Not so long ago, in the year my sister was born, the then Bishop of London was faced with a dilemma. A couple were due to have a wedding ceremony at a church in Kensington, and this was arousing intense anger and fear.
Quite apart from the fact that there were some who would regard such a marriage as unnatural and immoral, a breach of Biblical teaching which in some parts of the world would be illegal, there was heavy pressure from certain African leaders not to allow it. These included a devoutly religious prime minister who had at one time been a pastor, who declared it ‘disgusting’. There was the risk of a diplomatic incident, the chance that Britain’s interests would be affected.
The Bishop bowed to pressure and refused the couple permission to marry in church. What was later described as a ‘marriage of inconvenience’ went ahead in a registry office.
Though at first the young couple had hard times, some of those who had most vehemently condemned the relationship were later reconciled to it. He was later to become the first president of an independent Botswana, where she was held in high regard.
It is perhaps hard now to imagine that the 1948 marriage of a white British woman, secretary Ruth Williams, and an African man, law student Seretse Khama, could have been so controversial. Yet a couple of decades later many Christians in some parts of the world still believed passionately that segregation was ordained by God, and in Britain it was common for immigrants to be persuaded to stay away from ‘mainstream’ churches because of the genuine anguish it caused some white people in congregations.
Even in modern Europe, there is an undercurrent of subtle racism, punctuated by surges of far-right extremism, linked often with the notion of preserving a Christian heritage. Even people who are quite liberal are often unaware of the ways in which minority groups are excluded, and the damage done to those who internalise a sense of inferiority or who feel permanently unwanted or unsafe.
While the debate around ‘racial mixing’ is not identical to current controversies affecting mainstream churches, there are certain parallels. Though it is no longer respectable to claim that humans are of different ‘races’ who should be kept apart, there is still sometimes an echo of the view of the Dutch Reformed Church under apartheid that ‘The Christian calling lies in acceptance of the place which God has given’, or at least that it is unchristian vigorously to resist being excluded.
At one time, church leaders had a lot to say about justice, but now there tends to be an emphasis on the virtues of unity and refusal to assert oneself. If some people feel contaminated by the presence of other ‘types’, especially if those trying to maintain ‘purity’ can quote verses from the Bible to rationalise this, should not those who it is feared might ‘pollute’ the church keep a low profile for the time being? Sooner or later, change will of course occur; cannot those already on the inside who feel unsettled by the presence of the ‘other’ be gently persuaded to rethink, rather than pressured? It can be tempting to go to great lengths to avoid offence to those whose privilege is threatened.
Patience is of course needed, and the wisdom to choose when to move slowly and when to move fast. Yet there are serious risks in accepting the human-made barriers and hierarchies which keep people apart. Apart from the harm done to those who are excluded, the spiritual harm people do to themselves when they marginalise or stereotype others should be considered, given the close connection between love of God and love of neighbour. All of us have perhaps benefited at one time or another by being jolted into recognising a common humanity with those whom we would at one time have looked down on or barely noticed.
Greater understanding may arise from observing a previously unimagined reality. For example people who disliked the notion of ‘interracial marriage’, when given the opportunity to see how love could flourish between a couple one of whom was black and the other white, could be prompted to rethink their assumptions. This only became possible because some people were bold enough not to hide what others at first found offensive.
And church unity is of questionable value if the church does not strive, however imperfectly, to witness to and embody the realm of God, where the lion lies down with the lamb and all live in peace (Isaiah 65.17-25). If the church does not offer good news to the poor and marginalised but instead perpetuates social divisions, it may become like salt that has lost its savour (Matthew 5. 13).
I would not wish to condemn the Bishop of London in 1948 for making what seemed an expedient choice. However it cannot always be assumed that those refusing the norms of their family, community and church are just being rash and selfish. Perhaps this may be the case, but perhaps they are helping to point to a glorious future where, through the gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit, humans recognise God’s image in one another and relate with mutual respect and love.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is author of ‘Re-writing history’, a research paper on the row within global Anglicanism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/rewriting_history