Book review: Ancestral Feeling

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Renie Chow Choy, Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial Thoughts on Western Christian Heritage, (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by Philip Lockley

This is a profoundly stimulating and personal book examining the complex feelings that Christians from elsewhere in the world can have about the European heritage of the faith which they or their families received through colonial missionary movements. Renie Chow Choy is a historian of medieval Europe and teaches church history at St Mellitus College. The “ancestral feeling” Choy explores has multiple meanings. It is a sense of connection (or otherwise) to the Christian forebears she studies, teaches, or remembers when visiting heritage sites such as ruined monasteries, ancient churches or John Wesley’s London home. It is also the emotions evoked by contemplating family origins and faith stories – in Choy’s case, her grandparents’ migration from rural China to colonial Hong Kong, her parents’ Christian formation in Hong Kong and Canada, and her own moves and sense of home in the UK.

Choy begins by recognising a tension and an irony in the notion of “Christian heritage” in the West. Political rhetoric defending Europe and North America’s Christian heritage tends to carry racial and nationalistic implications. These are designed to exclude immigrant or non-white groups from a sense of belonging. And yet the West’s colonial past also generated missionary movements that produced today’s global majority Christians. Millions of Asian, African and South American Christians can themselves feel significant attachment to Western Christian heritage and consider it their own faith heritage too. An array of denominational affiliations – Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, Pentecostal and more – have each generated an instinctive affinity to the West through inherited hymns, devotional literature and ecclesial architectural styles. Western theologians and church founders, as well as pioneer missionaries, are all felt to be their ancestors in the faith too.

Choy acknowledges the postcolonial critique of such affinities as a hold-over from empire, meaning colonised people lose not only their land but also their history. Christian historiography can in this sense be a form of colonial hegemony. However, Choy strongly rejects an assumed corrective to this will come from tracing and narrating an alternative Chinese Christian history for the Chinese, or African church history for Africans. Adopting such a remedy, Choy asserts, “only serves to divide, alienate, marginalize and tribalize, and it is a thin disguise for exclusionary habits” (p.22). Instead, Choy seeks through her book to “find a way to think about the history of Western Christianity that promotes an inclusive memory and fosters belonging” (p.25).

Choy sets about this by weaving together reflections on the history of Christianity (especially the forms of Protestant Christianity exported to British colonies) and strands of narrative recovering the personal experiences, trials and commitments of her biological ancestors. The result is consistently thought-provoking, admirably deft in its handling of a range of sociological and cultural theories, and wonderfully fresh in the perspective it offers.

Not long before Choy will have been finishing Ancestral Feeling, the Church of England’s Racial Justice Commission published a report, From Lament to Action, which acknowledged racism’s influence in the church extended to the process of remembering and retelling the church’s story. Racism has shaped what and who is remembered and forgotten, and to whom a church’s history is perceived to belong. From Lament to Action calls for a healthier focus on memory and history, and an opening up of new avenues for dealing with aspects of the past understood and shared differently. Ancestral Feeling delivers such a focus and such an avenue for understanding in an exemplary way. The book is recommended to anyone interested is discovering how a creative historian has served this important work for the health and future of the global church.

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