Creating Connections in Coventry: a city of enormous interfaith opportunity

By Catherine Pepinster

Ever since its cathedral was bombed during the Second World War and a modern one opened
in 1962, Coventry has been associated with efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation. It
was therefore appropriate that a wide range of representatives of many faiths and media got
together last week for a harmonious afternoon and evening of discussion at the cathedral, as
part of the Religion Media Centre’s Creating Connections programme.

Not that this was a session without controversy: people attending expressed some frustration
at perceived lack of interest in religion at times from the media; there was wide concern
expressed at shrinking media resources, especially cutbacks in BBC local radio; there were
admissions of ignorance about some faiths — and perhaps most shocking of all for older
people at the event was the declaration by students that their main source of information was

Creating Connections is now in its second year, set up by the Religion Media Centre to bring
together journalists, religious and community representatives and other local and regional
organisations to network, learn about one another, and break down misunderstandings.

First stop this year on the tour was Bradford, followed by Coventry.

It began with a welcome from the Dean of Coventry, John Witcombe, who said the cathedral,
since its opening in 1962, had drawn large numbers of visitors. It now had an open-door
policy, he said, welcoming people of many faiths and none and encourages social cohesion and
tries to bring people together. He had been very moved, he said, by one Muslim woman who
once told him: “Coventry Cathedral is like my own mosque.”

The 2021 Census shows that 43.9 per cent of Coventry residents are Christian, a fall of 10 per
cent since 2011, while the second largest group at 26.9 per cent identifies as having no
religion up from 23 per cent in 2011. The third largest group are Muslim at 10.4 per cent, up
from 7.5 per cent the decade before.

The city is similarly ethnically mixed, the majority, 55.3 per cent, of Coventry’s total
population is white British, which includes English, Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish. This is
notably lower than West Midlands region’s figures (71.8 per cent) and national figures (73.5
per cent) and it shows the proportion of Coventry’s population who are of white British
ethnicity has fallen in the 10 years since the 2011 Census, when it was 66.6 per cent.

It means that Coventry’s population is made up of a notably higher percentage of people from
ethnic minority groups compared to the national average. The second-largest broad ethnic
group in Coventry is Asian/Asian British (18.5 per cent), followed by white other, which
includes white Irish, white gypsy or Irish traveller, white Roma and “white other white” (10.2
per cent).

Manjit Kaur, who chairs the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education in Coventry,
said two things had kept her grounded throughout her life — being a Sikh and being a citizen
of Coventry.

She put flesh on the basic statistics about religion and ethnic minorities in Coventry, pointing
out that the Christians included Catholics from Eastern Europe — Polish is the third-biggest
language in the city — and members of Orthodox churches, while there are migrants and
second-generation Coventry residents with strong links to India, speaking Punjabi, Urdu, and
Gujarati, and following religions such as Sikhism and Hinduism. Others of Asian extraction are
members of Christian churches.

Ms Kaur mentioned several signs of the growing religious tolerance of Coventry, from the
ribbons tied between places of worship during 2021 when Coventry was City of Culture, to
the appointment of Sikh councillor Jaswant Singh Birdi as the city’s lord mayor. Another sign
of how Coventry was responding to the ethnic and religious mix of the city was the work of
Pru Porretta, who has created Godiva Sisters to bring people of faith together.

Coventry also has an agreed syllabus in its schools based on world news and the life and
people of the city itself to encourage young people to be aware of different faiths. Just how
engaged young people are about faith was evident in the large numbers of school pupils who
joined the Creating Connections afternoon session.

A panel of seven students were interviewed by Sandra Godley, a local radio presenter and
gospel singer, and it was clear that a sense of belonging really mattered to those who had a
faith. Some students expressed concern that some media coverage of faiths, especially
minority ones, was too negative.

Grace O’Donoghue, from the Blue Coat School in the city, said studying A-level RE had
encouraged her to pay more attention to religious coverage by more conventional media, but
most of the panel — six out of seven — said they turned to TikTok more than any other form
of media for coverage of religion.

