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The future of Anglicanism is African British Christianity is being revived by migration

A face of English Christianity (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

A face of English Christianity (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


April 15, 2022   5 mins

The future of the Christian religion in England is not to be found in the southern shires or the former mill towns of the North. Out there, the voice and tenor of the Bible is a thinning force, a hoarse whisper. In London, the most multicultural part of Europe, it is closer to a deafening roar.

Consider British GQ’s next cover star, the Ealing-born Bukayo Saka. The 20-year-old English footballer has had a redemptive story since he missed the losing penalty in the Euros 2020 final last summer; he has been the brightest star in a rejuvenated Arsenal team that has a good chance of getting into the top four in the Premier League.

Along with a snazzy photo shoot, Saka recorded a video for GQ in which he lists his ten most essential items. There is an iPad, a portable music speaker, some Twix chocolate bars, a football, a PlayStation, trainers, and moisturiser: all the things you’d expect any sporty young man to be proud of possessing.

But Saka also included something else — a Bible, gifted to him by his father. “Religion is a big part of my life,” Saka says in the video. “Obviously I’m a strong believer in God.” Of course, by religion Saka means Christianity. And the use of obviously is striking: why is it obvious he would be a strong believer in God as a young person born and bred in the capital city of a western European nation? Well, it is obvious to him because of his family. Saka comes from a Nigerian family. And for many black African communities in Britain, Christianity is everything.

So Saka, one of the standard-bearers of the England national football team — which substitutes for religion in the country at large — also embodies another fascinating nexus: the relationship between a black British identity and Christianity, a religion that was introduced to anglophone west Africa by the British.

There’s a concept called the pizza effect. The original pizza was once a basic dish found in different pockets of Italy: a flat bread spread with tomato sauce; no toppings. When immigrants from Sicily and southern Italy moved to America between the late 19th and early 20th century, they introduced pizza to Americans. And these Italian-Americans, on the streets of New York and Philadelphia and Chicago, gave this basic dish a renewed colour: it became a food of multiple toppings and textures. After the First World War, pizza was reintroduced to Italy. And it became pizza: not just a flat baked bread with some tomato sauce — but a national dish of magnificent variation.

The same is true of Christianity in Britain today.

Christianity is collapsing throughout Britain. A British Social Attitudes Survey from 2018 concluded that this decline is “one of the most important trends in postwar history”. More than half of the British public now say they do not belong to any religion, compared to 31% in 1983. But there are parts of the country where the flame of the religion is still bright.

You have to go to London, especially the inner-city, to find England’s most vigorous forms of Christianity. It is largely West African immigrants who fill the pews of decaying churches from Peckham to Woolwich, who renovate new churches in Brixton and Lewisham, and who volunteer for Christian centres and charities up and down the capital. If you want a solid sense of the sacred, a connection to Britain’s ancient Christian past, you are more likely to find it while eating jollof rice in a big tent in Kennington than eating a Yorkshire pudding in a small room in Harrogate.

This is not a utopian vision of liberal multiculturalism. London is the most cosmopolitan city in Britain. We all know that. But it’s also the most religious and socially conservative city in the country. 62% of Londoners, for instance, identify as religious, compared with 53% of the rest of the country. 25% of Londoners attend a religious service at least once a month; only 10% of people outside London do. 24% of Londoners think sex before marriage is wrong, compared to 13% of the population. London is the most homophobic city in the country: 29% of people in London think homosexuality is wrong, while 23% outside London think this.

The city is not only diverse in markers of visual difference, such as skin colour and types of dress, but also in values. There is social libertinism and social conservatism and everything squeezed in-between. Many tend to focus on diversity in terms of surfaces, rather than diversity of values. The awkward tensions of the latter are tacitly accepted, like a squeaky-clean parent knowing his kids spent the night doing drugs in their bedroom but not mentioning it at breakfast the next morning. It’s a very British sort of relationship — traversing that thin border between tolerance and hypocrisy.

In the city 56% of Christians pray regularly. Only 32% outside of it do. London 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% rise in the number of churches in the capital city. Many of them are built in boroughs of London with a large black population such as Southwark.

The political scientist Eric Kaufmann points out that secularisation is “almost entirely a white British phenomenon”. When the share of white British people decreases in an area, secularisation also slows down. The number of white British people who ticked no religion in the census rose from 15.4% in 2001 to 28% in 2011. By contrast, the number of black Africans who ticked no religion in that same time span rose only by a tiny amount: from 2.3% to 2.9%.

Given it’s black Africans who are driving the rise of Christianity in London, conservatives who want to renew Christianity in Britain would do best to stop relying on public pronouncements by Justin Welby and Pope Francis. Instead, they should lobby for an open-borders immigration policy for all the African countries Britain once colonised.

Many of these communities are Christians because of the British Empire. Christian missionaries may have been a part of colonialism, but their influence extended beyond the colonial government, establishing schools and discouraging practices hitherto common in pre-colonial Nigeria — human sacrifice, slavery, twin infanticide, and polygamy.

