What do East Asians bring to the debates about ‘race’?

Mark Nam is a curate in the Church of England in Bristol diocese, and has convened a network for those of Chinese and East Asian heritage in the Church. I asked him about his own journey of faith, and what this new network might contribute to the life of the Church.

IP: Can you tell us a little about your own family background. How did you come to faith?

MN: 100 years ago, my paternal grandfather left China in a boat to join his older brother in Chicago. After several months at sea, my grandfather disembarked, only to realise that he was not in America. He had been dropped off in Birkenhead, Liverpool! That is how my family came to the UK in 1921. My grandparents eventually made their way to South Wales where they ran a laundry. As was common with many migrant families, they wanted their children to integrate into British society, so they sent my parents to church from a very early age. I was born in Newport and grew up in a Christian household where I was baptised and confirmed in The Church in Wales.

My father worked for the British government, and I spent my formative years in Hong Kong. We worshipped at an Anglican church, although my fondest memories are of those spent with Jackie Pullinger, alongside drug addicts and street-sleepers. On returning to South Wales in my teens, my local Anglican church had no youth group to speak of, so I worshipped at a Plymouth Brethren church instead, before heading to university where I attended the Chinese Church in Cardiff. This is where I met my wife Kayi.

IP: What led you to think about ordination in the Church of England? What was the process like, and did it make any difference that you are of Chinese heritage?

MN: Prior to training for ordination, I was a pastor at a non-denominational, English-speaking church in Hong Kong for nine years. Having originally studied law, I was painfully aware of my lack of theological education. In 2016, Kayi and I returned to the UK with our children so that I could pursue a season of academic study and spiritual formation at Trinity College in Bristol. The principal at the time, Revd Dr Emma Ineson, now bishop to the archbishops, was my personal tutor and encouraged me to explore ordination.

After obtaining my diploma as an independent student, I completed an MA as an ordinand with the Diocese of Bristol. During the discernment process, I prayed long and hard about whether I should join the Church of England or return to Hong Kong. I had concerns about whether my ethnicity would be an issue in the CofE. Whilst I received reassurance from my diocese, it was through a dream I had in Hong Kong two years prior that made the difference, which I recorded in a journal:

I am an old, retired vicar. It is graduation day at Trinity College. Amongst the new graduates, I spot a young British-born Chinese woman, who has completed her training. When I approach her, she is being interviewed by a local journalist. The journalist enquires as to why she is intending to become a priest and her answer startles me: ‘It’s funny you should ask, there is an old, retired vicar and his wife, whose names I can’t remember, but they are Chinese like me. The fact that he found a place in the Church of England inspired me to apply, and here I am!’ 

When I recalled this dream, I realised that God had used me to encourage this person, not by anything I’d said or done, but simply by being who I am. Shortly afterwards, I came across a picture of the first woman to be ordained in the Anglican communion in 1944. Her name is Florence Li Tim-Oi and she was from Hong Kong. I realised then that God was calling me to stay in the UK, my place of birth, to prepare a way for future East-Asian clergy, in the same way that Florence had for every woman after her. So I went forward for ordination, unaware that in four years’ time, an estimated 300,000 Hong Kong BN(O) passport holders would start arriving in the UK.

I firmly believe that God has called me to the Church of England for such a time as this. My Chinese name 英深—which was given to me by my parents on the day of my baptism and when I was 100 days old—means “Deeply British.” My ordination as a priest coincided with my 40th birthday, which brings to mind all manner of meaning associated with ‘new beginnings,’ and as mentioned above, this year marks the 100th anniversary of my family’s arrival in the UK which feels significant.

IP: The conversation about race and ethnic diversity, both in the country and in the church, has been very ‘black and white’—literally—in that the conversation has been couched in terms of ‘black lives’ and ‘white privilege’. How does that work for those of Chinese and east Asian heritage?

MN: During my studies, I became aware that there was very little interest in East-Asian experiences and perspectives in general. When exploring the topic of racism at college, we read black, liberation and feminist theologies, theologies from the Global South, but nothing from East-Asian scholars. Frustrated by this, I widened my reading and wrote a dissertation titled, ‘What the Church of England can learn from East-Asian theology in terms of contextualizing the Gospel’ which touched upon issues of racial injustice.

