Quick to Listen/Episode 165 |47min

African and West Indian Christians Are Changing the UK Church

How God is working through the Windrush generation and beyond.
African and West Indian Christians Are Changing the UK Church
Image: Dan Kitwood / Staff / Getty

The number of churches continues to drop in the UK. As CT reported last month, there are only 39,000 congregations left in the country, a quarter drop from 20 years ago.

But despite churches increasingly closing their doors and the number of people attending church falling, this bad news isn’t across the board. For Black Majority Churches, the numbers actually look a lot healthier.

These congregations began in the wake of World War II, when immigrants began arriving in the UK from the Caribbean, sparking a generation that became known as the Windrush generation, named after the boat that the inaugural group took.

“They came over to help the UK,” said Chine McDonald, the media, content, and PR lead at Christian Aid.

McDonald’s family came over from Nigeria several decades later, though they didn’t always face a warm welcome from the local congregations.

“I remember when we would go to predominantly white churches. We would arrive on a Sunday and were told, ‘What made you choose this church as opposed to a black church that was down the road?’” said McDonald. “...These white majority churches weren’t used to see black people in their congregations, weren’t used to having black friends or black neighbors.”

Nigeria is actually responsible for one of the country’s most robust denominations, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which has more than 800 churches in the UK.

As CT reported, the denomination is “led by a man with clear vision and effective strategy, Pastor Agu Irukwu:”

His 4,000-strong Church of All Nations in Brent, West London, adopted the mantra “a church within 10 minutes walking distance.” That comes straight out of the Nigerian bush country where no one goes to church by car or taxi.

It is effectively the “parish” system used by the three largest denominations, but the RCCG pursue it energetically: “You live near us, come and join us, you’ll enjoy it, we are warm and lively, and you haven’t far to go.” Many respond; the RCCG is now the largest Pentecostal denomination in the UK.

McDonald joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss the growth of African and West Indian Christianity and how it is changing the UK.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Cray Allred

June 19, 2019 Transcript

You may or may not believe it, but there are actually more churches than pubs in the UK. That's according to a report from earlier this year that says that at this point there are 39,000 churches left in England, however that number is actually down 1/4 from about 20 years ago. The biggest Christian denominations in the UK are Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, and they are all in rapid decline. According to an article published in CT last month, overall their numbers have gone down 16 percent in just the last five years. Presbyterians are declining the fastest. While traditional churches are struggling to retain members, newer expressions of Christianity are thriving. One of those traditions are congregations known as Black-majority churches that include immigrant populations, who are often in their third or fourth generation, originally from the West Indies or Caribbean and more recently from West Africa.

Just as the story of the Black church in the U.S., which was often birthed from discriminatory practices, so to that marks the story of many Black-majority churches in the UK. The majority of these churches are Pentecostal, and many of them are based in London. One of the largest is the Redeemed Christian Church of God denomination founded in Lagos, Nigeria, and this particular denomination now has more than 800 churches in the UK.

Just another connection point to this topic that we wanted to bring up is in a recent story, CT reported that this particular denomination: The 4000 Church Strong of All Nations in Brent, West London adopted the mantra, "a church within 10 minutes walking distance." This idea comes straight out of the culture of rural Nigeria, where no one goes to church by car or taxi. It is effectively the parish system used by the three largest nominations, but the Redeemed Christian Church of God pursues it energetically.

So this week on Quick To Listen, we want to discuss the growth of African and West Indian Christianity and how it is changing the UK. Our Guest is Chine McDonald, who works for Christian Aid, an international development organization that works with the world's poorest. She's also done work with World Vision UK.

When did African and West Indian communities first start coming to the UK and what led them to come?

