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How immigration is revitalising British churches.
By Tomiwa Owolade
There is a building in the south London borough of Lambeth that used to be a bingo hall. For decades, generations of men and women came here for pleasure and recreation, community and belonging. Now its grey walls are scoured with graffiti. This building is silent for most of the week, a picture of dereliction – except for Sundays. Then, between 10am and 12pm, a resurrection begins.
When you enter on a Sunday morning you are received by the welcoming committee: three or four charming, smartly dressed young women point you to the main hall. It is like a concert venue. The chairs are plush and maroon. The floor is thickly carpeted in a funky spiral of lime, yellow and blood red. There is a choir on stage singing music to dance or sway to. There is also a massive TV screen behind the stage; smaller screens flank the venue like guardian angels. Welcome to an African church in London.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 2002 and 2013, told me that on a recent drive down the Old Kent Road in south London, there were “storefront churches” on every corner, with men and women beautifully dressed in white robes, chanting in west African languages such as Yoruba, occupying venues left to disuse.
Williams was noticing something that has become ever more apparent: the face of British religion, and Christianity in particular, is changing.
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There are over 250 black-majority churches in south London; around 20,000 people attend them every Sunday. This is the greatest concentration of African Christianity outside Africa. These are not the traditional spaces for worship: these churches are bingo halls, schools, community centres, warehouses. They are also mostly Pentecostal, or have an evangelical dimension to them. Southwark, where many are located, has the highest number and percentage of African people out of all London boroughs. House of Praise, the place I visited in Camberwell that Sunday, is one of these churches.
The preaching itself at the House of Praise started around 45 minutes into the service. There was talk of London life but, along with the customary references to the earthquake that devastated Turkey and Syria, and to the ongoing war in Ukraine, the pastor mentioned the then upcoming Nigerian presidential election. He was wearing a sharp suit: black jacket, dark blue shirt and a tie. The congregation was active and there was a call and answer structure in place. “He [God] is giving you all things… say, ‘I have all things’,” the pastor commanded. “I have all things!” they responded, “Thank you Jesus”, “Yes lord!” At one moment the pastor exclaimed: “I see you manifesting greatness.”
The church focuses on outreach – whether temporal, spiritual or digital (it has its own YouTube channel and an app). There is a missionary zeal, and an emphasis on communal engagement: it runs a soup kitchen and clothes bank for the local community. Benga Samuel, an assistant pastor in the church, told the Voice of America radio network in 2019: “We are like the seed that was sown by those who brought the Gospel earlier on. And we’re the fruits of those seeds… bringing them back and trying to bring Christ back into the centre of everything that’s done.”
The church is also a social hub. Are you single and looking to get married? Come over. Do you have problems at work? The church is here to help you. Are you lonely? You know what to do. This is the function that places of worship had for centuries among the British. Now, in London, these centres of community are more likely to be built and maintained by first- or second-generation migrants.
Pastor Andrew Adeleke leads House of Praise church. I asked him via email after the service why churches are still important for contemporary Britain. He told me that “the church from time immemorial serves as the moral compass of society”, and that “there are so many things the church can be involved in” such as “justice, poverty, discrimination, family, crimes, climate change, community cohesion, peace, love, the ministry of watchmen, gatekeepers of the cities”.
Can there be a religious revival in Britain? “Black-led churches are known for fervent prayers,” Pastor Adeleke told me, “which is a precursor of religious revival. So it is possible for God to use Nigerian churches to lead the next religious revival in Great Britain.”
[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]
Away from London, the prospects for a religious revival look bleak. So many churches in Britain are dead or dying; they are no longer buzzing temples of praise. One can enter what from the outside looks like a church, exquisite gothic architecture and all, and soon discover it is something else inside: an art gallery, a pub or a block of flats. Every year around 20 Anglican churches are closed for worship; they go under sale or lease on the Church of England website. From just £45,000, Bollingham St Silas in Herefordshire could be yours; All Souls in Hastings and St Michael’s in Letchworth are also on the market. No part of the country is untouched by the great ecclesiastical sell-off.
According to the Telegraph, nearly a thousand churches closed between 1987 and 2019. In many more churches throughout the UK there are bigger and bigger spaces between occupied pews – like the gap-riddled teeth of a chain smoker. Weekly church attendance in the Church of England is equivalent to below 2 per cent of England’s general population.
White British people are driving this decline in religious worship and affiliation. As the Birkbeck political scientist Eric Kaufmann puts it, secularisation is “almost entirely a white British phenomenon”. And according to research by the statistician Peter Brierley, non-white church attendance increased by 19 per cent between 1980 and 2015 but declined among white people by the same percentage in that same time period. The number of white British people who ticked “no religion” in the census rose from 15.4 per cent in 2001 to 28 per cent in 2011.
The 2021 census, meanwhile, shows that the parts of England and Wales that are least religious also tend to have the highest share of white people (Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taf in south Wales; Brighton and Hove, and Norwich in England). London is the most socially conservative city in the country largely because of its religiously devout ethnic minority population. According to research by the Christian think tank Theos, 24 per cent of Londoners think sex before marriage is sometimes wrong, compared with 13 per cent of the British population. London is also more homophobic than the rest of Britain as a whole: 29 per cent of Londoners think homosexuality is at least sometimes wrong; 23 per cent of Britons outside London take that view.