During my research I came across a book titled Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (2002) by Frank H. Wu which has been compared to W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk. Whilst space doesn’t permit me to go into detail, the racism experienced by East-Asians is different from that experienced by black and brown communities, although there are obvious similarities in terms of how that racism is related to concepts of white privilege and superiority—just in different ways and forms. Conversations around ‘black lives’ and ‘white privilege’ are absolutely necessary. What I hope to see is the inclusion of East-Asian perspectives, which I believe will enrich the conversations, creating new avenues of understanding and dialogue.

For example, I think the discussion around ‘privilege’ cannot be dismissed. As an East-Asian, I seek to acknowledge the privileges that I have over my black friends and colleagues and how certain attitudes and systems favour me over them. But in the same breath, I also hope my white friends and colleagues recognise how certain privileges they have—or how the status quo they are accustomed to—discriminates or excludes people who are different from them. I am still learning what it means to stand in solidarity with others in the face of racial injustice and I believe greater diversity and inclusion is one of the keys to ensuring our conversations move forward and lead to positive change.

IP: How did the Teahouse network come into being, and what are its aims?

MN: When I was considering ordination, I longed to connect with clergy of East-Asian heritage who I could learn from and who understood what it is like to be Chinese and an ethnic minority in the Church. My initial search yielded little success, so I purchased an online subscription to Crockford’s Clerical Directory, where I spent several evenings typing in Chinese names in the hope of finding some. After 1 year, I had located nine others and formed a WhatsApp group. We represent just 0.2% of all stipendiary clergy and only about six of us have reached incumbent status. My original intention was for the group to provide a space for mutual support, but it soon became apparent that we could have a positive influence in terms of inclusion and diversity. This prompted me to create this website for The Teahouse.

I have long felt that East-Asians are invisible—particularly in the public sphere—which means that concerns facing our communities are rarely, if ever acknowledged. The Teahouse seeks to amplify the voices of individual clergy with Chinese heritage. It is important to note that The Teahouse does not speak on behalf of any group. Although we are small in number, we have widely differing opinions on a whole range of topics. To prescribe The Teahouse its own agency would risk alienating some members or drowning out the voices of the very people it is seeking to amplify.

I believe this distinguishes The Teahouse from other groups and movements, where very often the role of individuals is to point to an overarching political objective or moral agenda. The Teahouse does not do this. It simply sign-posts individual Chinese heritage clergy, so that The Church of England is aware of their existence and can listen to their views. It is still early days, but I hope The Teahouse will do something similar for Chinese heritage laity and be in a position one day to offer study grants for those considering ordination like I did.

IP: I was very interested in the name ’Teahouse’, and can see why it might be very appropriate! Is there a danger, in seeing certain things as characteristic of a culture, that we lapse into stereotypes? Is there a good way to avoid that?

MN: There is always a risk of lapsing into stereotypes—we all do it—but I do not think the answer is to be found in downplaying the very things or characteristics that are inherent to a culture and make it unique. On the contrary, these things—and I am referring to positive characteristics—should be recognised and celebrated. If stereotyping is an issue, then surely the best way to avoid it is to overcome whatever it is inside of us that causes us to view others through pre-conceived notions or constructs, such as laziness, apathy, awkwardness or our own insecurities and fears.

In terms of the name Teahouse, I chose it because tea crosses multiple cultures. Whilst tea is steeped in thousands of years of Chinese history and tradition, tea is also quintessentially British—and Anglican—“More tea, Vicar?” The same can be said of tea houses too. My hope is that this blending of cultures leads to mutual recognition, understanding, dialogue and collaboration.

IP: At the church where I am Associate Minister, St Nic’s in Nottingham, the church building is also host to a Chinese congregation. Is that a good idea? Should we be continuing to have ethnically distinct congregations, or should we be seeking to build ethnically diverse, integrated congregations?

