In a historic move, the University of Oxford has appointed its first professor of Black Theology, Anthony Reddie.
The director of the Oxford Center for Religion and Culture at Regent’s Park College, which also houses the Center for Baptist Studies, Reddie has been teaching at Oxford since 2020. Through his research and course offerings, “Oxford has become a center for the study of Black theology in the UK and in the wider world,” according to William Wood, chair of the theology and religion faculty.
Growing up in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Reddie could scarcely imagine himself ending up at the University of Oxford. He is the son of Jamaican migrants who came to the United Kingdom to help rebuild after the second world war. Even though his father worked in a factory, and his parents had limited education themselves, they believed in education and wanted Reddie to have opportunities they did not. Reddie’s mother dedicated herself to ensuring her children had access to educational experiences and the confidence to explore them.
As a child, the racism in his community was so normalized it barely registered on Reddie, he has said. When he began primary school, anti-Black and anti-Asian sentiment in the UK were increasing in response to immigration from Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa.
One of only two minority children in his school, Reddie repeatedly felt the sting of discrimination, he said. “I was the best student in my school at history and English, and I was put in for the lower-tier secondary examinations, where the maximum grade was a C, rather than the higher ones, which I know I could have aced. As a Black person, people always make pre-judgements about you — particularly when coming into white spaces.”
He would face similar stigma in the predominantly white Methodist church his family attended. Hanging in one of the Sunday school rooms was a picture of “white Jesus.” Reddie remembers staring at the image as a teenager and wondering, “If this is the visible representation or what we think God is, then who the hell am I?”
“If this is the visible representation or what we think God is, then who the hell am I?”
His teacher reassured him God loved him anyway, but for Reddie, that wasn’t enough. “If I don’t look like God, but everyone else in this church does — particularly people who have authority and power in it — can I really believe that God loves me as much as God loves everyone else in this church?”
Questions like these would set Reddie on a path of theological and sociological exploration. After graduating from the University of Birmingham, he worked in the Black communities in Birmingham as a community activist and youth worker, which provided him an up-close look at the way systemic racism functions in the UK.
One day on his lunch break, Reddie sought shelter from the pouring rain in a Black-owned bookshop. “I looked around and found a book, The Black Theology of Liberation, by James. H Cone. I picked it up, read one page, which turned to two, and two became a chapter. I was so engrossed that the shop owner — who was a miserable Black man called Marcel — now sadly long gone – said, ‘Hey, boy … either buy the book, or put it down.’ So, I bought it.”
In the 1960s, James Cone developed Black Theology, which sought to “make the church and its teachings relevant to the life and struggles of Black Americans.” As Cone himself said, his approach evolved to teach people worldwide “how to be both unapologetically Black and Christian at the same time.”
Reddie re-enrolled at the University of Birmingham as a postgraduate, earning his Ph.D. in education and practical theology. His scholarly work explores the practical application of Black liberation theology with a look at what it means to the lives of ordinary Black British people, like those he worked with in Birmingham’s inner city.
In the same way Cone’s work had its roots in the U.S. Civil Rights movement’s response to Jim Crow and chattel slavery, Black Theology in the UK is intrinsically tied to colonialism and questions of just who is “British.”
The recent Brexit vote, Reddie believes, reveals England has not fully abandoned its identification with empire.
“This comes out of empire, and empire is imbued and is propagated by mission Christianity.”
“I clearly see Brexit as linked to a form of nostalgia (for) the days when the British (particularly the English) felt themselves to be superior and to have a special place in God’s economy,” he said. “This comes out of empire, and empire is imbued and is propagated by mission Christianity.”
In 2019, Reddie wrote Theologizing Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique, a book of essays examining what it means to be British during Brexit and how the church should respond to the increasing presence of white Christian nationalism in the country.
Reddie, who is a Methodist lay preacher, has lent his academic talents to other denominations. He is a member of the Church of England’s Racial Justice Commission, tasked with identifying systemic racism in the church. He also has done work for Baptists in the UK. In 2007, The Baptist Union of Great Britain issued an apology to the Jamaica Baptist Unionfor the ways in which British Baptists benefitted from and participated in the transatlantic slave trade.
“No comparable denomination has apologized and is on a journey to justice,” Reddie said.
On the 10th anniversary of that apology, the Baptist Union appointed Reddie lead editor and project leader for the bookJourneying to Justice: Contribution to the Baptist Tradition across the Black Atlantic. This book follows the relationship between the British Baptist organizations and the people of Jamaica across two centuries of colonizing missionary work, the abolitionist movement and the recent struggle for racial justice. While the denomination has made some progress since the 2007 apology, the Black scholars and pastors who contributed essays to the book believe white British Baptists need to do more to “create a just and equitable Baptist family.”
Missional Christianity once was a pillar of the British empire, according to the United Kingdom’s most famous missionary, David Livingston. However, in modern Britain, formerly colonized peoples are now immigrating to the UK and bringing their own expressions of Christianity with them. The earliest Black church in England was a house church established by John Jea in the early 19th century. In 1906, Thomas Kwame Brem-Wilson from Ghana founded Sumner Road Chapel. The creation of Black churches continued to rise with the influx of immigrants, such as Reddie’s parents, from the Caribbean in the 1940s and ’50s, and from newly independent countries in Africa after 1957. The flourishing of African and Caribbean Pentecostal churches in the 1990s has contributed to the rise of Black Theology in Britain.
Now, with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK, there is an increasing interest in Black Liberation Theology.
“If you are a human being, your life should matter regardless — it should be blindingly obvious.”
“It is a tragedy, undoubtedly, that George Floyd was murdered in the way he was. It is also clearly a tragedy that we even need a group called Black Lives Matter,” Reddie said. “If you are a human being, your life should matter regardless — it should be blindingly obvious.”
The attention has given Reddie has given him the opportunity to bring Black Theology to a wider audience. He serves as editor in chief of Black Theology: An International Journal and last year he offered a course on James Cone at Oxford that was a great success.
“A lot of places are teaching Black Theology which have never done so before,” Reddie explained. “The system is changing for the better.”
For white allies who want to understand and engage Black Liberation Theology, he suggests: “What you need to do is to deconstruct your own privilege and become someone who is prepared to give away power, to share power, to empower others. Social differentials are not God given. They’re manmade. They’re human constructs. We can deconstruct and reconstruct them.”
Note: Anthony Reddie will join Greg Garrett in a webinar dialogue with Mark Wingfield this Saturday, Nov. 4. Details here.