A reflection by Bishop Joe Aldred.
Written in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Aberdeen Street, a Church of God of Prophecy congregation in Birmingham, and shared to mark Black History Month….
“I am a living testimony to the nurturing ministry of Black Pentecostal Churches, in particular Aberdeen Street. These churches that have empowered and equipped many to take our place in British society, making significant contributions in religious and secular spheres…”
The Church of God of Prophecy (COGOP) Aberdeen Street, Winson Green, Birmingham is part of a Christian tradition in Britain known as the Black Church Movement. ‘Black’ because the majority of their membership are of African descent. ‘Church’ because they are part of the one holy catholic church. ‘Movement’ because they are culturally dynamic, ethnically diverse, multidenominational and demographically international.
Churches may be best identified by their denominational or independent names – which they are – but ‘black’ provides useful additional sociological lens particularly in a racialised white-majority British context. Revelation 7.9 reminds us that the kingdom of God has diversity in its DNA, as John sees ‘a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb’. Culture and ethnicity are not only convenient interpretative tools, they are intrinsic features of a diverse church engaged in the mission of embodying God’s redemptive love for the world through Jesus Christ.
People of African descent have long lived in Britain, dating back to the 2nd Century AD Roman times, through the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the 15th Century, through World War 1 and World War 2 in the 20th Century. However, the national rebuilding programme after World War Two, including the NHS, saw significant numbers of economic migrants from across the Commonwealth and colonies come to live and work in Britain. They brought their religion with them and soon attempted to populate existing churches to which they belonged back home, and establish the ones they brought but did not find, which were mainly Pentecostal. This marked the beginning of the Black Church Movement in Britain in the Windrush era since 1948.
Significant among the new arrivals were Black Pentecostals with a reputation for fervent worship. Pentecostals worship anywhere, and everywhere, and are as comfortable meeting for prayer in homes, community, school and church halls; as they are purchased and, as in the case of Aberdeen Street, specially built edifices. Some are independent fellowships, others are part of wider regional, national and international ecclesial bodies.
The obstacles faced by the early Windrush settlers to find places of worship were largely linked to the issue of race. The people with power and authority to rent or sell tend to view prospective tenants or purchaser with a racialised scepticism that often lead to negative outcomes. There are few exceptions. In spite of this, across the country, mainly in industrial conurbations black fellowshipping communities have proliferated. These are like oases in the midst of a tempestuous ocean, for an exilic people of God. They sing, ‘Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm’.
Back in the 1950s, those who in the Caribbean belonged to European churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Moravian, Congregational, and Quakers expected to be welcomed into their churches in Britain, but this was not generally the case. Instead they were met with rejection. As Io Smith recalls, ‘I was looking for love and warmth and encouragement, I believed the first place I would find that was in the church, but it wasn’t there’. Like Smith, some joined the Black Pentecostal Churches established by their compatriots; some defected from the Christian faith altogether; some refused to accept the hurt of racist rejection and hostility and continued to attend. One said to me, ‘I told the minister, “I am a Baptist, this is a Baptist Church, and I am staying here!’” Today it is generally agreed that some inner-city mainstream churches would be closed were it not for the presence of its black members who have remained in areas affected by white flight to the suburbs and white highlands.
Against a background of racial oppression as enslaved and colonised people, Black Christian migrants having embraced the Gospel of love preached to them, dared to believe that they were coming to the ‘motherland’. They found it, but ‘mother’ did not recognise her children. Sadly, this was as true of the country at large as it was of the British Church. An observer commented, ‘British Christians prayed for years for revival, but when it came they did not recognise it, because it was black’. And, soberly added, ‘…the two cultures do not easily mix; special grace, considerable cultural, theological and liturgical skill is needed on both sides to make this encounter successful’. It has been the lot of the Black Pentecostal Churches to help their members restore the dignity of their human and Christian self, made in the image and likeness of God, and the confidence to chart a good future course.
Unquestionably these churches have operated as spaces of rescue and shelter and of affirmation, as illustrated by one testator, ‘Thank God for the Church of God, she has made me to be a lady’. But the Black Pentecostal Church is multidimensional and can best be thought of in light of remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a Foreword to a recent publication on Pentecostals and Charismatics in Britain, ‘…from time to time a significant movement arises, prompted by the Holy Spirit, that stands the test of time and has lasting effect on the Church for years or even centuries’.
