The Revd Natasha Beckles reflects on the meaning of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s baptism in St James’s for our church today.
Quobna was born in 1757 in Ghana at an interesting point in world history in the aftermath of the European Reformation when the Anglican church (est. 1559) was less than two hundred years old. This new post Reformation Church was an expression of Christianity, (as was the Roman Catholic Church from which it had parted), viewed through exclusively Greco-Roman linguistic and cultural interpretation. And therefore, frequently, this form of Christianity developed implicit projections embedded within Western theology about God and humanity.
Left unchallenged, these perspectives seem to justify some of the key anti-human dynamics in the church, which when transferred into society, contribute to structural inequalities and hierarchical approaches to human intellect, bodies and spirituality.
One of these perspectives embedded in Western theology was the ideology of ‘whiteness’, still relatively new at the time of Quobna’s birth. Whiteness, as human progress and perfection, was used as the justification for the seizure of land and the largest forced movement and colonisation of people in recorded history resulting in the dispossession and enslavement of millions, including 13-year-old Quobna.
By contrast, the Afro-Asiatic philosophical worldview was foundational to Israel’s formation and worldview. And it’s this prophetic, community-focussed theology that anchors Quobna’s writing: drawing him away from individualism and anti-human practices. His rebuke is addressed to all the Inhabitants of Great Britain, calling for corporate accountability and repentance. As he can remember his own pre-colonial village, culture and religion he is unlikely to be burdened with the generational internalised oppression about his personhood, belonging and beloved-ness that subsequent generations of racialised people have contended with. Undoubtedly, he will have been heavily traumatised by his abduction, transportation, and enslavement experience, but his writings do not contain an intrinsic intellectual, moral or cultural deference to whiteness.
If we imagine Quobna seated in St James’s in the 1780s, amongst a congregation that contained people who are justifying their ownership of humans who looked exactly like him, the courage, strength and clarity of his rebuke is spectacular. Surely, undoubtedly, Quobna must have been a charismatic and disarming speaker – but he was aided and abetted by a church community that not only welcomed him, but secured the space for him to speak without apology and some of them helped to finance his efforts.
How is it that he has, would even have today, such ‘audacity’?
Quobna’s theological perspective is ground-breaking because it draws upon on a philosophical wisdom and approach to bible that resonates with his own Ghanaian background. His is a theological and prophetic voice, aligned with the Imago Dei (image of God), in such a way that he succeeds when many of his philosophical and theological contemporaries fail. Whilst their attachment to modernity and Greco-Roman philosophy not only contradicts the mystery and meaning of the incarnation but leads to genocide of millions. Quobna offers both rebuke and reconciliation.
Quobna’s presence and activity in St James’s throws up other questions.
Questions about him as an individual, questions about the impact of the sacramental life on him and questions about the community of faith, that was around him.
As a church, my hope is that you can draw strength, courage and even strategy by remembering him, so that this season of marking his faith and work will have an impact on how you now foster, finance and call forth justice work and leadership from within your congregation.
As a church, my prayer is that you can avoid voyeuristically placing Ottobah’s struggle, gifts and achievements into a cognitive museum that separates him from the philosophical and spiritual context of faith within which his justice work was birthed. This kind of treatment of Cugoano’s thought and theology would only echo the treatment of black and disabled bodies in the Human Zoos, that would sadly become one of Piccadilly’s main attractions within a few short years of Cugoano’s death.
We live in a culture that so worships individualism that it truncates our activism… we feel powerless because ‘it’s just us’ (as individuals) fighting against these overwhelming issues… but this is not how the God of Israel, or the early church operates. The people of Israel, the prophets and leaders are all in relationship with others who spur them on and challenge them to step into God’s calling on their life. This is whole point and [original] genius of the church.
The challenge then could be this: Given that Quobna’s baptism is 250 years ago now, and given St James’s long standing desire and commitment to aim to be an inclusive church, how is the church ensuring that it remains this kind of prophetic birthing space?
 Wasteland theology