Christians and ‘race relations’ in the sixties

My thesis was entitled ‘Digging at Roots and Tugging at Branches: Christians and “Race Relations” in the Sixties’ and I didn’t really mean to write it. My PhD proposal shares almost nothing in common with it, the only connecting thread is the underlying ethic: in each instance, I had wanted to insert a discussion on English or British racism into the historical record. Discussions of which there are few of here, compared to the vigorous debates held in the USA. So, I think of my thesis as a lucky come up, a story I stumbled upon by accident after I interviewed Sivanandan with a different set of questions. In the interview, Sivanandan mentioned a Christian consultation on racism which changed his life, and in seeking to understand how that was possible, I followed names and voices through a variety of archives to (re)construct the surprising and arresting story of the Notting Hill Methodist Church (NHMC) in the 1960s.

I have written a short piece for the Susanna Wesley Foundation on why I think it was that the team of ministers –Revds David Mason, Norwyn Denny and Geoffrey Ainger — who operated out of the church in the sixties were so successful: their teamwork, their philosophy of ’empty-handedness’, and their willingness to support and partner with other community organisations. Below I want to say a little about why I think the story of the NHMC is so important when it comes to the history of ‘race relations’ and racism in England.

It is true that the wider post-WW2 narrative of white Christians in England (and Britain more generally) is one of racism and rejection. It is true because it is the wider narrative of white people in England (and Britain) in that decade and more. However, historians like to muddy the waters of generalisations with the stories which show that humans, and the societies we weave, are more complicated than all that. And that is what the story of the Team Ministry at the Notting Hill Methodist Church does. It shows that in amongst the barbarity and cruelty of English racism, in amongst the indignities that black and Asian people suffered in the 1960s, that some white people, some white Christians, did in fact listen to their black neighbours and join them in fighting back.

I do not wish to imply that the three ministers who were based at the Lancaster Road, W11 church in the sixties were perfect, and my thesis captures the ways in which they could have done better. What I am saying, however, is that the Team Ministry was broadly successful in enacting, and supporting, a wide-range of community projects which, amongst other things, successfully worked to fight back against racialised forms of injustice. Importantly too, in capturing the projects and events which had an element of ‘race relations’ which were set up by the ministers, it also allowed me to capture the variety of ways in which people of colour were discriminated against. Moreover, the strong partnership aspect of the church allowed me to record the agency and voices of some of those they worked with.

So the story is important firstly because it invites us to think more critically about white Christian involvement in the politics of ‘race’ and ‘race relations’ in the post-war period. It shows us that, actually, there was much, much more to some white Christians than, at worst racism and rejection, and at best pious, other-worldly pronouncements designed to bring about ‘harmony between the races’. Some white Christians worked hard within their communities to act and push for social justice in the present. For instance, for this church, it meant being actively involved in the housing struggles of the decade; it meant creating a safe space for black youth to hang out, thereby protecting them against harassment from the police; it meant creating a monthly forum for community issues to be debated, argued, and discussed; it meant supporting the Free University for Black Studies; and it meant supporting Kensington and Chelsea Inter-Racial Council as it went through a process of internal decolonisation to become a black-led organisation under the leadership of Frank Bailey.

The story is also important because it shows an active engagement of Christians with the politics of everyday life. In lobbying the local Tory-led Council and providing the social services the Council failed to provide, the church was more than just a building which a few hundred members of the community attended once or twice a week. The church, and its team of ministers, was an organ for social justice which spread out over the neighbourhood providing assistance and service wherever it was required. Some of those ventures which originated in the church and its social and political wing, the Notting Hill Social Council (now the Kensington and Chelsea Social Council), still exist today, such as the Notting Hill Housing Trust and the Blenheim Project.

In the mid-sixties, the ministers acquired another church nearby on Denbigh Road, W11, which they turned into the Notting Hill Ecumenical Centre. Here, they hoped to create a space of genuine dialogue between the various, and often socially segregated, communities of Notting Hill. One of the ventures based here was the Notting Hill Arts and Community Centre, which was led by the American poet and artist Carlyle Reedy. (See here for an absolutely fascinating 4-part interview with the musician Dave Russell about the Centre: 1, 2, 3 & 4.) More importantly though, from the perspective of Christians and ‘race relations’, it was at the Notting Hill Ecumenical Centre that the World Council of Churches (WCC) held the deeply significant Consultation on White Racism in 1969 which changed Sivanandan’s life. This Consultation was interrupted by Black Power activists who read their Declaration of Revolution which demanded financial and moral reparations. The Declaration was a challenge to the world churches to do better — to act to end racialised injustice and the capitalist exploitation which enabled it — and it is significant that the long-term legacy of the response changed the ways in which the WCC involved itself in anti-racist activity for several decades to come. The Consultation was a truly fascinating and surprising event which, through the establishment of the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism and the Special Fund, culminated in Christian commitment to reparations and the eventual funding of armed liberation movements in southern Africa and elsewhere.

Despite how embedded the Team Ministry was in the 1960s and 70s activism that Notting Hill is now famous for, it is telling that the work of the ministers has mainly been left out of the legends which have arisen around the area. And this is another reason why the thesis is important: it tangentially shows how contemporary bias against the church, against Christianity, has served to erase the memory of the social and political radicalism that Christianity can produce. I say this not as a Christian, but as a scholar of ‘religion’ who views ‘religion’ as an intrinsic aspect of human cultures. Moreover, I think that erasing the impact and legacies of radical Christianity serves to further conservative agendas, as it obscures an important framework through which many have found a moral imperative to act to end social injustice.

So the story of the Notting Hill Methodist Church and the Team Ministry is important because it demonstrates a widely successful experiment in community politics. It is important because it allows us to see the particular avenues along which people, black and white, fought back against racialised injustice. It is important as it reconstructs a key agent of the community and implicitly asks us to consider who else might be missing from stories of action and change. And it is important because it genuinely was so surprising to these twenty-first century ears.