Theology Slam 2020 – the last shall be first

Augustine Tanner-Ihm, a black trainee priest in the Church of England, who was rejected for an ordinand”s role because “the demographic of the parish is monochrome white working-class, where you might feel uncomfortable”, has won a national competition for a persuasive theological speech.

He was among three young people who were in the final of the  “Theology Slam 2020” competition, where they had to speak for under 10 minutes, showing theological engagement, compelling arguments and innovative speech writing.

A “slam” is usually a term to describe live performance poetry, and this is a theological version.

Augustine was up against Molly Boot, 22, a Masters student in medieval church history at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, who spoke about #MeToo; and Sam Hodson, 23, who works in a community with people who have learning disabilities.

Augustine Tanner-Ihm’s argument on the theology of race won him the coveted first prize. From Chicago and an MA student at Cranmer Hall, he called for a radical new perspective on belonging in the Church of England.

Echoing the Archbishop  of Canterbury’s recent plea for the church to “get its house in order” on institutional racism, he said: “Accessibility is being able to get into the building, diversity is getting invited to the table, inclusion is getting a voice at the table, but belonging is getting your voice heard at the table. Who do you bring to the table? Does your table look like bank executives, or the kingdom of God?”

Augustine was embroiled in a twitter storm earlier this year, when he received a controversial rejection letter describing how he was an “insufficient match” to the parish he applied to.

He posted excerpts of the letter on Twitter, saying: “Bishops make statements of #BlackLivesMatter this week, I’m still struck by this I received & many more from Diocesan Staff this year. Also, the 8 different dioceses that rejected me for a curacy. I guess not all black lives matter.”

Of the other two finalists, Molly Boot, a trustee of Greenbelt, spoke on the solidarity between Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo Movement. She preceded Augustine Tanner-Ihm and touched on how she considered pulling out of the Theology Slam final to give space to conversations on the topic of race. She said both movements align people to something greater, a surge towards social justice.

The other finalist, Sam Hodson, spoke on theology and disability, based on experiences at the L”Arche community in London. Following an enticing opening line:  “One of the most defining moments of the last 12 months of my life involved an Argos catalogue and a chocolate mousse”, he went on to suggest that living in lockdown, with the slowness of life in his community, had allowed him to learn “about life with God through my discomfort: that God’s love is always slow”.

This interactive virtual event had live questions from observers as well as the judges: Mark Greene -Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; Selina Stone -Tutor at St Mellitus College and PhD student in liberation theology; Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley – Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Hannah Malcolm, winner of the 2019 Theology Slam.

The Theology Slam competition is a collaborative event between SCM Press, Church Times, the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, and the Community of St Anselm.