When I first started the MA in Theology, Imagination and Culture at Sarum, I was looking forward to exploring the theology of art and music and literature. The beauty of the MATIC programme is that everyone can indulge their particular interests, studying anything from surrealism to cyborgs to Leonard Cohen; I enjoyed researching the theology of the Blues and post-colonial novels. As the course progressed, I found myself increasingly drawn to writing about culture in the sense of race and identity and, in particular, Black Theology. When it came to choosing a dissertation topic, it made sense to combine my work in Religious Education with an exploration of institutional racism in the English school system.
In 2021 the Church of England published its report From Lament to Action, which argued that after 35 years of wringing their hands about institutional racism, it was time for the church to take decisive action. Among its many recommendations, the report asked dioceses to create curriculum resources that would open up conversations about race and diversity in the classroom, and I was tasked with producing some teaching materials based on the children’s book An Angel Just Like Me.1 This was perfect timing, as it meant I could research the culture of whiteness in CofE primary schools for my dissertation, and use our angels project as a case study.
An Angel Just Like Me is the story of an African-American boy, Tyler, who breaks a Christmas tree ornament and tries to replace it with an angel that looks just like him, only to find that they all have blonde hair and blue eyes. This leads him to wonder why angels are always white, and why nativity scenes so often show a white Jesus. We asked the pupils in our diocesan primary schools to explore the stereotypes around the Christmas story and why the main characters are nearly always depicted as white Europeans. They explored the influence of Renaissance art and Hollywood on religious images, and discussed what it means to be made in the image of God. Many schools went on to create their own multicultural angels and talked about why it was important for people of different cultures to see themselves represented in the Nativity story – and indeed more widely. When the author Mary Hoffman heard about our project, she very kindly offered to record herself reading the book, and even dressed up with angel wings and a tinsel halo for the occasion!
Teachers reported that pupils were very open to talking about race and identity, but were often uncertain about the language they should use and whether they were allowed to say someone was Black, suggesting that this wasn’t a topic they had discussed before. Many teachers are nervous about discussing controversial issues in school, especially because of government statements that teaching about white privilege is breaking the law, to so it felt especially important to create simple, child-friendly resources to kick-start these important conversations.
What was surprising was that while schools were so ready to discuss race and diversity, some church members reacted very negatively. One vicar told us we were quite wrong to tell children that angels could look like them, another was offended by the idea that Jesus could be portrayed as Black or Asian, and calling Jesus a brown Palestinian was a real minefield! Someone in my own church took me aside for a quiet chat, as they were worried I was being led astray by some trendy ‘woke’ agenda. This isn’t about Christians jumping on some popular bandwagon or playing at identity politics, but taking the biblical message seriously. The Bible opens with the infinite variety of God’s creation, where all humankind is made in God’s image and God declares that this is very good. It ends with a vision of people from all races and cultures gathered together in worship. The God of the Bible is a God of justice, who reaches out to those who are otherwise overlooked and puts them centre-stage. This should be mainstream Christian teaching, but the church often seems to be dragging its heels, rather than leading the way in genuinely welcoming people of all cultures and celebrating diversity.
Studying at Sarum has been invaluable for giving me time and space to think through these issues and I am looking forward to taking my studies further and continuing to work with teachers to help them explore race and identity in their classrooms.
1 Mary Hoffman, An Angel Just Like Me, (London: Francis Lincoln Ltd, 2007).
Jane Kelly is Religious Education lead for Winchester and Portsmouth Dioceses, and recently completed an MA in Theology, Imagination and Culture at Sarum College.