 15% of white adults. Why is a black person in this country far more likely to be a Christian than a white person?
Some have suggested that black people are innately more religious – which was a case made many years ago – but I don’t believe that. I don’t think there’s anything in the DNA of black people that makes us more religious. However, the experience of 700 years of slavery, colonialism and a general sense of your humanity being degraded has caused, I think, black people to look towards God for divine intervention and assistance. There’s a faith that has grown out of that suffering that has made us more inclined to look to God. There’s also a second reason, which is that the societies from which black people come have not yet become as scientifically advanced – and therefore as God-denying – as what’s happening in the West.
After you arrived in the UK as a teenager how did going to church help with the transition?
Coming to pretty much the same church that I’d left in Jamaica meant it was a home from home. Coming into a black Church space meant that there wasn’t much disruption to my understanding of church and faith matters. We were migrants who had come to livehere, and now were in charge of the Church. For me, that has been a real, nurturing factor in my life.
What about the second and third generation? Is it the same for them?
I’d been brought up in Jamaica. I didn’t grow up with issues about my identity – I just knew who I was. A lot of youngsters born in this country from Caribbean heritage are disconnected from their history. They watch TV and see African images of starvation, abuse of power and wars, so they disassociate themselves. They see the Caribbean as somewhere distant where their parents came from, so there’s no real connection there. Then here, in this country, they suffer racism and a sense of ‘Hey, you don’t belong here. Go home!’ The question is, ‘Where is home?’ It isn’t Africa, it isn’t the Caribbean, and it isn’t here. I think people of my generation may suffer the same ills in life, but we have a different grounding and therefore relate to those issues differently.
Is the racial divide between white and black churches an inevitable cultural fact? Or should we be constantly attempting to make the Church more integrated?
I’m a both/and man. I recognise the need for cultural familiarity. You grow when you’re settled; you don’t grow in storms. I have personally benefited from that in my own life in this country. However, I think you can’t stop there. You have to then recognise that you live in mixed society, and therefore constantly ask ‘How can I make connections? Now that I feel comfortable, I’ve built my house and I’m living in it, who are my neighbours? What might we do together?’
I have been very much an encourager of cross-cultural relationships. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as saying we should not have black majority churches. The danger is that some people have a fixation that the Church shouldn’t be like this. Therefore they want to make things happen by force majeure and I would say, ‘Well, no. Let’s remain where we best serve at the moment. But let’s reach out to each other and see where that reaching out takes us.’
What examples have you seen of black and white churches working well together?
When I moved to Sheffield, I found it very easy to strike up deep relationships with black and white pastors that led to a number of initiatives such as pulpit swaps that cut across the denominational, racial and cultural divide. I struck up a very lively relationship with a white church pastor, Peter Fenwick. He preached at my church, I preached at his. Those services had interesting characterisations. I remember preaching in his congregation and thinking, ‘Hmm…I’m not hearing any “Amens” here!’ and feeling like I was not doing particularly well, but it was simply a different mode of interaction.
Once, an Anglican colleague invited me to speak at his church and I asked, ‘How long have I got?’ He said, ‘Seven minutes.’ I said, ‘Seven minutes! That’s as long as it takes me to give my greetings!’ So, there have been a number of very interesting learning experiences.
Have you come across racism in your encounters with the white Church?
It’s very clear to me that there is racism still within my own denomination – the Church of God of Prophecy – and I don’t mind if you print that! It’s in the interface between the black Church in this country and its white headquarters in the States. If that church still cannot appoint a black international head, there’s racism going on. I know of some of the black personnel who have been close enough to that post, but never given a look in.
I also meet people in mainstream UK churches whose attempts to become ministers or move up the chain is difficult, and they feel that it’s been down to racism. The other enduring feature is that a number of churches have this white headship and black following. I know of a church that is 85% black, but every one of the six leaders is white. And I’m saying, ‘How could you have had such an evolution in your body without that evolution taking place at the top?’ To me, whether it’s deliberate or not, it is racist. I think in those cases, they should make very strong efforts to multi-ethnicise their leadership to reflect their congregation.
You work on behalf of black churches for Churches Together in England. The African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA) shut down after 25 years for lack of funds. Is this because of the inherently independent nature of many of the black churches?
The black churches in this country from a Pentecostal background have inherited a growth by fragmentation philosophy. People tend to just peel off and go and start a church, and they’re not particularly friendly to ecumenical infrastructures that try to rein them in. ACEA was one of several black-led ecumenical instruments trying to network these churches. They all struggle, because if what you’re looking for is money then I’m afraid you’re going to be greatly disappointed. The money in these churches is funnelled back into their own denomination. That’s why ACEA folded.Some independent black churches have come under the spotlight for financial irregularities or other scandals. Is there a need for more structures of accountability provided by the likes of CTE or ACEA?
