From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Methodist serves as Britain's first black Cabinet minister

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Mon, 13 Jan 2003 14:57:08 -0600

Jan. 13, 2003  News media contact: Linda Bloom7(212)870-38037New York

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph of Paul Boateng is available at

By Kathleen LaCamera*

LONDON (UMNS) - Fifteen years ago, when Labor Party politician, civil rights
lawyer and Methodist lay preacher Paul Boateng became one of the first
persons of color elected to Parliament, he was seen as a young firebrand.

Today, he is one of Britain's most senior government officials, a minister in
Tony Blair's elite Cabinet, and by all accounts, as formidable and articulate
a politician as you are likely to meet.
But he would have to be in order to fight his way through a legacy of
discrimination and prejudice that has effectively barred blacks from public
office in Britain until recently. To date, only 37 out of some 1,400-plus
members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons are of African,
Caribbean or South Asian descent.

While Boateng has struggled his entire political career to be seen first as
an effective politician, his appointment as Britain's first black Cabinet
minister last May attracted much attention, in part, because of the color of
his skin. One of 31 Methodists in Parliament, he serves as the chief
secretary to the treasury, working closely with the powerful chancellor of
the exchequer on government spending. It's the job a BBC journalist called
one of the most demanding in the British government.
"This is a vocation," Boateng told United Methodist News Service in a recent
interview. "It's a privilege to serve and to be called to service."
The Rev. Victor Watson, a retired Methodist minister and longtime friend,
said Boateng makes no bones about the Christian faith that shapes his work as
an elected representative and government minister.
"His faith informs his political life," he explained. "In politics, it's very
difficult to maintain one's own integrity and understanding of the imperative
of the Gospel on issues of freedom and fairness and the gap between rich and
poor. ... Paul is not afraid to say where he stands."

A succession of appointments to government leadership roles in areas such as
health, prisons, and young people has made it clear that Boateng's political
star has been rising for some time. Still, his appointment by the prime
minister to the Blair Cabinet marks an historic political as well as personal

"This achievement was long overdue," commented Naboth Muchopa, the British
Methodist Church's secretary for race relations.

Only in the last 50 years have the numbers of black people in Britain been
large enough to make a critical difference at the polls, he explained. But
Muchopa also observed that while Boateng has had to live with the reality of
discrimination against blacks in Britain, he consistently has fought a
broader battle against inequality affecting people from a wide range of
social, economic, religious and racial backgrounds.
"The whole concept of equality and justice is really where (Paul's) heart
is," said Muchopa. "Paul says, 'I don't do what I do because I'm black; I do
what I do because there's something we need to do.'"

Boateng was born in Hackney, East London, in 1951 to a Ghanaian father and a
Scottish mother. The family moved to Ghana when he was a boy, and his father
eventually became a cabinet minister in Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah government.

When a coup d'etat toppled that government in 1966, Boateng's father was
imprisoned and Paul, his mother and younger sister fled to England. In a
United Methodist Communications documentary for NBC television, Boateng
recalled being forced to stand up in front of his school class the day after
his father's arrest and told that his father deserved to be shot. Reflecting
on that experience, he said, "Political life has never held any illusions. I
never believed it was going to be anything but very tough."

Boateng eventually studied law and in the 1970s began work at one of the
leading trade union and civil liberties law firms in London. During this
time, he became very involved in Labor Party politics. He also began
attending services at the Walworth Methodist Church at the invitation of
Watson, the church's pastor. Boateng and his wife, Janet, were married there,
and the couple baptized all five of their children as Methodists.

Although he was raised in the Anglican Church, Boateng said he has stuck with
the Methodism over the last three decades because it incorporates those
Anglican roots but also something else.
"Methodism at its best brings a vigor through vision, mission and song that
the Anglican Church needs," he reflected. "Methodism brings a dimension of
witness in the community that is precious. It is radical, risk-taking; it's
on the cutting edge. ... I like being a part of it."
Rachel Lampart, secretary for parliamentary and political affairs for the
British Methodist Church, observed Boateng's fearlessness in publicly
embracing his faith during the annual Labor Party conference. Lampart and
British Methodism's then president, Inderjit Bhogal, were chatting over
coffee with Boateng in a busy bar in the conference hotel. 
"Paul asked Rev. Bhogal at the end of the meeting, 'will you pray?'" Lampart
recounted. "And we all stood in a circle at the bar - the place where all the
whispering, lobbying and gossiping was going on around us - with this
government minister and a bloke in a dog collar praying."

"I can't imagine putting my faith in a little box to be opened only in
private among consenting adults on Sunday," Boateng told UMNS. "Some regard
(my faith) as quaint, eccentric, a bit suspicious. So be it."

Boateng believes the church must have a "prophetic vision" and challenge
government and society on the big issues of material and spiritual poverty
and social alienation. He is clear this role requires action, not just words,
and encourages churches to "get in there with that vision and witness and
form partnerships" with government and other organizations working for
"In the aftermath of 9-11 the world is indivisible," he said. "We can't allow
issues of security and development around globalization to go unanswered. We
have to find a way forward to help those in poverty to find a way to live
better. Poverty is a scar on our world. The battle against poverty is
something that can bring people together."
Concern and passion for social change is one thing. Maintaining the power
that allows you to make hard decisions in a world with limited resources is
another. Surviving the rough and tumble of political life inevitably will
mean making choices that draw fire and criticism.
"With the first wave of (black politicians), unless you played the system,
you wouldn't get to ministerial status," commented Simon Woolley, national
coordinator for Britain's Operation Black Vote. His organization uses the
term "black" to refer to people of African, Caribbean and South Asian
descent. "Some in the black community have been disappointed because Boateng
refuses to wear his color on his sleeve. They see it as a denial of the
In the 1980s, Boateng played a key role in dismantling the Britain's national
black caucus, maintaining that black politicians needed to be "mainstream" to
be effective.
"Unlike black American politicians who, through their caucus, have had the
space to talk about black concerns, black politicians here are disparate,
easily picked off by their political masters. ... The dawn of the expected
deluge of more black politicians never did happen," Woolley said

The British political establishment forces black politicians to choose
between being multi-issue representatives or single-issue "black"
politicians, he said.
"Boateng is without a doubt one of the most articulate politicians in
government. He has crossed swords with the best, and we are proud of him. I
just wish he would be more publicly vocal in addressing black issues,"
Woolley concluded.

Political observer Lampart pointed out that Christians can't avoid politics
just because it can be tough. She admires Boateng's decision to get in there
and get his hands dirty, just as the Good Samaritan did. 

"Politics is the broad picture of how we're going to live together, the kind
of decision we take as a community," she said. "Christians can't opt out."

Paul Boateng has opted in - in a big way.    
# # #
*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

United Methodist News Service
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