Review by Angus Ritchie
Hostile media narratives often blame immigration for diluting England’s Christian ethos, but the overwhelming evidence of this collection is that the opposite is true. One essay quotes the Pentecostal scholar Walter Hollenweger, but many more of them bear out his memorable words: “Christians in Britain prayed for many years for revival, and when it came they did not recognise it because it was black.”
Across 15 essays, a wide variety of scholars from a range of disciplines chart the changes in London’s churches since 1980 (including a 10% increase in weekly attendance), the ethnicity of London’s churches (and the significance of immigration in this growth), and denominational shifts. The two concluding essays place these more granular and detailed studies in a wider historical and sociological perspective.
Debates about the place of religion in our society tend to be higher in empirical assertions than they are in empirical evidence. This well-researched book confounds a wide array of stereotypes that afflict debates on areas such as secularization, the effect of immigration on the Christian character of England, and the potential for numerical growth in England’s churches.
As Grace Davie observes in the final essay, the evidence of The Deseculatisation of the City undermines the claim that secularization is an inevitable and global phenomenon — and that immigrants, and the countries they come from, will in time catch up with the wisdom of the more secular West: “Europeans are beginning to recognise that Europe is secular not because it is modern but because it is European.” Far from eroding England’s Christian ethos, immigrants are challenging the deeply held presumption that religion should be a purely private matter — a presumption that should be as alien to orthodox Christianity as it is to Islam.
One of the most striking findings of the book — woven through qualitative analyses of churches in a wide range of denominations, contexts, and cultures — is that London is functioning as a “seedbed of faith in the 21st century.”
As Davie notes, in the middle of the last century the hot money in sociology was on liberal rather than conservative forms of Christianity. In fact, growth has come in those congregations that are more firmly anchored in tradition — whether in a high doctrine of Scripture, forms of liturgy that emphasize the transcendence as well as the immanence of God, or a combination of the two.
The essays by Robert Jackson and Tim Thorlby shows that immigration is not the only driver of revival in the capital. In his study of church planting on Tower Hamlets — an area where migration has been very heavily Muslim — Thorlby estimates that around half of its Anglican parishes now have growing congregations. The strongest growth seems to be occurring where congregations are committed to social transformation, without reducing the faith to a purely social gospel.
A central message of this fascinating and challenging volume is that the future is genuinely open, and that the responses of London’s churches to their fast-changing contexts can have a significant influence on the shape of that future.
This book has been released in the midst of the United Kingdom’s convulsions over Brexit. The dominant media narrative represents the conflict (in England at least) as one between more conservative provinces and the metropolitan values of secular liberalism. This collection of essays shows the narrative to be deeply flawed. Under the noses of London’s secular elites, there has been a striking revival in Christian belief and practice. Perhaps because so much of this revival has been ethnically diverse, economically marginalized, or socially conservative (or indeed some combination of the three), it has not yet received the attention it deserves.
The Rev. Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community and a priest at St. George-in-the-East, Shadwell, London.