MN: I am encouraged to hear that your church hosts a Chinese congregation. From my point of view, ethnically distinct congregations provide many forms of practical and emotional support that ethnically diverse congregations are not always able to deliver. For migrants—particularly those who are first generation—‘church’ is much more than a place of worship. It is where they can socialise together, enjoy traditional food, speak in their mother-tongue freely, etc. Whilst it might seem preferable to organise an ethnically diverse congregation, gathering different ethnicities under one roof does not necessarily lead to the creation of a ‘multicultural’ congregation—there is a difference.

I have visited many churches over the years that are multi-ethnic in appearance, but not multi-cultural in practice. Despite the outward appearance of diversity, the prevailing culture is often very narrow, leaving little room for cultural diversity to flourish. There is a fine line between being ‘integrated’ and being ‘assimilated.’ I am concerned when I see large churches or ecumenical movements that focus on establishing a particular “DNA” or “culture,” which although fuelled by good intentions, inadvertently imposes a particular cultural norm or narrow ecclesiology. This is why striving for diversity in senior leadership and PCC’s is crucial. One-size does not fit all.

And so, yes, I do see an important role for ethnically distinct congregations in the Church, although that does not mean they should be an island unto themselves either. We are all part of one holy, catholic and apostolic church, and I believe there is a specific role for ethnically distinct congregations in the Church of England, provided we can offer them grace and hospitality as your church in Nottingham has done.

IP: What are the main theological and biblical principles that have shaped your thinking about ethnic diversity?

MN: Given my previous answers, I will share some reflections from Genesis that have helped shape my thinking on ethnic diversity. The Bible opens with a scriptural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28a). Humankind is to multiply and disperse across the earth. This is what we are supposed to do. But when sin enters the picture in Genesis 3, humankind disobeys God and resists this mandate. The story of the Tower of Babel is a prime example of this. We read in Genesis 11 that the people attempt to solidify themselves. They build a city and a tower, where it appears they have the same language—or the same words.

This is not unity, but uniformity. God finds this unanimity alarming, because total uniformity is a sign of totalitarian control which can be inferred from the builders refusing to let anyone leave the city. They say “lest/otherwise, we will be scattered all over the earth” (v.4b). They want everyone to think and behave the same way—to assimilate—and they’re going to keep them trapped in the city until they do. There is no room for difference here. God challenges this resistance by disrupting the human effort and dispersing people into nations with different languages—and cultures—reflecting the mandate given in Genesis 1. The story of Babel is an assault on God and an attack on human uniqueness. That is why God disrupts and disperses. 

This pattern is repeated throughout the Old Testament. For example, we see Israel trying to build a racially exclusive community, making election their right over and against other peoples. God rejects this centrism by sending prophets to disrupt this form of thinking and to acknowledge a God whose love extends to people of all nations. The most significant moment of disruption and dispersion is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is God’s final rejection of national centrism. In him, there is no longer Jew or Gentile. The cross was not simply God’s judgment on the sins of the world; it was God’s judgment on any form of religion or worship that seeks to exclude the foreigner or force them into assimilating into a homogenous and nameless mass.

This is why I am wary of any church or leadership that claims to be ‘colour-blind’ or is set upon creating an ethnically diverse congregation without making space for individual cultures to be fully expressed. They are perilously close to repeating the mistakes made at Babel. With The Teahouse, I hope to encourage people from different cultures and walks of life to sit down and serve tea to one another. As Christians, we acknowledge that there is something special to be found in a shared cup and it is my hope that The Teahouse will ultimately point people to the one cup that was shed for all—that is, the cup that promises salvation and enables true reconciliation.

IP: Thanks, Mark, for sharing both your own story, and these fascinating and helpful insights into these issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. 

Revd Mark Nam is Assistant Curate of St Anne’s, Oldland, and All Saints’, Longwell Green, in south-east Bristol, and the diocese of Bristol’s Minority Ethnic Vocations Champion. He is the founder of The Teahouse and tweets @marknam

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9 thoughts on “What do East Asians bring to the debates about ‘race’?”