About the only mainstream religion news story that had cut through to the young people that
week were Pope Francis’s positive comments about same-sex blessings — something that
signified possible profound change in the Roman Catholic Church.

So, what were the media professionals at the session to make of this thumbs-down from
young people about conventional print, radio and television output? And what were they
looking for to interest their audiences when it came to reporting on faith?

As a freelance journalist reporting on religion, I said organisations and faith groups offering
stories to journalists should ask themselves if what they wanted to talk about was either
important, or interesting, or both, to the audience of that media organisation.

Gary Newby, news editor of ITV News Central, agreed and said visuals really mattered if
something was to get on television, and people mattered too. “We need people. That’s what
engages the audience. They sit there and they want to see people like themselves,” he said.

He gave as an example what he had heard at the Creating Connections event: stories about a
Greek Orthodox Church and the Jewish community. If ITV were to cover the Creating
Connections meeting, the audience would not want to look at pictures of people in a room, so
showing someone in the Greek Orthodox Church and a Jewish person within their community
would capture the audience’s attention far more effectively.

There has been considerable anxiety among many people across Britain about the BBC’s
decision to cut its local radio stations and therefore its coverage. Kamlesh Purohit, who used
to manage BBC Radio Leicester and was asked to devise a strategy for local radio’s future
community content, said that what was happening was “a huge challenge: the biggest step
change in over 35 years at the BBC. There is no more money so we have to ask how do you
take traditional forms of journalism and do more. Journalists have to be retrained as
multimedia journalists.”

The key question, he said, was: “How do we engage with young people? If we don’t engage
with them, we lose them and then local becomes meaningless.”

Engaging them meant finding the stories they would be interested in. “I want to stories that
are gripping, heartwarming, that are just wow! I’m looking for something a bit different. But
also what is really important,” he said.

It was clear that people were at the heart of what journalists wanted when they were looking
for stories — and faith might be about ideas and beliefs but it was also about people and their

Faith groups, religious leaders and academics focused on faith all have stories to tell — but
the key issue is often getting access to journalists and finding out what would convince them
to take a story on. Creating Connections offers an opportunity for the faith groups to not only
listen to journalists explaining what they might be interested in but also gives them a chance
to pitch to the journalists in the room.

The journalists discovered that after a lifetime of devotion to her local Greek Orthodox
Church, one contributor to the session had become the first woman to be elected to her
church council. The heritage of Jewish Coventry was the focus of an exhibition about to open
in the city’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, starting from the earliest records of Jews in
Coventry in 1194 and going on to a remarkable tale of Victorian Jewish watchmakers in the

Balbir Sohal, a member of the lord mayor’s peace and reconciliation committee, showed how
Coventry continued to make peace a priority with annual Hiroshima remembrance services.

Local universities can often be the source of stories for local and regional reporters and
among those attending the session was Professor Kristin Aune, a sociologist from Coventry
University, who had just published a survey of 8,000 students, examining building student
relationships across religions.

She and the team at the university’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations found that
universities were religiously diverse but students tended to think that they were welcoming
institutions for other faith groups more than their own. Students’ perceptions around
prejudice and discrimination were varied, with Jewish students the most likely to feel
mistreated because of their worldviews.

The survey also found that just one year of being a university student would change opinions
and students became more open to people of other faiths — so being at university made a

The key was having the opportunity to meet people of faiths different from one’s own — and
Creating Connections highlighted that Coventry itself was a city of enormous interfaith

Our event in Coventry was the second in a series of six. Further details here

  • Newcastle and the northeast, Wednesday 18 October, Cathedral of St Nicholas
  • Liverpool, Thursday 9 November, the Black-E
  • Bristol, Wednesday 22 November, Conference Hall, City Hall
  • Norwich, Tuesday 30 November, Weston room, Norwich Cathedral


Join our Newsletter