A noticeable feature of Christianity in Milton Keynes is the general separation of ethnic groups in the church. For a town that had an early and avowedly ecumenical mission within its churches, and whose town planning was structured in such a way as to allow people from many different backgrounds to live together, it is a little unexpected. Maybe I need to visit more churches, but nearly all of those we have attended or tried to work with are not really (at all?) representative of the ethnic make up of the communities they serve, or of MK as a whole. And it is not just a white thing, either. It is a notable feature of the city that African communities tend to worship together, Ghanaian with Ghanaian, Nigerian with Nigerian, Congolese with Congolese (though there, the fact that they are Francophone and often Roman Catholic means that they have not such a great impetus for integration). Obviously this is hard – it is hard everywhere – and language sometimes has a role to play, but it frustrates me that the one place in a city where it is intended that “we should all be one” is riven by a culture of passivity with regard to community and an unchallenged (unrecognised?) willingness to allow our national cultures to be more important to us than our love of Jesus’ body. There are of course, some wonderful exceptions. It is one area where traditionally, Catholic churches and Pentecostal ones have done better than reformed ones.
So it was a complete delight this morning to attend the “re-launch” of the Watling Valley congregation in The Church of the Holy Cross in Two Mile Ash in partnership with the Nigerian (Anglican) Chaplaincy in London. The congregation of 90-100 people was largely Nigerian, but with many other regular attenders and representatives (like me) from the rest of the Watling Valley Partnership. It was just fantastic, after over 22 years, to worship in a setting dominated by African spirituality and expectations, singing and engagement. It was like a roof had been taken off the church and the light of Jesus was being allowed to shine. And I realised how much I had forgotten, and how much I had missed the openness to God and each other that has long been a characteristic of African Christian practice, and the strong commitment to sing and affirm the preacher. But mostly what I loved was the way that these Nigerian clerics spoke about God, about the immediacy of our walk with him, of his affirmation of us as his children, of his willingness to defend and protect us and his openness in sharing his life with us, of the faith that inspires and builds us, and of God’s deep desire that his grace and love be known by everyone. We had a the primate of Nigeria, Bishop Nicholas Okoh, a Canon (Ben Enwuchola, from the chaplaincy), and a handful of supporting clergy, all at ease with the deep wellspring of praise that was being tapped throughout the service. The bishop was asked to give a blessing at the end, and did, sort of, but only after he had started us off with yet another hymn, including us all in the blessing that was to be given. The incumbent-to-be within the partnership, Revd Adedayo Adebiyi, shared the openness to God and to people that will be needed for this fellowship to be “home” for folk in the future. I am looking forward enormously to welcoming him to Christ the Sower and seeing what opportunities for his ministry at school might bring.
For many Nigerian Anglicans, this was doubtless small beer, but as a window for the future and the promise of a cooperation within the Watling Valley partnership, it was just a joy, a sharing and exchange between two valid cultures that respect and want to learn from one another. John Robertson, the Director of Ecumenical Mission in Milton Keynes, spoke movingly at the very end from John 17, inspiring everyone to make this launch count for the future. It was a healthy looking plant that we saw today, and I pray that it will stay well watered and able to be rooted and grounded in the love of God. It certainly felt good, and we at least were well watered!