Sunday, September 17, 2023

Multi-cultural Sunday

Here are the notes of the sermon I preached at the Redeemed Christian Church of God this morning, during their 'multicultural festival' at St Faith's Pallant Centre. I did depart a fair way from the actual text - because of such an enthusiastic congregation! It was lovely to preach in a very different style to my normally measured tones! Lots of alleluiahs and amens drove me onward to some fun stories and rhetorical heights. It was great fun - though I don't think my normal congregation is quite ready for it! These notes, however, contain the basic message of my talk.

Thank you for inviting me to share a few words with you today, on Multi-cultural Sunday. I count it a real privilege. And I’m delighted to be able to worship with you again, after what has been a rather long time!

You might well wonder what my credentials are for speaking about multi-culturalism. Especially as I stand before you as the epitome of a white, middle class, member of a former colonial nation. I had much the same reaction about 13 years ago when I was made a Canon of a Cape Coast Cathedral in Ghana. (For those who don’t know, ‘Canon’ is a title, given to priests as an act of recognition or thanks because of some service or sacrifice which has been rendered. On that occasion, it was to thank me and Clare for having given accommodation to a priest from Cape Coast for about three years, in our home).

But let me get back to the story. There was I, standing in a Cathedral stuffed to the walls with shining, black Ghanaian faces. I was the only white man – probably for many miles. Furthermore, the Cathedral building was formerly the garrison church of the British Army, from the time when they protected the West African slave trade. When it was built, it would have been stuffed full of British military types, but now, I was the only white man in town. It was quite a reversal – and one that I was delighted to be present, to see.

I thank God that I have had a lot of multi-cultural experiences in my life. In the late 1980s, for example, I ran a 300-bed hostel in South London, very near Brixton. There I got to sample a lot of West Indian culture, especially that which came from Jamaica. The hostel I ran was for refugees, most of whom came from East Africa – victims of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the civil war in Somalia. I came to know many of those people very well, while I helped them to assimilate into British culture. In fact, I’m still in touch with a few of them – one lovely Somalian woman in particular, who ended up marrying my brother!

I remember one important cultural lesson from that time. One day, I was working on the Reception desk, and a man came up to the counter, and said “Room 353”. I remember thinking ‘how rude!...why doesn’t he say ‘please’?. So, as I was the one with power in that relationship (because I looked after the keys) I stared at him – with an especially hard stare – and I said “Room 353 what?”. The poor man looked surprised and confused. But he thought for a moment and then tried “Room 353 sah!”. I shook my head, and decided I would have to teach him how to ask properly in English. “Listen” I said, “Would you be so good as to kindly give me the key to room 353, please?”. The poor man tried very hard…but it really was too much for him. We both laughed at his attempt, and I handed him the key. It was then that a much more experienced member of staff took me to one side and said “You have to remember that not every culture has a word for ‘please’, or even ‘thank you’. In many cultures, you simply state what you want, and accept that you either get it, or you don’t. Whatever happens, once you’ve stated what you would like, is God’s will.”

That was an important lesson for me, in my youthful years. I learned then that the culture in which we are born teaches us ways of interacting with each other. But when we are removed from that culture, a whole new set of rules and practices have to be learned.

I’ve also learned a great deal about the way that some cultures impose themselves on others – especially the British Empire of the past, and the American Empire today. This was brought home to me very starkly during one of my visits to Ghana, when I was touring around the churches with my friend, the Bishop of Ho. First of all, I noticed that the form of the service, the way the priests dressed, the music they sang was all pretty much as they had inherited it, 150 years previously from British Anglican missionaries. We, here in England, have moved on from many of the things they wear, the words they say, and the hymns they sing. But because tradition was so important to the people of that region of Ghana, very little indeed had changed. In some ways, it was like stepping back in time.

