I went looking for the soul of the metropolis. What I found was an extraordinary spiritual ferment

This is the new London, an immigrant mega-city where nearly 40 per cent were born abroad. The old London of Pearly Queens and Cockney barrow boys is history. The new London is a city of Russian oligarchs, African night-cleaners and Polish builders – where only 45 per cent are white British.

This is the city I’ve chronicled in my new book This Is London. For two years I’ve been in search of the stories that make up the immigrant city’s soul: sleeping rough with Roma beggars, living in Romanian doss houses, working on Polish building sites and touting for work with Baltic labourers on the kerb.

As I listened, one thing that tumbled out was a hidden religiosity. Polish scaffolders talked of the Virgin Mary, carers spoke of Islamic angels and beggars formed Romanian prayer circles. Even in Russian Mayfair, I found myself taken to its kabbalist. The old London of empty churches and ambling suburban vicars who don’t believe in God is fading into history. The new London is a city of Somali basement mosques, overflowing Polish chapels and teeming African Pentecostal services in converted bingo halls.

What I found with my notebook on the street is backed up by official statistics: between 2005 and 2012, church attendance in London grew from 620,000 to 720,000. The number of churches grew at roughly the same rate.

London is experiencing a modest awakening, and it has a lot to do with immigration. This is mostly a Pentecostal story: 700 places of worship sprang up in London between 2005 and 2012, of which more than half have black majorities. This now means black people are far likelier to attend weekly services than whites – 19 per cent to 8 per cent. I find it quite moving just to write down the names of the churches without spires. A name like “Family Life Christian Centre: Raising Breakthrough Generations” says so much about the immigrant struggle.

Seen from the ground up, these Pentecostal church groups are increasingly important to MPs and councillors trying get an electoral edge. Many see them as keys to the city’s black vote. This is why they are fast becoming a fixture for the mayoral and even the national electoral calendar. David Cameron chose to appear at the Redeemed Church’s annual Festival of Light event in London in April 2015, speaking to 45,000 worshippers. Many Conservative politicians, hoping to draw black voters away from the more stoutly secular Labour, seek alliances with leaders of a religious culture full of super-pastors and celebrity faith healers.

Why are black churches so popular? Standing outside them interviewing attendees, I found African women keen to say they clung close to the church out of fear of family breakdown and gang violence. Many African men, meanwhile, said they enjoyed “being all black, and all together, not being watched”. But much of this boom in London reflects a boom in Africa itself, where pastors are national celebrities.

In any case, it is having a big impact. Black and immigrant churches now make up nearly a third of all churches in London. In inner London almost half of worshippers are black. There has been a boom in black majority churches – in the dilapidated offices of grungier parts of London they are now as regular a sight as the chicken shops.

How does Catholic London compare? It is increasingly a Polish story, but not one filled with the same revival as the African one. Nationally, some one in ten Catholics are now Polish, with a third believed to be regular church attendees when they arrive. However, Catholic Poles tend to become a little less religious in London, unlike their African counterparts.

Why? The story I heard in Polish London was one of limited capacity: there aren’t enough churches offering Mass in Polish, as the Catholic Church is a slower-moving creature, unlikely to establish places of worship in old carpentry yards and converted garages. There are only 120 Polish priests in Britain, simply because they are much more difficult to recruit and train than Pentecostal lay preachers. Another side of this is that most Polish migrants come from conservative small towns and villages. They find their views liberalised by life in the big city, but encounter a Church hierarchy felt to be deeply conservative. Thanks to Eastern European immigration, the Catholic population in London is now growing – but not quite booming.

Most of the Polish builders, labourers and cleaners I worked and lived with in London were new immigrants – from working-class rural families – and many expressed a frustration with the bourgeois “old Poles” who had arrived in the 1940s and 80s and dominated the Polish churches. Many felt that a certain snobbery towards the “rabble” had made these places much less welcoming than they could have been. Others told me that they have drifted away from the Church, reflecting what is happening in Poland itself – where regular church attendance has fallen below 40 per cent of the population for the first time in decades.

St George’s Cathedral, Southwark: church attendance is rising in the capital (Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

St George’s Cathedral, Southwark: church attendance is rising in the capital (Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

What about Islam? London is now a city of more than 400 mosques (compared with nearly 5,000 churches). The biggest are the size of small cathedrals and can hold 5,000 worshippers. But most are invisible, cramped, draughty, and without minarets, found in converted shop fronts and even old garages. With so many streams of South Asian, Arab, Somali and even Eastern European Islam, it is tough to characterise the average Muslim Londoner. Except for one thing: he or she probably prays in an overcrowded room. Researching This Is London I came to feel that this experience plays its part in radicalising youth. One interviewee told me it felt like “we are part of the underground religion, of the unwanted races”.

The different sides of Muslim London are keen to draw caricatures of each other’s mosques. Faithful London Muslims keep a mental map in mind of the city’s places of worship: which ones are so-called “revert [ie convert] mosques”, which ones are “old people’s homes”. The most common caricature I heard on the streets was that South Asian mosques, where the prayers are said in English and in a South Asian language, were increasingly day-care centres for the community’s elderly. The youth-dominated Salafist mosques are the more fun places to be, apparently.

London’s transformation into an immigrant mega-city is only just beginning. At current rates of influx, which experts agree are unlikely to diminish as long as Britain does not leave the European Union and its common market, the majority of Londoners will be foreign-born by 2031. I expect London’s new spirituality to become more visible in the years to come as communities grow richer and more confident.

So it’s high time to ditch a few myths. ‘‘London values’’ are not what many people assume. According to the 2011 census, only one in five Londoners are atheist or agnostic – compared with one in four in the country as a whole. The new London is the region where the fewest births are out of wedlock – just 36 per cent compared with, say, 59 per cent in the secular North East. The villages and the small towns in the provinces, not inner London, are where the godless are.

Anyone who walks around London will notice one sign of the change: the growth in “street preachers”, whether Evangelicals or Muslims. Little heard-of a decade ago, apart from the odd prophet of impending doom at Oxford Circus, they are now a regular sight on most of London’s high streets. They are here to stay.

Ben Judah is a contributing writer at Politico Europe. This Is London: Life and Death in the World City is published by Picador

This article first appeared in the March 11 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here

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