Aberdeen Street Church of God of Prophecy is recognisably a Black Pentecostal Church because its membership and following in Britain are black, with few exceptions. Yet, it is part of an international denomination with origins and current headquarters in southern United States, and is part of a world-wide multi-cultural organisation. It is a well-kept secret that the Church of God of Prophecy in Britain was not started by Caribbean migrants, as was the case with other black Pentecostal churches in Britain. COGOP was started by a white Englishman, Herbert England, in Bedford in 1953, predated by the Church of God in Christ in 1952, post-dated by the New Testament Church of God in 1955, with scores more in the years that followed.
Black Pentecostal churches grouped together constitute a significant block. For example, in 2018 the combined assets of five well known national churches (New Testament Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, Calvary Church of God in Christ, New Testament Assembly and Ruach City Church) was £86 million, based on purchase, not current market value which would be considerably more. The net worth of all Black Pentecostal Churches in Britain is unknown but will run into hundreds of millions of pounds sterling. Their economic presence therefore is significant, and it is worth reflecting on the impact such financial muscle could have were these churches to consolidate their assets!
When Aberdeen Street Church was built 40 years ago, it was an act of worship to God as well as a statement of defiance towards a racist culture and church. Black churches are biblically grounded, and draw upon a galaxy of texts supplemented by hymns and songs that enable a transcendence of racism given that they have to live with its pervasive and enduring presence. David in the Psalms asserts that God prepares a table for him to eat in peace in the presence of his enemies. The prophet Jeremiah in a letter to Jewish exiles in Babylon told them to embrace exile, pray for the peace and prosperity of where they find themselves, and work tirelessly for theirs and its prosperity and shalom. This is a people who believe that when God is for you, when God is on your side, it matters not who or what is arrayed against you – as Goliath found in his encounter with David. A Bible believing community takes seriously apostle Paul’s, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4.13).
I am a living testimony to the nurturing ministry of Black Pentecostal Churches, in particular Aberdeen Street. These churches that have empowered and equipped many to take our place in British society, making significant contributions in religious and secular spheres. A recent publication of 100 Great Black Britons included Bishop Oliver Lyseight, a pioneer of the New Testament Church of God and the Black Pentecostal Church Movement. Many have received honours from the Queen, other establishments and societies, recognition for their valuable contributions to society. Little wonder that mainstream British churches now actively seek Black Pentecostal Churches as ecumenical partners in mission in Britain. Recently the Church of England changed its legal canons through its General Synod to allow for independent – including Pentecostal – churches’ preachers to legitimately preach in its churches. The Black Church’s contribution to music is phenomenal as exemplified by the influence of Black British Gospel so well exampled by Kingdom Choir that took the 2018 Royal wedding by storm.
Black Pentecostal Churches, like Aberdeen Street, now face new challenges in a constantly changing and aggressively secular society. Respected as ecumenical partners for mainstream establishments that once viewed them as ‘sects’, they must now face up to the intergenerational challenge to engage emerging Black British communities. Second, Black Pentecostal Churches find that seventy years after Windrush they remain black and need to decide if their ministry is homogeneous to black people or heterogeneous to all people. Homogeneity carries its own challenges, but heterogeneity requires thinking through how to move beyond the limitations of its own culture thereby signifying to others they are welcome.
Third, Black Pentecostal Churches hold to conservative social norms based on its understanding of biblical standards, and it will either acquiesce to current trends or provide convincing apologetics for its conservatism if its mission is to be effective. Fourth, there is a compelling call for a robust political agenda that goes beyond social care for its members to speak truth to the principalities and powers that impact its members’ lives. Fifth, having grown by splitting cells, do Black Pentecostal Churches now need to consider how greater unity in diversity might yield bountiful missional fruit spiritually, socially, economically and politically?
Having come thus far the Black Church in Britain has now to teach the next generation to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred , CTE, Pentecostal & Charismatic Relations. Joe is a broadcaster and writer as well as an ecumenist, regularly contributing to BBC’s Pause for Thought and UCB radio, and recently editing the book Pentecostals and Charismatics in Britain: An Anthology.