Goodhew, David, and Anthony-Paul Cooper, eds. The Desecularisation of the City: London's Churches, 1980 to the Present. Routledge, 2018.
available (if you can afford it) at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Desecularisation-City-Churches-Routledge-Religion/dp/0815348177
This is not a book review in the conventional sense but a reflection from a Christian social scientist who worked for many years in East London and has researched and written about urban religion. I hope it will make sense to fellow academics, but also that it will bring understanding and encouragement to church leaders, and be of interest and accessible to Christians with no specialist knowledge.
I have been reading this new collection of essays about the Christian churches in London which I would recommend to anyone who has an interest in the subject of urban religion or church growth. I was also privileged last week to attend the book launch at King's College London where several of the authors and other eminent scholars of religion presented the findings of the book and shared in discussion with the audience about what it meant. One of the chapters in The Book is by my old friend and mentor Colin Marchant and updates my own earlier work on documenting the presence and significance of religion in that East London borough. So this blog is a reflection and an attempt to provide my own framework and understanding of the remarkable changing fortunes of Christianity in the capital city.
It is interesting that many of the contributors last week dated the beginning of de-secularisation as 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street with the prayer of St Francis on her lips. The Thatcher government marked the beginning of neo-liberal hegemony in economic policy, the dominance of the market and the globalisation of capitalism. The collateral damage of this ideology which we can now clearly observe, was growing inequality, the de-industrialization of Britain, and the overwhelming and unhealthy dominance of London as a financial centre and economic engine of the UK, Europe and the wider world. This "prosperity" has led to the massive regeneration of London and the subsequent growth of population. This in itself is the demographic background to and a driver of the growing number of people involved in religious practice. Added to this is globalisation and the reality that London, in parallel with other great world metropolises, is a global city, with a super diverse ethnic mix, and a population that is dominated by the young mobile professional classes.
Support services for such a population demand a cheap labour force, in transport, catering hospitality and the caring professions which has been hard to fill from the ageing and city averse white British population. There is evidence of a substantial level of white flight which has led to new patterns of segregation - the highest levels of ethnic segregation now being concentrated in majority white, coastal communities, rural areas and small market towns across the southern half of England. Yet since the millennium even those communities have been experienced European migration, resulting in rapid social change which has been unwelcome to many white English people. Within this context a nostalgic English nationalist identity politics has arisen in a form which helps to explain the patterns of voting in the 2016 Brexit referendum. London the global city can be described as "Remain Central" while the coastal, de-industrialised and rural Communities of England have become the heartlands of the true Be-leavers. It is also worth noting that 67% of voters who identify as "church of England" voted to leave the EU.
It could be puzzling therefore that it is the capital city, rather than the traditional peripheral areas where the church seems to flourish, or at least is able to stem the decline in membership attendance and influence. Classic secularisation theory would suggest metropolitan areas are the drivers of growing unbelief - and indeed it is true that there are many affluent areas in North and South West London where census figures show proportions of "no religion" to be much higher than average. Meanwhile the statistical evidence in the book suggests that in inner London, particularly in the East and South-east, the numbers and proportions of Christians are actually growing. Case study chapters in the book show how particular churches and ministries have developed and grown over recent decades. In Newham for example, in 1975 when I first lived there I was told that the Christian church was likely to be extinct in the borough by the year 2000. Having become aware that this prophesy was false in the 1990s I co-ordinated research for three editions of the Newham Directory of Religious Groups which counted over 180 churches, the majority of which were recent arrivals. Colin Marchant's chapter now lists over 350 churches which emerged in the borough between 1975 and 2015, of which many - may be as many as 100 have since closed, moved on to other boroughs, rebranded or merged.
One might expect some growth in church attendance numbers in a city with a rapidly growing population such as London. Nor should this be any surprise given the historical precedent of the New Testament church starting in cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome and then spreading to more remote areas of the Roman Empire and beyond. Christianity has long been an urban religion. No one disputes that a major driver of church growth in London has been increasing ethnic diversity while the white British population has become a minority across the city. In almost every tribe and nation in London there is a Christian church or ministry, which primarily serves a particular ethnic group. However, there are also many mixed congregations and "minority majority" parishes in the mainline denominations. There are also mega-churches of various types which attract often diverse congregations of 1000 or more each Sunday. More intriguing is the substantial attendance growth in the London diocese of the Church of England (but not in Southwark diocese across the river). Much of it associated with Holy Trinity Brompton network and the renewed congregations it has planted in several struggling in a city Parishes. Yet what seems to matter most has been dynamic leadership and a change of strategy form managing decline to enthusiastic mission enterprise.