Christian missionary schools also provided the foundation for many forms of African nationalism. Pro-independence leaders, like Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe, were educated at schools established by missionaries. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, an icon of revolutionary black African nationalism and the first leader of a black African country to gain independence from a European colonial power, was educated at a Catholic missionary school.

Meanwhile, Yoruba Christians have incorporated the God of the Old and New Testament into their own language. Whenever Yoruba people pray, for instance, they use the word OlĂłdĂčmarĂš to refer to the God of the Bible, and this is the same name for the God of the native Yoruba religion.

It’s unsurprising, then, that many black Africans in Britain today emphasise the importance of Christianity to their identity. In general, black British people are more than twice as likely to say religion is very important to them. Most black British believers are Christian. Yet the centrality of Christianity to black British identity is hardly spoken about. Saka treasures his music record and his football. But on Instagram, his name is not Bukayo Saka but “God’s Child”.

Christianity can accommodate tension. It is both radical and conservative: it proclaims the downtrodden will inherit the earth and it praises life-long monogamy. It incorporates the puritanical fervour of Leviticus and the ravishing sensuality of the Song of Solomon. Its central figure is both a man who was abused and spat on and crucified, like a slave, but also a figure of transcendent divinity. What can be more beautifully Christian than the fact its future in the bosom of what was once the largest empire in the world is now being sustained by communities it once colonised?


Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.

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Paul K
Paul K
2 years ago

Lovely piece – and suitably heartening. Happy Easter.

Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
2 years ago

As others have said, this is a nice thing to read today.
I am not familiar with this footballer, but the grounding of Nigerians in Christian faith is something I do see and it is reassuring.
Like many white Westerners the rituals of my life convinced me that faith was not required; right up until life sent me some serious challenges, the first (and by no means the last) of which was the early loss of my wife and mother of our three school-aged children to cancer. She died in pain and the grief we carried after her death was only lifted when we rediscovered what we had forgotten; namely that life is too big for humans to solve through self reliance, so don’t think you can do it alone. A divine power is necessary. At least to me.
Lovely piece, thank you.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paul Rogers
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

My wife comes from a family of northern Methodists where community life revolved around the community of the church. This does not apply now to the same extent that it did and Methodist churches are regularly closing up here. However, one of my wife’s dearest friends is a woman who came over from Nigeria to study social work and was told by her mother that if she ever felt isolated she should go to her nearest church which she did and was rapidly integrated into the life of the church. Her Christian faith ensured she was integrated into the community in a way that I suspect many Muslims don’t achieve.
I would not, however, welcome the sort of open door immigration from Africa that the author proposes because our Nigerian friend is very open about the problems of corruption, tribalism, crime and religious strife endemic in Nigeria. One of the factors behind her decision to move to England was the risk to her daughters represented by Boko Haram.
I am in favour of more discrimination not less regarding immigration, but discrimination not on the basis of the utterly irrelevant factor of skin colour, but on the basis of character and ability to integrate . I believe there are many fine people from Nigeria who would be a real asset to the UK but also many who have been so corrupted by the society of Nigeria that they should never come here or if they do manage to should be expelled upon conviction of any significant crime. One of the politicians I most admire is Kemi Badenoch, who is of Nigerian origin and remains uninfluenced by the divisive race ideology imported from the US.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Kemi Badenoch is a wonderful example of a successful immigrant. I’m much happier sharing Britain with her than the utterly odious Crispin Blunt.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

You are right that Tomiiwa’s statement was probably more in the nature of a conditional suggestion and I certainly agree that Justin Welby is not going to be the driver of any Christian revival.
There is an interesting article in today’s Telegraph by Douglas Murray entitled: “Diversity is the new national religion. Woe betide any agnostics” in which he comments on ”the unnatural hush around Sir David Amess’s murder” that proves that there are some issues we can simply no longer discuss. The Archbishop of Canterbury is less a Christian religious leader and more a proponent of the new secular National religion of woke.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Nice article. I think a proper, committed Archbishop of Canterbury from a pre-dominantly African parish would shake things up in the CofE. Get rid of this weary Wokeness we keep having inflicted on us.

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

I really loved Sentamu so sad to see him go! Really joyous Christian man!!

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

Me too, Alison.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

As a committed Catholic myself, I agree with most of this article. It’s often occurred to me that God has a weird way of bringing good out of evil. Immigrant — as opposed to native — Christianity has a funny kind of protection born of soft racism. Thus while one can blithely dump on the Catholic Church or the C of E, with Immigrant churches, the liberal/leftie attitude is, “well, of course, we educated and enlightened types don’t expect any better from THOSE people”.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

16th century Europe brings the Christian faith to Ottoman and sub-Saharan Africa.
21st century sub-Saharan Africa brings the Christian faith back to Europe.
God gets the glory both times.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
Frederick B
Frederick B
2 years ago

The Church of England might do better among the native English, whose evangelisation is its job, if it emphasised its Englishness rather than being embarrassed by Englishness, and apologetic about it.
Characteristically though, the CofE has responded to the Black Lives Matter nonsense by introducing into its schools (which educate a quarter of our children) a curriculum devised by a “black liberation theologian”. I suspect that Englishness may not come out of it very well.
Thus it continues its rapid fall towards extinction among the people entrusted to its care. Contrast the fortunes of those churches – the Armenian church for example, or the Roman church in Poland – which are well aware of their duty to specific ethnicities..

