Seeking Solutions Main Story
o overcome a challenge, it’s necessary to first understand it. This is the task of the Centre for the Study of Religious and Cultural Diversity (CSRCD), established in May 2001 at Newbold College, the church’s higher education institution for the Trans-European Division. The centre takes its inspiration from the biblical maxim that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NKJV).
The CSRCD studies diversity in general because diversity in the church is a symptom and by-product of diversity in society. Internal Adventist diversity is seen in a larger context. The Adventist experience of being a (sometimes persecuted) minority means that we have important insights to contribute to discussion about diversity among academics, the media, and policy makers. As Newbold’s vice-principal, Mike Pearson, puts it: “Adventists have a special insight into people on the margins of society—the people to whom Christ ministered.”
The centre’s very location makes it an ideal place to study diversity. Newbold regularly has 50 nationalities represented in its student body. The nearest urban area, 10 miles away, is the borough of Reading. Today it’s a microcosm of Europe’s general diversity. People of immigrant background make up more than 13 percent of the population, in contrast to a national total of about 8 percent. Reading also showcases the phenomenon of more and less religion. As recently as 10 years ago, four large Methodist churches flourished. Today, only one survives: another has been demolished; one is now the home of an African independent church; the other is now Reading’s Hindu Temple!
Diversity is also a fact of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Britain. For 20 years, a large majority of church members have been West Indian immigrants and their children. In recent years, however, a number of ethnically African churches have been founded, while growth in Scotland and Ireland is taking place among communities of Eastern Europeans.
Rethinking Our Differences
At a regular series of seminars, workshops and conferences, Adventist pastors and laypersons, Newbold faculty and students, and non-Adventist academics have looked at historical and contemporary examples of different types of diversity and been brought into contact with people of other cultures, faiths, and races. The aim has been not only to increase intellectual understanding of the ways in which different groups in society relate, but also to allow people of sometimes hostile or mutually uncomprehending backgrounds to meet. This first step often helps them to understand, reconcile, and even celebrate their differences.
Very often we assume that if people’s attitudes to God, the church, lifestyle, or worship are unfamiliar, then those attitudes are not just different, but wrong—that if people aren’t living or worshipping as I do, then they must be falling short of what God wants. We put our own cultural prejudices into “thus saith the Lord” terms.
At the end of one Newbold workshop, an Adventist pastor put things in a nutshell: “It’s not just that the things other people do aren’t wrong; sometimes they’re things that can make my own walk with God better. They’re not things to be tolerated. Sometimes they’re things to welcome!”
After a seminar presentation on the sometimes painful history of immigrants in the British Adventist Church, one layperson noted: “What I thought was simply a Black-White thing turned out actually to be something typical of immigrants and host communities, regardless of race. I’ve seen that anyone can fall into the trap of thinking the church belongs to their particular group––when that happens, we can end up mistreating even fellow believers.”
Another attendee discovered that she found it easier to understand and to forgive “hurtful things done to me and my family in the past, because I can see that we could easily end up doing them to other people in the future if we don’t stop seeing people who are ‘different’ as somehow a threat. The work we do for the Lord isn’t ours; it’s His. And the church doesn’t belong only to people ‘like me.’”