Over October, St Mary's is marking Black History Month with a series of sermons entitled "Black Saints".
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 3rd October 2021
Introducing Black History Month: Black Saints
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.
Yesterday morning I had the privilege of praying with the family of a member of our congregation who was close to death. It was, as ever, a moving occasion and a privilege to serve at such a significant moment. As it happened, this particular member of our church is from a Global Majority Heritage and, with the thought of Black History Month in the back of my mind, as I drove back from the hospice I had cause to reflect on his life, the history of his own journey through the world, his successes, the people whose lives he touched and influenced, and the contribution he made to life both here and in his country of origin.
The stories of our lives are part of what makes up what we call history. It is, of course, the story of events, the tide of politics, public affairs and policy and the people whose decisions affect those things. But history it is also the story of ordinary men and women, most of us destined to be forgotten within a generation, our mark on our families and communities, and the way in which all of these things are folded into the rich tapestry from which the public telling of history emerges. This is particularly important for people of faith, and particularly I would say people of Christian faith, because our faith is inextricably tied up with history rather than mythology: an incarnate God born into this world, a death recorded by historians, the widespread effect of the resurrection on the way men and women acted from the moment they understood it, and the astonishing growth of the church which resulted. Telling the living and ongoing story of our faith – what we call (with a capital ‘T’) Tradition – which has nothing to do with ‘traditionalism’ – telling the living story of our faith in history and through history is part of what it means to live out and share the Good News of Jesus Christ. For if it does not change real lives in real places, then all its claims to affect in history are rendered meaningless.
From the moment the Church was born on the day of Pentecost, it has been a multi-racial and multi-cultural reality. Our Saviour was of Semitic origin, as were his first disciples, but from the moment the Holy Spirit was poured out on people many races were given the same gift of the presence of Jesus in their lives. And, as the Gospel was proclaimed by the apostles, it soon became clear to the first Christians that the Gospel wasn’t just for people of the same ethnic or religious background – it was for all. The greatest Apostle to the Gentiles – the non-Jews – St Paul, writes to the Romans, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” So when we think of the Church, we must always think of many races and nations baptised into one body, and we must always recognise that racism – the claim of superiority of one race over another – is always something that stands in antithesis to the very heart of the Gospel. This is not about political correctness: it’s what the Gospel stands for – no distinction…the same Lord is Lord of all.”
Black History Month may seem like an unnecessary addition to the calendar in the light of this truth of “no distinction”, but unfortunately history and human nature has got in the way of us being able to truly celebrate that the same Lord is Lord of all. We could at this point enter a long debate about our own history in these British Isles and the effect of what has become to be called ‘colonialism’. The British Empire was, at one time, the largest Empire the world had known – that’s part of our history. That colonial history is, like all history, something of a mixed blessing, and this is not the time to explore that, save to say that we still have as a nation to come to appreciate the full effects that slavery had on the way our Empire came into being and was sustained, and the way in which we have profited from the misery of others. The slave trade is probably the greatest stain on our own history, and still not fully appreciated. But the effect of colonialism, and one of its blessings, is that we are now privileged to have living as part of what 21st century Britain is, many people whose origins are from the wider world, or who descended from those who came to what many called ‘the mother country’, often after the Second World War. The history of black people in Britain is much older than that of course, but one of the effects of the way we teach history and see it through inherited colonial eyes, is that we fail to appreciate the contribution made by those of other races and cultures. Cultural superiority is not something specific to British people: every culture suffers the same blinkered view to some extent or another. But only we can do something about redressing the balance of our own historical blinkers, and that is why Black History Month can be a gift to us.
But this is a sermon not a lesson on Black History Month. We’re marking Black History Month in our sermons through October, which I’ve entitled Black Saints. In different ways, up to All Saints’ Sunday at the end of the month, the preachers will focus on a person or a group which can be described as such. Some of them will be famous people; others less so. Scripture contains such holy men and women as well and today we hear of the Ethiopian Ebed-Melech and the Cyrenian, Simon, both Africans. Much of their history is lost to us beyond their names and a moment where they came to the aid of a person in need, Ebed-Melech to Jeremiah and Simon to Jesus. St Mary’s contains many black saints too, because Scripture uses the word ‘saint’ to imply that anyone who is a follower of Jesus is a saint, not just the celebrity Saints with a capital ‘S’. Among those saints are the man who I prayed for yesterday with all that made up his history: suffice it to say that he has done much in his business and his family life to bring blessing to many other people.
But here’s another bit of Black History about a Black Saint, whose picture appears on the cover of this week’s newsletter. One of my General Synod friends is a mixed-race woman called Maggie. At the moment she is Vice-Chairman of the Anglican Consultative Council, the global Anglican body which holds together the Communion of which we are a part. But Maggie’s great uncle, Harold Moody, is something of an unknown South London hero. Born in 1882 in Jamaica, he came to Britain in 1904 to qualify as a doctor. Even though he qualified top of his class, the racism of Edwardian London meant he was repeatedly refused work. So Harold opened his own practice over in Peckham. Moody would treat the countless children living in poverty free of charge, in a time before the NHS and earned a reputation as a humanitarian and a philanthropist. He married a local girl, a nurse, and they had six children. After the First World War, facing perhaps even greater hostility than before the War, Moody eventually founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 with a mission to fight racial inequality in the UK and around the world. Like the suffragists before him, Moody sought to persuade the Government to combat discrimination in many forms. The League became the first influential African Caribbean pressure group in Britain.
Moody saw the League through the eyes of his devout Christian faith, and he was motivated not by an early version of racial theory, but from the commitment that St Paul writes of in Romans, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him”. During the Second World War, Dr Moody met Queen Elizabeth to deliver a fleet of 35 canteen lorries bought and provided by the people of West African and the Caribbean, to use to provide food and hot drinks to Londoners who had been bombed out, which in itself is a demonstration of the same biblical principle of ‘no distinction’ that motivated many of the Christian people of those nations who saw people in Britain in need. Again, a small piece of Black History that ought to be better known.
I thank God that Britain is so blessed by people like Harold Moody in our history, and I thank God for those among us today who seek to serve God in this place and who are from UK Minority or Global Majority heritage. I encourage members of St Mary’s – of all backgrounds and ethnicities – to spend time asking questions and finding out more about one another’s lives and histories and I hope we shall hear a little of that from one or two folk in the coming days. But most of all I thank God that we are a global church blessed by the presence of people from “all tribes and nations” in our life in Christ, and I thank God that he calls us to be what Desmond Tutu calls “the rainbow people of God”, showing the world that, in Christ, there is a new humanity which transcends the artificial divisions that culture, history and, worst of all, racism and prejudice, can inflict upon us. Amen.
Enter your details below to receive the St Mary's weekly newsletter.
If you want to know more about St Mary's, contact the clergy or for another enquiry, please use the Contact Us facility below.Contact Us