We do worry that there is so much independence. At the moment anybody can start a church. You don’t have to have any training or be accountable to anybody. Then, because of the religious predisposition of the community, people will come. This may be somewhat controversial, but I think Pentecostalism has become the dominant expression in independent black churches because it’s so easy to set up a Pentecostal church – no training required. Personally, I think dealing with people’s souls is too serious for it to be so easy to set up church; theological training should be mandatory, and the work I do at CTE is all about encouraging churches to become part of a wider family that can hold you to account.
A recent edition of Dispatches on Channel 4 exposed abuses of ‘witch’ children in unregulated African churches. Is the media painting an unfair picture of the black Church?
We have been fighting quite an intense public relations battle, but it’s deeper than that. Whether children are being named as witches or being abused in some quasi-religious ceremony – every time that happens (and I’m a father of three daughters) I weep. It is very important that these malpractices are exposed. The problem we have is that most of these churches are not members of any overseeing body, and so they’re not accountable. So in a sense, it’s only the press that can hunt them down and expose them. Unfortunately, the press tends to present those fellowships as normative of black Pentecostal churches. That’s a problem, because in reality the vast majority of black churches have got their child protection policies in place. Even so, some people might find their religious practices quite challenging. I’ve been in some services where seeking after the Holy Spirit can get quite ‘intense’, but you’d hope that a responsible church leadership would recognise that you have to be careful about how you deal with children, and the vulnerable.
Do you think there is a problem of prosperity preaching within the black Church?
Firstly let me say that this is not a black Church thing. The prosperity teaching probably finds its roots more in America through well-known prosperity preachers and a number of black churches here have taken it on. It’s interesting that the traditional Pentecostal churches from the Caribbean and Africa are not the churches that you would ordinarily say are in the grip of prosperity teaching. It tends to be some of the newer churches.
What do you think of the ‘Prosperity Gospel?’
I don’t believe you should reduce the understanding of human flourishing to material things. I don’t think it’s true to the gospel. Somebody once called it the sin of simony – you don’t sell it. ‘Freely you have received; freely give’ (Matthew 10:8) Secondly, I think it is potentially exploitative. I was in a service once and a well-known preacher came to the end of a very good sermon and began to play the prosperity thing. He called for those who wanted to sow a seed of £1,000 to come. I said to a young lady I knew, ‘Aren’t you going to sow your seed of £1,000?’ And she said, ‘Do you know what? I’m still paying off the last seed I sowed!’ We laughed it off, but there is a lot of realism in that. It is exploitative when you get a preacher who has just been delving into somebody’s soul and then says, ‘Come and sow a seed into my ministry, and by the way, let’s start at £1,000.’ I happen to know that a lot of people have dug deep into their pockets – and there’s nothing wrong with sacrificial giving for the right purposes – but a lot of people have dug deep and given more than they can afford, and are in debt.
What are best things happening among black churches right now?
I’ve been very pleased at the number of black churches that have joined CTE. Recently, ten key national black Church leaders met at Lambeth Palace with about ten national leaders from mainstream churches. That wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. I’ve been very pleased within the black churches to see a growing orientation towards taking leadership training seriously. I’m also impressed to see the way in which some of these churches are working together. There’s a very creative partnership developing between New Testament Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy and Redeemed Christian Church of God. That can only be for the good, as the three national leaders get to know each other better.
What are the challenges for the future?
The question of leadership and succession is still a big challenge. A number of the pioneering generation have now either died or are at a very advanced age and I’ve not been that impressed with the second tier coming through. I think there needs to be a greater sense of urgency about how we ensure that the people who are going to lead us are not just ‘God-called,’ but also well trained.
The second big challenge is that there is still a huge disproportion between the female/male numbers in the black churches. That results in a lot of unmarried single women, and I think there’s a lot of resentment growing in that area. The third and final challenge, I think, is about the young people. In an increasingly secular country with a growing number of black youngsters going to university and higher levels of learning, I don’t believe that we in the churches are challenging them sufficiently in terms of their faith.
Joe Aldred was born in Jamaica in 1952, and was baptised as a member of the Church of God of Prophecy aged 11. He emigrated to the UK at the age of 16 to join his mother and father who had left Jamaica several years earlier. After becoming a pastor in Sheffield, he was also appointed district overseer of the denomination in the north-east until 1996. For six years he was the executive director of The Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership at the University of Birmingham, as well as going on to hold posts in numerous health and social education charities. He has been the secretary for Minority Ethnic Christian Affairs at Churches Together in England since 2002. As well as gaining a PhD in theology, writing articles and authoring several books, he also presents a weekly radio phonein show, Chat Back with Joe Aldred on BBC WM 95.6FM. He is married to Novelette, a psychotherapist, and they have three daughters. He has recently edited The Black Church in the 21st Century (Darton Longman Todd).