By Kristen Gunn
After being denied a curacy in part because of his race, Augustine Tanner-Ihm delivered a talk on theology and race that won the UK’s second Theology Slam competition, broadcast digitally on June 23.
“It’s not about cheap diversity, but belonging,” Tanner-Ihm emphasized in his address. “Accessibility is being able to get into the building. Diversity is getting invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. But belonging is having your voice heard at the table.”
Tanner-Ihm’s talk has been heard by hundreds who tuned in live via YouTube to watch the online final on Tuesday evening. In the coming days his words will reach even more eyes, as part of the contest’s prize is publication of the winning script in the Church Times.
Co-sponsored by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, the Church Times, SCM Press and the Community of St. Anselm, the Theology Slam aims to foster and nurture the next generation of theological voices and is open to anyone between 18 and 30 years of age.
Applicants choose a topic from a list of twelve contemporary themes and submit short videos in an earlier round. Three finalists are selected to deliver longer, seven-to-ten-minute talks at the Slam final. Although this year’s final took place online and contestants’ talks were pre-recorded, hosts Nell Goddard of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and David Shervington of SCM Press worked to maintain a cheery but suspenseful atmosphere.
A judging panel of Mark Greene, the LICC’s executive director; Selina Stone, a tutor and lecturer in political theology at St. Mellitus College, London; and Hannah Malcolm, winner of the first Theology Slam competition, heard the talks for the first time during the broadcast.
Tanner-Ihm, a 30-year-old Chicago native and soon-to-be master’s degree recipient from Cranmer Hall, Durham, took the virtual “stage” alongside two other finalists whose talks also centered on contemporary anthropological questions. Molly Boot, a 22-year-old master’s student in medieval church history at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, reflected theologically on her experience as a #MeToo survivor. Sam Hodson, 23, spoke about theology and disability, focusing on what working with people with intellectual disabilities at the L’Arche community has taught him about God.
After each slam talk, finalists answered a question and received constructive feedback from the judging panel. While the judges deliberated in a virtual decision room, a short, pre-recorded talk by Mark Greene on “Bringing Theology to Life in the Everyday” played, and finalists answered questions from viewers.
One viewer asked Tanner-Ihm if the “white church extending a welcome” model of diversity and inclusion ought to be changed and the metaphorical “table” done away altogether. He replied that there were important Eucharistic overtones in his central focus on diversity, inclusion and belonging at the table and he thought the metaphor should not be scrapped entirely.
“As Christians we are required to use the table as the metaphor and as the feast that the Lord has given us,” Tanner-Ihm replied. “It’s not necessarily saying ‘You come to my table,’ but it’s ‘We together come to the Lord’s table and eat and feast.’”
“Does your table look more like a table of bank executives, or like the Kingdom of God?” Tanner-Ihm had asked, earlier in his talk “We are called to do better — to live like the kingdom is near.”
After the judging panel emerged with a decision and the hosts announced that Tanner-Ihm had won, virtual confetti fell on a full-frame shot of his camera feed, which displayed a surprised and laughing Tanner-Ihm.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby reached out Wednesday to congratulate Tanner-Ihm via Twitter. He wrote, “Thank you for calling us deeper into the urgent conversation we must have — and work we must do — on the racism in our Church and society that blinds us to the Kingdom of God.”
The full Theology Slam final, including Tanner-Ihm’s talk at 53:59, can be viewed online here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect affiliation for host David Shervington.