Chine McDonald: In the 1940s, the UK was recovering from the Second World War and the workforce had been greatly diminished, so in 1948 the first group of West Africans and West Indians from the Caribbean islands came over on a ship called The Wind Rush. And they came over to help rebuild the UK. But if we think about who those people were, those people saw the UK as home, saw The Queen as their queen, so they weren't as "other" as they were potentially treated when they arrived. But that was the first wave of immigration of ethnic minorities into the UK. And then more recently, the 1970s and 80s saw increased immigration from African countries. I myself, I'm from Nigeria. I came over to the UK when I was 4 years old in 1988 with my parents, and we are very typical of Nigerian immigrants to the UK in the mid- to late 80s. In even more recent years, we've seen more immigration from Eastern Europe and European countries.

Was this immigration trends more reflective of what was happening in these countries? Were things pushing them to leave their homes, or were there things—like the end of WWII—changing in the UK drawing them in?

Chine McDonald: In the 40s, it was very much an invitation to those African and West Indian communities to come and help rebuild the UK. In the 80s, a lot of it was about an increased socio-economic aspiration among those West African communities who wanted a better life for children. And at that point the UK was open to that was open that kind of immigration from those specific countries. But it's become a lot harder in recent years to be able to do that.

When did they start forming their own churches?

Chine McDonald: My great-great-grandparents were products of English missionaries to Nigeria. So my great-grandfather was an Anglican priest in the village, so rural areas my family is from. And my great-grandfather and great-grandmother ran an English school or a "Christian wives school," which meant they taught Nigerian women how to bake cakes, how to drink tea, hot to be very English, because being English was synonymous with being Christian. So therefore when people like my family and others arrived in UK, they very much wanted to find a place to worship to feel like they had at home. And I think they were surprised to be met with hostility from these churches.

For example, I remember when we would go to predominantly white churches, we were asked what made you choose this church as opposed to the black church that's down the road. These churches weren't used to seeing black people in their congregations and weren't used to having black friends or black neighbors, and so the communities were very much segregated. So that was my parents experience. But I know that from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, when West Indian and Caribbean communities arrived and wanted to go to churches, they were met with much more hostility because there were even fewer black faces around. And because these communities still want to worship God, they had no choice but to create their own places of worship in their own communities. So it was wasn't out of choice that these Black-majority churches were started. It was out of necessity.

I think there are also some complexities around being an immigrant, around belonging, around identity, which also creeps into this as well. There are all sorts of complexities because it wasn't necessarily that people wanted to find churches that were similar to the denominations in their homelands. There is a real sense of liturgy and tradition that is foundational in an Anglican church, whether you're in the UK or in Nigeria. But there are also subtle differences. In Anglican churches in Nigeria, they're just a lot louder and there is more dancing, and services potentially go on longer. But at their very heart I would say it's the same communion. However, it was not necessarily the case that the Anglicans in the UK welcomed their Nigerian or Ghanaian brothers and sisters with a with open arms. That really wasn't the case. And so someone who had come from an Anglican church tradition in West Africa or in the West Indies, then created their own forms of worship and communities—what we now call Black-majority churches. And increasingly in the UK, asking whether they are multiracial mono-ethnic Church.

Thinking about the biggest churches, denominations, and names in the Black-majority Church world.Who are the players our listeners should look up if they want to have a better sense of things?

Chine McDonald: The Redeemed Christian Church of God, which started in Lagos, Nigeria, is now one of the biggest denominations in the UK, with 800 churches across the country. The leader in the UK is Pastor Agu Irukwu, who is a really interesting person. He's obviously the leader of a black-majority church, but he really believes in unity across ethnicities and across denominations. So while he leads the biggest Black-majority church in the UK, he also has really strong relationships with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and with Hillsong churches, and with Holy Trinity Brompton, which is one of the largest Anglican Church in the UK. And he's also one of the presidents of an organization called the Church Together here in England. He very much crosses over into more white-majority spaces as well.