It is significant both in the London context and in wider church statistics across Britain that a substantial majority of new and thriving and growing churches are evangelical or Pentecostal in emphasis. The exception to this seems to be the growing attendance at worship in cathedrals across the country, and exemplified in the book by Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral. Grace Davie asks what is it that attracts worshippers to these forms of religious practice. She suggests that in a market economy, where consumer preference and individualism is highly valued, and a sense of religious obligation is less commonplace, the "customer" may be attracted by experiential religion, by high quality music and by the relatively low demands on participation, belonging and ethical behaviour. However the situation is not that simple. In the anonymity and stress of daily life in the global city many people may be looking for an oasis of support and belonging. Whether you are a young single professional in a high powered job, (but because of the distortions of the housing market living in a shared rented property), or an African, Brazilian or Polish migrant worker struggling to make ends meet by working 60 hours a week in a cleaning job (and constantly worrying about your immigration status), you are likely to value the bonding social capital that comes from meeting regularly together in church. The establishment recently of the non-religious Sunday Assembly as an atheist pseudo church seems to confirm the possibility that "community" itself has a market value.
Almost any religious group which meets regularly for worship and prayer offers much more than religious belief and teaching, and spiritual encouragement. For some people brought up outside England there may still be a profound sense of obligation to take part in the religious life of a national or ethnic community. Participation in rituals is likely to strengthen a sense of identity, and belonging to a church helps to develop friendship networks, which can be extremely important in the middle of the stressful churn of global city life, especially for new arrivals. The majority of Christian churches also offer practical pastoral support, which helps people cope with the crises of everyday life, such as birth, marriages, relationship breakdown, illnesses and death. They often also offer financial advice, networks for childcare, pathways to housing and employment, immigration advice, educational opportunities, and opportunities to volunteer and serve in projects for wider community benefit. Of course they may also make demands on people's time, behaviour and finances. But overall churches do wonders in helping people to cope with and bring meaning to urban existence.
The majority of Christians in London seem to be found in gathered congregations, which entail commuting into the centre or across the city to other boroughs each Sunday, and to attend midweek services and activities.. But there are also plenty of examples of parishes and congregations which are firmly located in particular neighbourhoods. This second category generally do much better than the first in providing localised community projects, and strengthening bridging social capital across ethnic and other identity groups. And if they belong to one of the main line denominations there is a chance that they can provide linking social capital to power holders and decision makers in the national Church, in public services, in local and national politics and in the business world. This is particularly the case in London for those faith communities who have intentionally worked together on political issues through the London Citizens movement. However, for the majority of churches, particularly the newer congregations ministering in particular ethnic communities this linking social capital is often absent. Many of them are hidden in the back streets, meeting is rented premises that do not look like churches, and thus the Kingdom of God grows silently like leaven in the lump, rather than making a public impact in politics or the media.
Finally an important question is how far are the churches in London an exception, merely a statistical blip brought about by unique social and demographic circumstances in the decades around the turn of the millennium. Will London's growth continue following the turn to national isolationism that is signalled by Brexit. Or are London's churches a sign of things to come? Will the vitality and diversity trickle out to other cities or even to the coastal towns, the former mining villages, social housing estates and the countryside where the majority of the English now reside? It is difficult to predict but in some places there are hopeful signs.
In my own small northern city of Preston there are a growing number of new churches, that mainly serve migrant communities, Nigerian, South Asian, Chinese, Polish and Romanian. There are also a handful of new church plants and fresh expressions, and in the coming year an Anglican resource church for the city is going to be established with the input of staff and money from the Holy Trinity Brompton network. There is solid commitment to outreach through social action projects, such as food banks, homeless projects, job clubs, debt counselling, street pastors and English classes for asylum seekers and refugees. And in 2019 there seems to a new spirit of hope and a fresh commitment to pray and work together across the denominations and streams of theology. On the other hand many traditional denominational churches are struggling, ageing and in some cases dying out. Meanwhile the surrounding coastal, rural and former mill town communities of Lancashire seem a very different world from the vibrant religious life of London. They may need a miracle if they are to follow the trajectory of London's churches.
Yet as the Gospel records (in Matt 9 35-38), and the bishop of Lancaster quoted to the Preston Deanery synod this week -
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."