Fifteen days of revival meetings in London and Kent are expected to attract thousands of people in the rapidly growing UK black church movement.
An estimated 500,000 people attend black churches in the UK, with Kingsway International Christian Centre in London among the largest. Its 15 day ‘Waterbrook Revival’ of ‘unusual prophetic accuracy’ offers healing, deliverance and ‘accelerated progress’.
Its success illustrates a story of remarkable growth. While the British Social Attitudes survey from 1983 to 2014 notes the decline of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in the UK, it also points to a substantial increase in attendance at “other churches”. This category includes significantly black majority churches (BMCs).
An independent survey by Andrew Rogers, which took a dramatic snapshot of these churches between 2011 and 2013, found that there were 240 BMCs in the London Borough of Southwark alone, making it, the researchers believed, the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world outside Africa. And there is increasing evidence that such growth is being matched in many of the UK’s larger cities.
The phenomenon of black-led churches is usually reckoned to have begun during the Windrush era of Caribbean migration in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact it was much earlier – 1906 – when the Ghanaian preacher and pastor, Thomas Kwame Brem-Wilson, founded the African Pentecostal church in Peckham, south London. Augmented by African migration in the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Pentecostal movement now boasts some of the largest churches and church gatherings in Britain.
Kingsway International Christian Centre in London, for example, has 12,000 in regular attendance every Sunday while the Festival of Life, a prayer gathering run twice a year by the Redeemed Christian Church of God, has 60,000 attendees.
The terminology is sensitive and can be misleading. “Black Church” is not a label that African and African Caribbean Christians sought when they first arrived in Britain. It evolved out of a sense of exclusion from the mainstream they encountered on arrival. The late Dr Io Smith, an ordained minister in the New Testament Assembly, spoke for thousands of her Christian brothers and sisters when she described her experience arriving in Britain from Jamaica. “I was looking for love and warmth and encouragement,” she wrote. “I believed that the first place I would find that was in the church. But it wasn’t there.”
Recent high-profile exposures of financial corruption in some BMCs have raised questions over transparency and accountability – and the disproportionate influence of charismatic leaders unchecked by robust structures and governance. Their excessive promotion of the so-called “prosperity gospel” – a belief that financial blessing is the will of God – has also come in for criticism. Likewise, the chain of neglect that resulted in the torture and murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000 shone an unwelcome light on safeguarding issues in some of the newer independent churches.
The Rt Rev Dr Joe Aldred, principal officer for pentecostal and charismatic relations, Churches Together in England.
“I would look at where these churches have come from to understand what they teach. Churches like my own, the Church of God of Prophecy, or the New Testament Church of God, well-known to many people in this country as ‘black churches’, actually have their roots in the deep southern United States. And so they come out of that spirituality, the holiness movement, that was happening in America around the middle of the 19th century.
“So what you have are churches whose ecclesiology and theology of doctrine come from that faith mixed with some of the practices of the communities that now inhabit them. So in the case of the Church of God of Prophecy that would be strongly Jamaican and strongly rural as opposed to urban Jamaican. That means you have a lot of country folk practising a religion that comes from another place and therefore adding to that something of what makes us African-Caribbean-British.
“[The African churches] have that sense of the diaspora about them. So the largest of them, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, for example, would be an African expression of western Pentecostalism. And it’s interesting to see that Jesus House in London, their largest church in the country, is not very different in terms of worship from, say, Holy Trinity, Brompton or Hillsong – except that the main practitioners are black and African.
“But on the other hand and there are churches like the Cherubim and Seraphim and one or two others like it (sometimes called “white garment churches” – where you take your shoes off before you worship and generally wear white) that are much more African indigenous in their expression with lots of emphasis on prayer and affirmation.
“As far as the prosperity doctrine is concerned many of us would point to the root of that in the Word of Faith ministries coming out of America and to the tele-evangelists. Am I concerned about it? Yes, I am. I understand fully why people who are mostly from the poorer end of society gravitate towards these churches – not just here in Britain but around the world.