Jack Woodward
Jack Woodward
2 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

I see so much of this here in the States. Too many church leaders lack conviction and instead go with whatever trendy nonsense the vapid crowd embraces. Or the political spin, as in “Jesus was a socialist”.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 years ago

Very interesting article! Thank you for writing it.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

It’s good to see the highlighting of the simple if important point, which is so awkward for the ‘progressives’: that religious and ethnic minorities – whether Asian Muslims or Black Christians — are socially conservative. Hence the tension in the Anglican church between its liberal progressive (white elite) branch (UK) which seeks to affirm trans identities as well as same sex attraction and the conservative branches in the former colonies which in resisting the liberal progressive agenda is resisting a new form of cultural colonialism.

Last edited 2 years ago by Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Paul Marshall
Paul Marshall
2 years ago

Superb article – thank you Tomiwa. Black Africans are the best hope for the Church of England

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
2 years ago

A very good article and one that reminded me of my Irish mother’s friendships in 1960’s London with a Jamaican lady and a Nigerian lady who, like her, grew up with strong faith.

That said, how long before one of the lefty press entrap a young footballer of traditional faith teaching – particularly a Baptist one – with the “is homosexuality wrong” question. Look what answering that did for Falou and nearly did for Billy Vunipola.

Pacific Islanders have similar attachment to their faith teachings and have been viciously vilified for it. That is not to say that I agree with what they have said, nor to say that it is a view of Christian teaching I agree with. I only raise the note of caution that being Christian is an offence to Gruadian readers and Christians are always fair game, regardless of colour.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ri Bradach
Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago

It seems only natural that Anglican Christianity should find its new home in Africa (not just among African immigrants). The dreary repetitions of respectable ‘white’ Christianity in this country seemed absurd even when I was a boy (about half a century ago!) and I have to pinch myself when I see the same pompous rituals and incantations being trotted out today. In Africa it can receive ‘new blood’ by infusion of local traditions and colour, and it will serve as a barrier to advancement of the inhuman and misogynistic cult of Islam. I can even look with some pride to a family connection. A great grand-uncle was for a time in the late 19th century Archdeacon of the Niger under Bishop Samuel Ajahi Crowther. African Anglicanism, under native African leadership, has been around long enough to make its own way.

Last edited 2 years ago by Nicholas Taylor
R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

Very interesting. I was always quite fascinated by stories about the 19th century missionaries in Africa, particularly in heavily influenced places like Nyasaland/Malawi. Looks like their efforts have paid off.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

To a point but only to a point. The black-led churches are a phenomenon which perhaps has not been properly studied but their origin was in the early post-Windrush days when a number of congregations found the more exuberant forms of worship common in the Caribbean and Africa rather off-putting and made sure the newcomers did not feel welcome.
Religions have always played a part in the lives of immigrant Communities including in the Empire. They provide community, social networking and often assistants in living a better life in the new community, together with links from the countries of origin. But this tends not to last as the members of religious communities find greater purchase in society without a priest to speak for them.
In Tower Hamlets there was once 150 Synagogues, there is now barely 3 two of which struggle to maintain religious life. The majority of the Jewish Community moved out post-war, some to other religious communities such as Stamford Hill or Ilford; but also the numbers observing has dropped wherever they have gone. They feel Jewish and identify as such but they do not practice.
The evidence here in Tower Hamlets is that the Mosques do not have the purchase on the lives of immigrants from Pakistan of Bangladesh as the would have had 15 years ago, as evidence particularly in the number of women visible at work and in public life. They identify with their faith but they do not feel controlled by it.
So I will confidently predict that this is almost certainly the high point of the African-led Church which will not be able to defeat secularism. And a good job too

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
2 years ago

Thank you. Interesting and optimistic.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

I have worked in Nigeria and Ghana a bit, as well as Francophone west Africa. But the Anglophone countries are where the immigrants to UK come from.
One thing we maybe don’t like to emphasise: Christians in these countries face a militant Islam threat in their Norths. They are right on the front line.
Albeit in the rest of the country, especially Nigeria, both faiths mix more easily.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Except that I think this is the Christianity of the 19th century. What we need is a Christianity for 2022 (and Welby et al are offering a pabulum from 1950, at best).

Jack Woodward
Jack Woodward
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

What would a Christianity for 2022 look like, and how would it differ from the Christianity of the 19th century.
I believe a significant part of membership in the 19th century church was a consequence of social pressure. In my state liquor was prohibited until 1968, and in the 1950s few stores were open on Sunday. The court challenges on the Constitutionality of Sunday closing laws did, I think, provide people an opportunity to ignore the social pressure.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Good luck to the LGBTQ+ fascists!!!

Jack Woodward
Jack Woodward
2 years ago

My experience, in a United Methodist Church with a huge outreach to singles and people in the middle of divorce, is that many of the unchurched are more interested in accomplishing good in the community than the more traditional pattern of attending church and supporting other people (missionaries) who accomplish good. It seems that often walking the walk opens the door to Jesus coming into their life.