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Researcher of the Month, December 2023: Carol Tomlin

Researcher of the Month

“Carol Tomlin is Visiting Researcher in the Centre for Religion and Public Life.”

Tell us a little about your research journey – how did you get to where you are right now? 

My research journey began as an undergraduate teacher trainee student when I was 21 years old. I was fascinated with the dialect/language of my parents, Jamaican Creole (JC), which became the focus of some of my future research. My undergraduate dissertation for my BEd degree was on the influences of JC language on educational outcomes among second-generation British-born West Indian pupils (as they were referred to in the early literature). Professor Viv Edwards, who lives in Reading, was the leading scholar in the field. I read her book entitled West Indian Language Issuesand wrote a handwritten letter commending her insights. She responded and wrote me a letter including her telephone number. (No emails in the good old days!) We spoke on the phone, and she invited me to meet at her home in Reading. Needless to say, I was overjoyed! During this time, I was a member of the local New Testament Church of God (the leading black majority church) and asked the ‘church van’ driver, Leighton Bruce, to take me to Reading. I turned up on Viv’s doorstep with Leighton and the three other people, which later became a standing joke between Viv and me. The rest, as they say, is history, and I firmly believe that God ordained our lifelong connection. That meeting was the beginning of my research journey as I became a research assistant for Viv at the tender age of 22.

I then conducted research on black preaching, a passion of mine. My interest in this area started when I was ten years old. As a Sunday school student at the New Testament Church, I would listen to Caribbean preachers whose delivery of their sermons I found mesmerising. The stylistic features of the preaching subsequently informed my MPhil Theology thesis that I completed at the University of Birmingham under the supervision of the late Professor Walter Hollengweger during the early years of my teaching career. My research emphasises inculcated social as well as educational dynamics, and I became increasingly aware of the differences between African Caribbean and white British speaking styles; I went on to undertake my PhD with Viv, which extended the themes of my MPhil.

I have published academic publications such as Black Language Style in Sacred and Secular Contexts (based on my PhD) and co-authored several works with Dr Paul Mocombe, for example, the Oppositional Culture Theory, Jesus and the Streets: the Loci of Causality for the IntraRacial Gender Achievement Gap in Black Urban America and the United Kingdom,  and Language, Literacy and Pedagogy in Post-industrial Societies. My latest co-authored book is with Dr Victoria Showunmi, Understanding and Managing Sophisticated and Everyday Racism: Implications for Education and Work. I have continued to write with Paul Mocombe and we are undertaking a publication project on assimilationism among African diasporic communities utilising a range of sociological perspectives. We are particularly focused on Mocombeian phenomenological structural theory, which argues that Western ideologies, such as an inclination for individualism and the spirit of capitalism, have influenced black people in the UK and the USA. As such, people in the African diaspora have never been agents in forming their own identities and have assimilated within society.

I have been fortunate to have won several funded awards in Education and Sociolinguistics, such as the prestigious British Academy/ACU (Association of Commonwealth Universities) and UCET (Universities Council for the Education of Teachers) scholarships.  My book, Preach It: Understanding African Caribbean Preaching, was nominated as a finalist for the 2021 Pneuma Book Award. The Alliance for Black Pentecostal Scholarship, as part of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, has recently awarded me with the Black Pentecostal Scholarship and Literature Award (2023), which was a huge recognition of my scholarly work.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I have moved away from Education as a field of study to a great extent, and ventured into Practical Theology, which combines my work as a homiletic (preaching) scholar and Pentecostalism. I have begun to work on African Caribbean Pentecostalism, especially highlighting the contextual factors affecting its theology. I am completing a chapter for the second volume of the book on the Azusa Street revival of 1906 and am also working on a chapter for the second volume of the book Skin Deep, edited by Dr Clifton Clarke, the Executive Director of the Centre of African Descent at Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee. The chapter examines the Azusa Street revival led by William Joseph Seymour as a hermeneutical base for racial unity in the contemporary Pentecostal church.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two? 

My research on Pentecostalism in black-majority churches is pivotal, as these churches are seen as the pillars of the African and African Caribbean communities. They are also a bridge to mainline churches. My studies spring from a strong desire to link Christian social concerns to the realities of the secular world. It can be seen in various seminars, conferences, and Let’s Talk forums that I have organised through my church and my participation in community forums. Drawing on years of study, I have focused on topics ranging from education, racial justice and gendered relationships to single parenting and managing finances.

My research contributes to the role of religion in public life and to discourses on social matters from a Christian perspective, specifically within the kingdom paradigm of Jesus Christ. It can also be a platform for community transformation, albeit in a very modest way. I wish to highlight further the positive impact the Christian faith can make in the public sphere and have welcomed the opportunities to utilise my research combined with theological insights.

Despite our troubled world, where there is life, there is hope. The role of religion in public life can only be a force for good.