The Cato Lecture is an important feature of the triennial Assembly in the Uniting Church in Australia.
In 1932, successful Victorian businessman Fred Cato established the Cato Lectureship to promote the enhancement of religion and education. The presentation of material of interest to the general body of church members was designed to extend the goodwill and friendly relations between Methodist or related churches in Australia and other countries.
Mr Cato stipulated that the lecturer was to come from overseas, and the lecture to be given within the proceedings of the triennial Methodist General Conference.
Black liberation theologian Prof Anthony Reddie has delivered his Cato Lecture to the online 16th Assembly, mounting a vision for unity in the Christian community where both difference and oneness in Christ are affirmed and celebrated.
Speaking from the UK where he is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Prof Reddie explored the dichotomy of holding together human commonality and difference as we strive to find new ways to live in whole, healed and just communities.
“It seems to me that the challenge that you have as the Uniting Church is the same challenge we have in the UK, which is the same one that arises in every context in which the church is ‘birthed and earthed’: how do we at the same time affirm difference and how do we affirm unity? How do we live with that tension of togetherness and difference?”
Prof Reddie explored how in the face of difference there are often two responses at opposite ends of the spectrum: to collapse differences into a narrative of ‘sameness’ or similarity, or otherwise, to overemphasise our distinct identities.
To focus overly on sameness highlights unity but may neglect the contributions made by cultural, linguistic or theological difference. A focus on difference celebrates the way in which we belong to “powerful and particular identities”, but may create barriers and exclusion.
Both responses, Prof Reddie suggests, are inadequate on their own.
Instead, he proposes a middle ground: that faithful forms of community lie in understanding ourselves as communities made whole by diversity – not ‘sameness’, but ‘oneness’.
Prof Reddie is a self-described post-colonial educator, and child of Jamaican parents who arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation. On his previous visits to Australia he has connected with the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission of the NCCA and with members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
Drawing on a lifetime of theological reflection on his ancestry, the history of colonisation, and contemporary race dynamics particularly in the UK, Prof Reddie critiques narratives of unity that collapse or deny difference as a hallmark of empire.
The forms of Christian community we embody, he suggests, are opportunities to correct some of the assumptions that have led to Christianity’s complicity with colonialism.
He points out that the close links between Christian mission and ‘Whiteness’ included the export of a ‘White Christ’: imagery and theologies that neglect the particular incarnation of the historical Jesus in first Century Palestine.
The colonial approach based on assumptions about ‘White exceptionalism’, says Prof Reddie, led to outcomes like the destruction and denial of distinct cultures and traditions, residential schools, dispossession and exclusion, and, significantly, the genocide of indigenous cultures and peoples.
He observes that similar assumptions about ‘normative Whiteness’ can underlie theologies and practices of Christian unity which seek to form people into the same image, the image of the dominant culture.
“When you understand this issue within the framework of imperialism and colonialism, of the relationship between white bodies – white settlers – who are seen as superior and brown bodies who are seen as inferior … you see the monstrous construct of race that has bedeviled Christianity since its earliest times.”
“Holding together unity and diversity, particularity and universality, the sense of being one but also respecting our particular differences … is something the church has asserted but rarely practiced well.”
“We have so many texts that talk about how within the ecclesia, within the body of Christ, within the Assembly or the household of God, there’s an egalitarianism, there’s a respect for difference. There’s the affirmation of who we are in our particularity but also that sense of unity in diversity within the broader body.”
“At the same time, within the Christian faith we talk about being part of the one body of Christ. We talk about being one people. We talk about one God, one church, one baptism.”
“I believe this is an ongoing tension in which the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to both celebrate those things that make us specifically who we are, but also affirms our oneness and affirms that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.”
In closing, Prof Reddie proposed the events of Pentecost as a counter-narrative, pointing to a Pentecost ethic of embracing and affirming what makes us distinct from each other without sacrificing unity.
“Pentecost has a special resonance for our increasingly plural and complex time, because any careful reading of this text affirms notions of cultural, physical, and linguistic difference.”
“Pentecost shows sameness and difference being played out together in tension. We see difference being affirmed, as people hear the Good News in their own mother tongue, their own cultural tradition. And yet there is still a unity – that they are speaking of a common experience in Christ Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Dr Anthony G. Reddie is a self-described activist scholar, who has written more than 70 essays and articles and 19 books that firmly position Black liberation theology at the forefront of the practical theology discussion.