Anthony Reddie: first Professor of Black Theology in 900 years
Monday 18th Sep 2023, 11.46am
‘I try not to think about it too much,’ he laughs. ‘But it is a great honour.’
‘This is a moment,’ adds Professor Reddie, talking of the burgeoning interest in Black Theology, which has followed the international reassessment of racial justice and equality, in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd.
‘Tectonic plates have shifted in a lot of ways,’ he says. ‘Black Lives Matter put the issue of race on the agenda in the UK. There is great interest now in Black Theology in Britain. It’s made Black Theology more mainstream.’
Tectonic plates have shifted in a lot of ways. Black Lives Matter put the issue of race on the agenda in the UK. There is great interest now in Black Theology in Britain. It’s made Black Theology more mainstream
Anthony Reddie, Professor of Black Theology
Professor William Wood, Theology and Religion Faculty Board Chair, says, ‘I am absolutely delighted for Professor Reddie and for Oxford’s Theology Faculty. He has been a tremendously valuable colleague, as well as a popular and excellent teacher and mentor to our students. Thanks to his efforts, Oxford has become a centre for the study of Black Theology in the UK and in the wider world.’
As a relatively recent discipline, Black Theology was established in the 1960s by James Cone, the African American Theologian. In the US, segregation in churches inspired Dr Cone to voice outrage at the idea Christian churches saw nothing wrong in discrimination and injustice and practiced segregation as a matter of course.
This led to questions around civil rights and today has led to concerns about the role of churches in slavery and racism. In the UK, says Professor Reddie, there is also the question of colonialisation, belonging and Britishness.
This, he says, is the experience of many in Black communities in the UK, who originally may have come from overseas and are still viewed as ‘other’, unlike African Americans who were in the US before most white settlers, as a result of the slave trade.
Thanks to Professor Reddie’s efforts, Oxford has become a centre for the study of Black Theology in the UK and in the wider world
Professor William Wood, Theology and Religion Faculty Board Chair
The significance of Professor Reddie’s new title has not been lost on social media, where he has received hundreds of delighted messages of support – for him and for the university. One points out that he is not just the first professor of Black Theology, he is the first Black professor in Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and Religion. None, though, express surprise at his new title – only congratulations at a ‘well-deserved’ honour.
Professor Reddie has been teaching at Oxford since 2020. And last year, with the full support of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, he started a new course on James Cone’s work – which runs alongside courses in Aquinas, Augustine and John Henry Newman. He had been worried about whether any students would be interested, he laughs, but it was a great success. He also teaches a popular course in Liberation Theologies, which includes Black Liberation Theology.
Civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King represented the two sides of the Black Theology debate in the 1960s, says Professor Reddie – separation and integration.
‘Malcolm X saw the Christian faith as hypocrisy and his ethos was very much about separation,’ says Professor Reddie. ‘Although that changed over time. But Martin Luther King Jnr was a Christian and believed people can be changed. He believed in redemption.’
He is not just the first professor of Black Theology, he is the first Black professor in Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and Religion. No one [on social media] expresses surprise at Professor Reddie’s new title – only congratulations at a ‘well-deserved’ honour
Professor Reddie says, ‘In some ways, this is still being played out.’
He talks enthusiastically about the imminent arrival of a new post-grad student from the US, who has been studying at a historically Black men’s school, Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia – the alma mater of Martin Luther King.
‘It’s the Black Oxbridge,’ says Professor Reddie. ‘He is the top student. It will be interesting to see how he gets on…Everyone is going to love him. He’s going to be invited to everything.’
The background of his new student, stands in stark contrast to that of Professor Reddie and many in the UK’s Black community, who are often made to feel as if they are outsiders, he says.
Is this a significant sea change? I am not going to speculate. But there is something special about this particular moment.
Professor Reddie is excited about the future and hopeful about opportunities for Black Theology at the university and elsewhere. There are also many other strands of Black Theology, he explains, citing the case of ‘Womanist Theology’ – which emerged among African American women in the wake of James Cone’s work
Black Theology is having a major impact in the Theological world. Professor Reddie has been appointed as a member of the Church of England’s Racial Justice Commission, charged with reporting to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to help root out systemic racism in the church. Other working groups are looking at the issue of possible reparations and the history of the Church of England.
‘It would never have been a conversation, even five years ago,’ says Professor Reddie. ‘Is this a significant sea change? I am not going to speculate. But there is something special about this particular moment.’
Professor Reddie gives as an example a recent conference he attended, at the words of a person from the Church Commissioners, the Church of England’s multi-billion-pound investment fund, which has a history dating back to the church’s 18th century involvement in slavery.
Professor Reddie maintains, ‘If I had not been there and heard it, I would not have believed it were possible…we are in a particular moment.’
A lot of places are teaching Black Theology which have never done so before…The system is changing for the better
Not surprisingly, for a Methodist lay preacher Professor Reddie is not a betting man, and he does not like to guess about the future and whether this current interest will represent an enduring legacy. But, whisper it softly, the academic says he sees real change.
‘A lot of places are teaching Black Theology which have never done so before,’ he says quietly. ‘The system is changing for the better.’