Then there's the Evangelical Alliance in the UK, which I worked for several years. It's an umbrella organization of the Church from across different denominations in the UK. So it has about 80 different denominations that make up its membership. And what the Evangelical Alliance has done in recent years is to set up something called The One People Commission. which Is about celebrating diversity and unity as well. So bringing together church leaders of the Chinese Church in London, and also the leaders of the Korean churches, and the Tamil churches from Sri Lanka. The One People Commissions is really worth looking up because it's a great model of what diversity in ethnicity looks like in the UK church, and the breadth of different denominations. But also, the conversations and the relationships that are built out of that platform has led to things like the leader of the Chinese Church in London speaking at the Festival of Life, which was started by the Redeemed Church of God and has probably 98% black and other ethnic minority people in attendance.

Another key leader would be Bishop Eric Brown, who part of the "Windrush generation," which is one the key leaders of the Black church.

In the U.S., many immigrants attend ethnically homogeneous churches, but their children often end up moving to more multi-ethnic churches or leave church altogether. Is this true in the UK, too?

This is a real issue that Black-majority churches or mono-ethnic churches are dealing with in the UK. So, to use myself as an example, most of my friends are not Nigerian, most of my friends are not black even, so therefore to expect someone like me who's growing up in a lot of diversity to then go to a mono-ethnic church is just not going to work. And that is increasingly the picture across the board for ethnic minority churches. So people like the Redeemed Christian Church of God are looking into ways to diversify their whole congregation, to potentially change the way that they do worship, change what their leadership looks like, make sure that they are active on social media, etc. They're really moving with the times. But I think to be honest, as a millennial myself, I would hope that in 10-20 year’s time that we don't have any mono-ethnic churches because I don't think that a church should reflect back at a community or any form of ethnic segregation. I think that while many communities are mono-ethnic, they increasingly are not. I think the church needs to be ahead of the game, rather than behind it. So I'd hope that in the coming years that we become increasingly diverse and that we become bases of radical welcome to everyone. To people who don't look like us.

The multi-ethnic church model is growing in the US, but when an Asian, Hispanic, Black, and white church within a community decides to become multi-ethnic or multi-racial, it does feel like we're diluting or sabotaging the expressions of culture and theology in each. Do you see that a problem?

I understand the concern and understand the idea that we should celebrate the unique ethnicities and backgrounds and cultures, but this issue is complicated. These are issues of identity, of who we are in our essence. These are issues that I as an immigrant struggle with on a daily basis. Where am I from? What food do I like to eat? Where do I feel most at home? These are questions of identity and they really go to the core of who we are as human beings. But in the kingdom of God, I think that there has to be a radical coming together of all of those races, of all of those ethnicities, of all of those cultures. We have to be able to create a space in which everyone can feel like this is their home. And I think part of the issue here is that often people from minority groups who come to places like the UK and might be only a few black or brown faces in a congregation, they are asked to diminish their own culture in order to conform to the majority white culture. And the issue that I have with that is this idea that the norm is white Christianity, as if Christianity itself is from England or is from the U.S., and anything else that departs from that is other. Actually Christianity came from a completely different culture. If we really believe in the radical welcome of the kingdom of God, then we have got to try to create a space where everyone can feel welcome. And that might involve some discomfort. As Martin Luther King says in in his letter from Birmingham jail, it might involve some tension.

But it is a complex issue. I had a conversation a few years ago with the leader of the Chinese church, and he talked about how when a grandmother from China moves to the UK and she wants to worship God, we can't expect her to be worshipping God in English when she can't speak English. So therefore, a Cantonese service is actually the right service for her.

When did the multi-ethnic church movement begin to gain traction in the UK? And how successful have Black-majority churches been in cultivating a more multi-cultural congregation?

Chine McDonald: It's definitely a conversation that started within the past 10 years. I think before that, people were quite comfortable with this idea that there was a Spanish church here, a white church here, a black church here. But that's just not how the rest of our society is. I feel like there are some real differences between the UK and the U.S. in terms of race relations. The UK is just a very different place, particularly in London, you just don't have groups being as segregated. We're much more of that kind of melting pot of different cultures.

