When Britain encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries to help with labour shortages after the Second World War, the culture shock for Windrush families was profound.
Like many others, Alareen Farrell’s father was recruited from Christchurch, Barbados, by London Transport in the late 1950s and moved to Fulwell in south west London to work in the large bus depot: “There were ten or twenty others recruited around the same time,” she says, “but they came to a very white area so we grew up as pretty much the only black children in the neighbourhood.”
They hoped to find friends within the church, but it wasn’t as simple as that. “My mother had been a big churchgoer at home and they went along to their local parish church here but were not made to feel welcome,” says Alareen. “No one would sit next to them, no one talked to them, so she basically gave up.”
Alareen’s mother was one of many people arriving from the Caribbean who quickly realised they would have to rethink what ‘going to church’ meant. Another was Joel Edwards, who came to London as an eight-year-old in 1960: “I arrived, having emerged from Jamaica where church attendance was 60-70% and even if you did not go to church you were extremely Christianised,” he says. “People back home warned us we were coming to a spiritual graveyard, but my family arrived full of hope and ready to revitalise the economy and bring spiritual revival.”
Like Alareen’s parents, Joel and his family and friends didn’t settle in the existing local churches of London at the time. In any case, their liturgy would not have fitted a Baptist or Anglican setting. “A one-hour service would have been anathema to us,” Joel says. “We’re just warming up!”
Determined to continue worshipping with the same zeal they always had at home, many set up their own churches. Even though they read the same Bible, and believed in the same God as white British Christians, interpretations of scripture were very different. Pentecostal beliefs in miracles and speaking in tongues, widely held among Caribbean Christians, were far less common in the UK in the 1960s than they are today1.
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Black churches started to spring up, starting with meetings in someone’s living room and, as immigration continued, quickly growing larger. Not only were they separate from the rest of the UK church, there were also distinctions between the new black churches: those of Caribbean heritage started churches together, while worshippers from African countries brought theirs with them.
Those churches grew and grew, and now have become some of the largest in the nation. Children have been raised in the church, and now almost one in five (18%) practising Christians in Britain are from an ethnic minority. In London 25% of practising Christians identify as black/ethnic minority.
Gradually, they started to find a political voice. It didn’t come easily, and some of the more traditional black Christians continued to believe their main purpose was to preach, rather than participate in public life. It took those who had been here longest – the Caribbean communities – to set the wheels in motion.
Joel Edwards tried to lead black churches to join in the public conversations after the Tottenham riots and the Swann report into education and ethnic diversity but found that African churches, which formed as people arrived from Nigeria, Ghana and other sub-Saharan countries in the 1980s, didn’t at that time see political debate as part of their mission. “I was leading the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance2 from 1988-1992 when we had significant racial tensions,” he says. “I had a tough time finding Africans who were interested in that agenda. They just wanted to bring people to Christ. They were extremely reluctant. Today’s engagement would have been absolutely unheard of in the 1980s.”
Today’s engagement is indeed significant. As they settled into British life, African churches started to become active in their communities, run peace projects and speak out on knife crime.
In the space of a generation, black churches have gone from being religious and social outsiders to becoming politically engaged. Two Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May have made high profile appearances at major church services.
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To politicians, they are both logistically convenient, bringing together thousands of people at a time, and politically appealing. Their experiences of discrimination and exclusion make them open to Labour messages of civil participation, while their socially conservative, economically aspirational culture attracts the Tories.
The Conservative Christian Fellowship, in particular, has worked hard over the last few years to include black as well as white church leaders and congregations. It is not unusual to find a black gospel choir singing at one of the prayer meetings in St Mary Undercroft chapel in the Houses of Parliament.
But the place of the black church, having moved from the margins to the religious and political mainstream, is continuing to change. British millennials who grow up in African or Caribbean families live very different lives to the ones their parents and grandparents knew. They don’t go to black universities or black workplaces. What then is the future for the black church?
Ruth Awogbade, 29, whose family came to Britain from Nigeria, says that there is a mixed picture in the UK. “In a lot of places, you find either all black churches or all white churches,” she says. “I’ve been able to assimilate because of my education. I went to private school and so in middle-class white churches I’ve found it easier. But when you’re in London all your colleagues and friends are different races and cultures.”
Increasingly, churches in multicultural areas are starting to reflect the mix in the community they serve. Alareen Farrell, whose parents felt rejected by their local parish church sixty years ago, is now actively involved in the church where I worship: a 1,200-strong Vineyard church in Feltham with more than 45 first languages represented in the congregation.
But those initial hostilities which families like Alareen’s faced have not disappeared completely. Brexit has forced some attitudes into the open which are difficult for people whose families arrived here recently.
“In America they openly talk about race, but here we pretend we don’t have a race problem,”, says Awogbade. “I’ve heard some shocking conversations since Brexit3. When you’re in a mixed group of people who are talking about immigration, for those of us who are black it’s so personal to be in that conversation. There are times when I’d rather be in the context of my own community where people understand who we are and where we’re from.”
It’s almost 60 years ago that Joel Edwards and his family arrived, knowing they were coming to a very different land to the one they left. Much has changed since them, but the pursuit of identity and belonging continues.
“We are all still on a journey to find out what does it mean to be a black Christian here,” he says.
And it would seem the search is not over yet.
- For much of the 20th century, beliefs in miracles, speaking in tongues, prophecy and ‘signs and wonders’ were restricted to predominantly white Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God and Elim denominations. ‘Charismatic renewal’ brought these spiritual activities to more mainstream denominations in the latter part of the 20th century and they are now found in some Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and other traditional Christian churches. See
- The African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance was a network of leaders of black churches which closed in 2009 and its work became part of the core mission of the Evangelical Alliance, which Joel Edwards went on to lead. http://www.eauk.org/idea/a-multiethnic-alliance.cfm
- Explainer for readers outside the UK: people often say ‘since Brexit’ to refer to the time following the European Union membership referendum of 2016. In fact, the UK remains part of the EU until 2019.