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Black churches’ rapid growth is causing ‘growing pains’

28 June 2013

ALEX WINN

Record-breaker: choir mem­bers at the 30 Choir Festival, held at the Royal Festival Hall, London, over the May Bank Holi­day, break the Guinness record for the world's largest gos­pel choir singing together in concert conditions

Record-breaker: choir mem­bers at the 30 Choir Festival, held at the Royal Festival Hall, London, over the May Bank Holi­day, break the Guinness rec...

NEW research exploring the "rapid growth" of new black majority churches (nBMC) in Southwark has found that there are 25 in just one London street.

Being Built Together, the final report of the study, suggests that the 240 nBMCs in the borough are a "gift to London", but says that the relationship between them and their neighbours is not always a good one.

The report is the product of a two-year research project conducted by the University of Roehampton; an association of church leaders, Southwark for Jesus; and Churches Together in South London. The catalyst for the study was the difficulty that the churches have encountered in finding suitable premises. Between 2000 and 2011, just 24 per cent of applications for planning permission from nBMCs were granted by Southwark Council.

Dr Andrew Rogers, a senior lecturer in practical theology at the University of Roehampton, and author of the report, concluded that the churches, attended by more than 20,000 congregants every Sunday, represent "the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world, outside of Africa".

Visits by researchers identified more than 25 such churches on the Old Kent Road. They provide a "home from home" for migrant communities, and they are "a spiritual, social and economic asset to the city and its boroughs".

The report also raises questions about the "inward-looking nature" of some nBMCs, and their lack of affiliation with an umbrella organisation, saying that there was a need for "accountability, and avoiding replication in ministry and mission".

The rapid expansion of nBMCs - there are twice as many as other churches in Southwark - has caused "growing pains", the report says. A report produced by the Greater London Authority in 2008 identified the unauthorised use of industrial buildings as places of worship as the "most significant breach of planning control involving change of use" in Southwark. There are still 41 outstanding cases.

Most of the church leaders interviewed for the report had a "tortuous story to tell" about securing premises, and Dr Rogers concludes that "much of the wider Church is not experiencing homelessness to the same degree".

The report also says that reading testimonies from neighbours about their experience and perception of nBMCs was "deeply disturbing". One resident wrote about being reduced to tears by a lack of sleep caused by "incessant noise" at a church. Dr Rogers writes: "There does seem to be an attempt by neighbours to distance the congregations, as 'not from here', and not 'our community', largely without evidence."

He concludes that "low-level anti-social behaviour" by nBMCs is occurring, and that a "significant number" are being "bad neighbours".

One of the 16 recommendations in the report is that Southwark Council should avoid granting further planning permission to churches in areas where a high concentration of nBMCs is likely to intensify problems with traffic and noise. The church leaders should take anti-social behaviour seriously, and emphasise the good that they bring to neighbourhoods to counteract an "image problem".

The council should also generate a specific policy on faith premises, it says, and help congregations to share premises.

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