I also noticed that all the pictures of Jesus on church walls were of ‘British Jesus’. He had white skin, and often had blond hair. I asked my friend why this was. Didn’t people realise that Jesus wasn’t a white man from Hampshire? My friend agreed, but he then explained that tradition meant it was impossible to change the pictures. He feared that his congregation would strangle him if he got rid of the pictures of Jesus they were used to.

I learned some other lessons too. In that particular part of West Africa – in Eastern Ghana – the Twi nation has very strong traditions about the complementary roles of men and women. In Twi culture, women are honoured as life-givers, because they bring children into the world. Men, who by tradition were the hunters, are the life-takers. So far, so good. But what happens when a woman feels called to become a priest? In Twi culture, only a man can be a priest, because part of his role is to commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus. It is a man’s role only, because men are the life-takers. But as a life-giver, a woman should never be so dishonoured as to participate in a killing action – even a metaphorical one.

These are just a few examples – and I could tell you many more! But my point is that we do well to remember that the culture in which we are raised is just one of many cultures. And as we move between cultures, we need to adapt, and to live in new ways, some of which can be quite challenging. Learning to listen to each other, and learn from each other, is vital if we are ever to understand each other.

One of the sharpest divides between African and English culture, right now, tends to be over the issue of same-sex attraction. I’m not going to say much about this – don’t worry! (Not least because children are present). But I would just make this observation: British culture has always embraced new ideas and innovations enthusiastically. It is what made the British, for a while, one of the Masters of the World. We embraced new technology, like steam engines, then petrol machines, and then computers. We love novelty and gadgets, and we tend to embrace new ideas – which is why our Christianity tends to be fractured into so many different factions and churches. We tend to turn our back on tradition, in favour of what new and exciting things might happen if we embrace something new. If you want a clear picture of an Englishman, imagine a very pompous old man (like me) standing up and saying “Now please listen while I teach you about the importance of tradition….oh look! A new robot hoover for my carpet”

Other cultures, are more embedded in their traditions. Traditions give them an anchor to hold onto, amid the ever-shifting tides of change in the world. That’s been my experience of Africa, mainly – although I do notice that there is a young generation coming through who are being increasingly tempted towards the novel and the new things of western culture.

But what can the church offer, to both traditional and more experimental cultures? I think it is this. Culture informs and dictates many of the ways we act towards each other. As Christians, we have a higher allegiance than to our own culture. It’s an allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a counter-cultural phenomenon. The Kingdom of Heaven stands against all human cultures. It analyses and comments on all cultures. It turns many cultural ideas on their head. What do I mean?

I like to remind my congregation, from time to time, that the Kingdom of Heaven is a topsy-tury Kingdom. It was founded by the Lord of the Universe, who was born in a stable. The King of Creation, who lived in poverty. The commander of armies of angels, who required peace and non-violence. The Word incarnate of God, who allowed himself to be executed.

The radical teaching of Jesus. and the Kingdom of Heaven he announced, stands in complete contrast to so much of what we take for granted. To those who shrug their shoulders at the poor, God says ‘there shall be no poor among you’. To the rich man who accumulates treasure, Jesus says ‘you fool, tonight you die’. To the one who is struck on the right cheek, Jesus says ‘offer your left’. To the man forced to carry a load one mile, Jesus says ‘take it two miles’. To the war mongers who conquered his land, Jesus gave himself up to die – to show them that the ultimate result of violence is that you place the Lord of the Universe on a tree, outside your city, outside your culture, outside your life.

Ultimately, then, our identity as Christians doesn’t rest in our personal cultures, however rich and wonderful they may be. Rather, we are given a new identity, and a new culture, by the Lord who inspires ALL culture. He gives us the identity of Son or Daughter of Heaven. He gives us brothers and sisters from every corner of the World. He brings us together as one family, with one heavenly father. He makes us citizens of heaven – the greatest culture there will ever be.

So on multi-cultural Sunday, let us be glad and grateful for the cultures in which we were born and raised, celebrate the other cultures we have experienced along life’s road, but never lose sight of the culture God gives us, through Jesus Christ, the culture of the Kingdom of Heaven!

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