The future of the Christian religion in England does not lie in the southern counties or in the old industrial towns of the north. There, the voice and the content of the Bible are a tenuous force, a hoarse murmur. In London, the most multicultural part of Europe, one is closer to a deafening roar.
Consider British GQ’the next cover star, Ealing-born Bukayo Saka. The 20-year-old England footballer has had a redeeming story since missing the penalty drop in the Euro 2020 final last summer; he was the brightest star in a rejuvenated Arsenal side that have a good chance of entering the Premier League top four.
Alongside a snazzy photo shoot, Saka recorded a video for QG in which he lists his ten most essential items. There’s an iPad, a portable music speaker, Twix candy bars, a soccer ball, a PlayStation, sneakers and moisturizer: all the things you’d expect a sporty young man to be proud to own.
But Saka also included something else – a Bible, given to her by her father. “Religion is a huge 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 would he be a devout believer in God as a youngster born and raised in the capital of a Western European nation? Well, it’s 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 flag bearers of the England national football team – which substitutes for religion across the country – also embodies another fascinating connection: the relationship between a black British identity and the Christianity, a religion that was introduced to the English-speaking west. Africa by the British.
There is a concept called the pizza effect. The original pizza was once a staple dish found in different pockets of Italy: a flatbread spread with tomato sauce; no toppings. When immigrants from Sicily and southern Italy settled in America between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they introduced pizza to Americans. And these Italian-Americans, on the streets of New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, have given this staple dish a new color: it has become a food with multiple fillings and textures. After World War I, pizza was reintroduced in Italy. And it became pizza: not just a flatbread baked with tomato sauce – but a national dish of magnificent variation.
The same is true of Christianity in Britain today.
Christianity is collapsing across Britain. A 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey concluded that this decline is “one of the most important trends in post-war history”. More than half of Britons now say they don’t belong to any religion, up from 31% in 1983. But there are parts of the country where the flame of religion is still burning.
One has to go to London, especially the inner city, to find the most vigorous forms of Christianity in England. It is largely West African immigrants who fill the pews of dilapidated churches from Peckham to Woolwich, refurbish new churches in Brixton and Lewisham, and volunteer for Christian centers and charities across the capital. If you want a solid sense of the sacred, a connection to Britain’s ancient Christian past, you’re more likely to find it 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 Britain’s most cosmopolitan city. We all know that. But it is also the most religious and socially conservative city in the country. 62% of Londoners, for example, identify as religious, compared to 53% in the rest of the country. 25% of Londoners attend a church service at least once a month; only 10% of people outside of London do. 24% of Londoners think premarital sex is bad, compared to 13% of the population. London is the most homophobic city in the country: 29% of Londoners think homosexuality is bad, compared to 23% outside London.
The city is not only diverse in terms of markers of visual difference, such as skin color and types of clothing, but also in terms of values. There is social libertinism and social conservatism and everything in between. Many tend to focus on diversity in terms of surfaces rather than diversity in values. The latter’s awkward tensions are tacitly accepted, like a blameless parent knowing their kids spent the night drugging in their bedroom but not mentioning it at breakfast the next morning. It’s a very British kind of relationship – crossing that fine line between tolerance and hypocrisy.
In the city, 56% of Christians pray regularly. Only 32% outside of that do. London is more Christian today than it was when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. According to David Goodhew, director of ministerial practice at Durham University’s Cranmer Hall, between 1979 and 2012 there was a 50% increase in the number of churches in the capital. Many of them are built in areas of London with large black populations such as Southwark.
Political scientist Eric Kaufmann points out that secularization is “almost entirely a white British phenomenon”. When the share of white Britons declines in an area, secularization also slows. The number of white Britons who ticked no religion on the census rose from 15.4% in 2001 to 28% in 2011. In contrast, the number of black Africans who ticked no religion during the census same period only increased by a tiny amount: from 2.3% to 2.9%.
Given that it is black Africans who are driving the rise of Christianity in London, Tories who want to renew Christianity in Britain had better stop relying on the public statements of Justin Welby and the Pope Francis. Instead, they should push for an open border immigration policy for all African countries Britain once colonized.
Many of these communities are Christian because of the British Empire. Christian missionaries may have been part of colonialism, but their influence extended beyond colonial government, establishing schools and discouraging practices hitherto common in pre-colonial Nigeria – human sacrifice, slavery, twin infanticide and polygamy.
Christian mission schools also laid the foundation for many forms of African nationalism. Pro-independence leaders, such as Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe, were educated in schools established by missionaries. Ghanaian 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 incorporated the God of the Old and New Testaments into their own language. Whenever the Yoruba pray, for example, they use the word Olodumare to designate the God of the Bible, and it is the same name for the God of the indigenous Yoruba religion.
It is therefore not surprising that many black Africans in Britain today emphasize the importance of Christianity to their identity. In general, black Britons are more than twice as likely to say that religion is very important to them. Most black British believers are Christians. Yet, little is said about the centrality of Christianity to black British identity. Saka cherishes his music record and his football. But on Instagram, his name is not Bukayo Saka but “God’s Child”.
Christianity can accommodate tensions. She is both radical and conservative: she proclaims that the oppressed will inherit the land and she praises lifelong monogamy. It incorporates the Puritan fervor of Leviticus and the ravishing sensuality of the Song of Songs. Its central figure is both an abused, spat and crucified man, like a slave, but also a figure of transcendent divinity. What could be more magnificently Christian than the fact that his future within what was once the greatest empire in the world is now supported by communities he once colonized?