  1. A few years ago, on a visit to All Souls Langham Place, I counted (yes, I know I should have been praying etc) literally hundreds of Chinese or other east Asians in a congregation of about 1200. Many years ago I was involved in international outreach there, so I was pleased to see the work had exploded in the years since. Many were Singaporeans or Australians of Chinese heritage, and the draw to All Souls had been their parents’ admiration and affection for John Stott. The Anglican element seemed fairly irrelevant to them. Chinese professionals (Chinese in the west are usually highly educated) warm to strong and thoughtful preaching with a focus on method, structure and Bible reading.

    It’s also interesting to note the role in apologetic philosophy and theology being played by Professor Andrew Lok in Hing Kong, formerly a doctor in Singapore. Lok has been greatly influenced by William Lane Craig and is influencing a new generation of Hong Kong Christians – while Beijing (and Providence) permit.

  2. I appreciate this post and the careful well considered, thoughtful, experience shared by Mark.
    I recently was involved in a minor controversy with friends who advocated for specific Messianic congregations for Jews, running in tandem with congregations for Gentiles. I personally found this violated my understanding of what Church is to be – indeed, what church is based on our shared baptism into Christ and into one body. We are a community where there is no dividing wall, where the two are made one, where there is no separation of Jew and Gentile. My chums’ justification was pragmatic – the need for something culturally relevant to Jewish days, diets etc
    and also missional, wanting something evangelically accessible to a particular people group who for both cultural and historical reasons are suspicious of ‘church’ and ‘christians’.

    I am sensitive to this. However, I do not find churches separated on such racial or cultural distinctions, in Scripture. Indeed, didn’t Paul need to publically rebuke Peter for retreating from the revelation he received (Acts10) and doing church with his own racial group (Gal2:11f) albeit driven by fear.

    So whilst I respect Mark’s deep experience of the Chinese church – and understand something of Mark’s reasoning from both a pastoral cultural sensitivity and missional focus, I question whether such homogenous church model is supportable Scripturally. Indeed are such racially divided churches even detrimental to the prophetic unity the church is to present? I think congregational divisions along race, colour, culture or even age lines are something the Church must work hard to remove.

    • I really have no problem with such churches and see them as postive benefits. You have to put yourself in the place of an ethnocultural, linguistic minority. It takes enormous eforts to cross such borders which most of us are ill-equipped to do. The Gospel is translatable into every language and culture. Further, people are only really integrated into a host society by the third generation, i.e. when they and their parents were born in that nation and speak the language natively.

    • More than one of Paul’s letters is about keeping Jew and gentile together in one congregation in and under Jesus Christ. It is perfectly obvious that this should be done where they speak the same language. You need differing congregations for differing language groups, for people should – it at all possible – go to a church that holds services in their first language.

    • Hi Simon, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate you keeping scripture front-and-centre on this. This is a tension I wrestled with constantly when I was a pastor in Hong Kong, and I wonder whether the model of “church” that formed might provide an alternative way forward as we consider our own context in the U.K.

      At my church in Hong Kong we had several ethnically distinct congregations where people worshipped and fellowshipped in their mother-tongue, i.e. French (African), Tagalog, Mandarin, Cantonese, Singhalese, etc. However, these fellowships occurred midweek. About half who attended these fellowships regularly participated in one of our 4 “main” Sunday services where English is the main language. Key to this was the fact that the leaders of the fellowships were all part of the overall leadership of the Church, sitting in on the equivalent of PCC’s and some were employed as full-time pastors. They influenced how the church was run, our missional objectives and Sunday services.

      I found that the unity in worshipping on a Sunday together created a strong sense of family, and that even though we held racially/culturally distinct congregations during the week, this did not create racial divides – in fact the opposite. Sundays became a celebration of our unity and diversity and much cross-cultural ministry occurred throughout the week which in my opinion models the type of fellowship we find in scripture.

      When I consider a Chinese congregation (in Ian’s Church in Nottingham for example), I would want to ask whether the leaders of that congregation were considered leaders of St. Nic’s too. Whether they were part of PCC and whether they shaped the overall church’s vision and mission, not just their congregation. If they exist as “an island” then yes, I think I share your concerns, but I believe that done properly, they can actually enrich how the church fulfils its role reflected in scripture.

  3. If I were in a congregation that got a new minister who wanted to start a conversation about white privilege then I would begin by asking him where my sin lay in the matter.


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