“I am firmly on the side of improving one’s life but there are aspects of the prosperity teaching I cannot affirm. There are preachers who are very articulate, well read and well presented, making promises of ‘seed sowing’. And I am aware that there have been times when people have sown their proverbial seed out of money they do not have and for promises which are not kept.”
Robert Beckford, professor of theology at the Queen’s Ecumenical Foundation, Birmingham
“All theology and all churches have a context and that context is social, political and ethnic; therefore identifying churches by their ethnicity is simply a way of being intellectually honest regarding the history and culture of Christian formation.
“The reason for black-led churches is the coloniality of Christianity. From its inception in the Caribbean and Africa the scaffolding around which the church is built is inherently racialised. It is anti-black in its reading of scripture, and racially hierarchical in its ecclesiology. Consequently until you address the scaffolding, the structures that make racism inevitable in the churches, you’ll always have ethnic division.
“The theology of black-led churches is fundamentally different from those churches where the majority of the adherents are racialised as white and it’s different in three distinctive ways. First, African and African-Caribbean traditions make the starting point the merging of African and Christian ideas in the context of Africa and the Caribbean respectively. Second, they are different in terms of the focus of the Christian message. The Christian message was adapted to make sense of colonialism, racism and subjugation and consequently at the core of both African churches and African Caribbean churches is a message of liberation. God is fundamentally a liberator.
“And, third, these churches are different in the sense of their political expectations. Rather than being completely engrossed in the concerns of the nation they make their focal point the kingdom of God and how they can best build up the membership in terms of their social and economic welfare.
“[On the prosperity gospel] I’ve met more rich white Christians and white-led churches than I have met rich Christians in black churches. All churches have a prosperity doctrine. The African churches and Caribbean churches that express this doctrine are simply being much more honest about their theology of money.
“All churches go through various experiences of development and these churches are at a fledgling stage. In a fledgling state there are independent churches which emerge without any kind of national or international organisation and oversight and that’s where there is always the potential for corruption and for abuse of power. However, the task of these churches and those committed to helping them is to usher them into a new phase of development which involves oversight, good governance, training and an appreciation of the laws of the land which require you to take care of vulnerable people in a particular way.”
The Rev Israel Olofinjana, senior pastor at Woolwich Central Baptist Church, London, and co-founder of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World.
“Behind the genesis of the black churches in Britain is a dominant story of rejection. People came from the Commonwealth countries with the expectation that they would be welcomed and well received by the churches, but that wasn’t the case. There were other factors, too: for example, Christians from the Caribbean, especially Pentecostals, found that British Christianity in the Anglican Church was very cold in the way it was expressed. It was very quiet and reflective unlike Pentecostal worship, where people express themselves in dancing, clapping and gospel music.
“When the Africans came in the 1960s, they found, like the Caribbeans before them, that the worship very different. So some of them wanted to use African drums and they wanted to sing in their own language.
“While the prosperity gospel is very controversial and divisive and sometimes abusive it came out of an existential question: how does God meet our financial needs as migrants in an often hostile and unwelcoming space? If you cannot get loans at banks or find money to pay your rent, it raises the question of how your financial needs are going to be met. In that kind of scenario prosperity teaching becomes very attractive: it is seen as a way in which God answers prayers.
“I suppose there are different versions of prosperity. There are the extreme versions that capitalise on the poor and exploit them but there is a middle way which says God will prosper you so that you can be a blessing to your community and that God will meet your needs.
“Nowadays we have multicultural churches with a mixture of African, Caribbean, European, Asian and Latin Americans. There are not many of them but we are seeing an increase across the church spectrum. And some of the black churches are now going on a very different journey as they are beginning to realise the need to mix up – especially in cities like Birmingham, London and Liverpool. It is imperative that you don’t just have a Nigerian leading a Nigerian church or a Ghanaian leading a Ghanaian church. So there is now more of an intention to change that.
“It’s also worth mentioning that there are a lot of independent pastors who are now intentionally joining an association or looking for a network of churches because they don’t want to be independent any more. They want to be part of something.”