[See also: Christians can’t blame anyone else for the decline in belief]
The capital is more Christian today than it was during Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister. According to David Goodhew, the director of ministerial practice at Cranmer Hall in Durham University, between 1979 and 2012 there was a 50 per cent rise in the number of churches in London. Rowan Williams told me that “London was bucking the trend” on church attendance. He was struck during his time as archbishop not only by the force of African evangelical Christianity, but also by the powerful west African presence in many Anglican parishes. There are Anglican churches in parts of south London such as Brixton, he said, “where there would hardly be a white face in the congregation”.
There are also some growing Anglican churches which are not majority-African but have an evangelical sensibility – from the congregation singing plangent rock music rather than hymns, to the priests dressed in non-religious attire. Examples of these include the churches affiliated with Holy Trinity Brompton, whose vicar between 2005 and 2022 was Nicky Gumbel. He popularised the Alpha course, a programme that claims to have introduced 25 million people to Christianity in 140 different countries.
One church in the HTB network is Christ Church Spitalfields. Designed in the 18th century by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and located deep in hipster London between Shoreditch and Whitechapel, “CCSpits”, as it’s known, has a notably youthful congregation. Outside are expensive barbershops, bars and esoteric cafés; inside is an audience singing about the “overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God” alongside a band led by a man with a beard and a baseball cap. A few summers ago, I attended a festival near Bournemouth called Focus, organised by the HTB network. Tents, barbecues, music, wellies – it was like attending a music festival, but with less sex and drugs, and much more Christianity.
The HTB churches once had a reputation for catering only to middle-class white people, but that is changing. As Williams told me, many of the people they encourage into church ministry, and who are trained in institutions such as St Mellitus College in London, come from ethnic minority backgrounds.
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When I was a child I lived five minutes away from a C-of-E church. My nose still smells the enveloping damp there, my knees are still sensitive to the hard wood, and I will never forget the dark brown walls offset by dazzling paintings of saints. Most of all, I loved the strong tea and the chocolate biscuits after the service ended, as the pinched Sunday morning broadened into a long and lazy afternoon.
But I noticed something else, even back then when I hardly noticed anything that wasn’t a cartoon or a football match: there were few children, and fewer young adults in my church. It was like spending an hour each week in a care home. Every Sunday, someone else’s death was announced in the notices before the service ended. Church was a death-haunted place. Looking back, I am reminded of these two lines from Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going”: “Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,/When churches fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into”.
Only London is bucking this morbid trend. Churches are not death-haunted here, in areas with a higher concentration of black Africans or where the church is infused with evangelical vigour. The future of the Church is far more African than most people currently realise. The fervour of these communities, and their style of worship, may breathe new life into this ancient body. “Africans by nature are worshippers,” Pastor Adeleke tells me. “They take the issue of their faith seriously. They believe that from one generation to the other the fire must keep on burning.” I don’t think Africans are by nature anything, but it is true that African communities are more religious than the mainstream white British population. There can be no doubt that Christianity will change due to these demographic shifts.
This complicates many assumptions in contemporary politics. Which is awkward for conservative thinkers who simultaneously complain about the decline of Christianity and about large-scale immigration to Britain. Without immigration, the decline of Christianity would be even more profound: it is largely white British people who are abandoning their faith.
[See also: Immigration isn’t undermining British religiousness – it’s the only thing sustaining it]
But it is also tricky for liberal and progressives. They defend immigration, but many of these very same immigrant communities espouse values on gender and sexuality that are far from liberal: the views of the average black African churchgoer on homosexuality are much closer to those of the SNP’s Kate Forbes, a member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, than of a Guardian reader. During the SNP leadership race some suggested that Forbes should not be allowed to serve in high office because of her views on homosexuality and the fact she would have voted against gay marriage.
A recent YouGov poll found that over 60 per cent of British voters would support a practising Catholic, Orthodox Jew or Muslim holding high office, but fewer (53 per cent) would support an evangelical Christian in power. In practice, this means many future potential black African leaders may have to be coy about their faith to avoid alienating a large percentage of the British population.
Contemporary British Christianity is transforming in line with many of the wider demographic, cultural and racial shifts occurring across the country. These changes do not neatly align with political orientation; they provide no clear road map for Labour or the Conservatives. Will the religious fervour of some African communities be swallowed up by a wider British secular environment? Or will this religiosity retain its integrity, and be joined by younger people of all racial backgrounds proudly proclaiming their Christian belief? Either way, the confident progressive assumption that religion will wither away, that the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of religious faith Matthew Arnold describes in his poem “Dover Beach” will continue unimpeded, is wrong.
As long as Britain continues to be a racially diverse society, there is always a chance that religious feeling will spring up like grass above concrete: that derelict bingo halls will continue to be converted into churches.
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This article has been updated to reflect that Theos figures do not show London to be the most homophobic city in the country, but more homophobic than the rest of Britain.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special
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