I think we won't see the fruits of the movement for more multi-ethnic churches until 20-30 years from now because the issue is one of numbers. So as a congregation get older, the members of the congregations who are first-generation immigrants, who have that sense of home being another place, as they kind of move on or as they die, their children see their lives, communities, culture and identity in a different way.

I'm not sure how successful the mono-ethnic churches have been in diversifying their congregations, but I think there are some key things that would need to be done for that to really happen. So one problem is when church leadership teams attempt to diversify. For example, when a white majority church brings on a black church leader, what you'll often find in those situations is "white flight." All of those white people will potentially leave and go to another church and then they are replaced by black people. Because black people are apparently like to be led by black people and white people don't. So there's a real issue that needs to be dealt with in creating a multi-ethnic leadership teams to be able to kind of keep the congregations mixed. It is a real challenge for white church leaders who are established to raise up other leaders from non-white backgrounds, to potentially give up their power or give up space, to create a platform for those church leaders to rise up. It takes relationship and real effort to do that, and it's not an easy thing to do.

The Church of England has a lot to be thankful for when it comes to black-majority churches in the UK because if you took out all the immigration into the UK over the last 50-60 years, then the church in the UK would be almost non-existent in the UK. The church has the sense of vibrancy that they lend, they give the sense that the UK is still a Christian country with lots of Christians, lots of lots of people going to church on Sundays. And I think that the Church of England itself is doing a lot of work behind the scenes encouraging Black and ethnic minority people are into ordination. They're being really intentional about Black-minority vocations, there's lots of research being done as to why Black people don't necessarily join the Church of England and become priests. So there's a lot of work that's being done there and I think that will have an impact on the Church of England going forward and what it looks like in it not necessarily being seen as the "church of the white people."

In terms of how the Church of England has had an effect on Black and minority-ethnic churches, the Church of England is the church that is listened to in the UK's public square. So it is the voice of the Church, whether or not it is truly representative. So a lot of ethnic-minority people look to the Church of England to be the voice of the Church to speak out on issues that the Church should be speaking out about in different ways. The Church of England has a space that lots of black and minority-ethnic Christians don't have. And I think in that there is a lesson in speaking the language of people and the presentation of the gospel within public life, within politics, within entertainment, within the Arts.

We're pretty obsessed with the Royals in America, and during Meghan Markle's marriage to Prince Harry, a lot of Americans were really fascinated and interested in Michael Curry, the head of the Episcopalian Church in the US, giving the homily. Were there similar conversations happening in the UK? Especially in the African Christian community?

I think Michael Curry's sermon was great for the church in UK. It was great to have national news readers talking about the sermon and what it meant, and the essence of Christianity and this idea of love. As an ethnic minority group, I'd say we were really proud on that day to see Meghan marry Prince Harry, but also to her Bishop Michael Curry as a representative of the Church in that in that situation alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury. But there are again some complexities around perceptions of Black Americans and the Black American church, which stereotypically among British people, including British Africans and West Indians, would be of an exuberant preacher. And Bishop Curry very much kind of fit into that trope and stereotype. But I think that helped his message to be better received than it would have been if it had been from one of our own. I think that even if the Archbishop of Canterbury had said the exact same words, it wouldn't have been as well received.

What major storylines are there that we should be watching? How is God working in these Black-majority churches, and how can we pray for them?

Chine McDonald: A lot of these churches are really looking externally to the needs of their community, engaging in social action projects, and wanting to meet the kind of the physical and material needs of their communities as well as the spiritual one. There's a real generosity that exists in these churches and they really being harnessed for the good of everyone and all of their neighbors. It would be great to pray for them in that work, that they would be real salt and light to their neighborhoods.

And in the coming months and years, as we continue to talk about Brexit in the UK, I feel like this is a real moment for the Church to heal those divisions and be the voice of reconciliation in what is already a very polarized community. But there will be aspects of race that come into that and which the church should be a voice in.

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