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Maybe it doesn’t sound like it, but it is the Church of England

02 June 2017

On the eve of Pentecost, Madeleine Davies listens to the voices of foreign-language speakers and multilingual congregations in the C of E

Hugo Adán-Fernández

From every nation: the Revd Hugo Adán-Fernández with the Latin American mission

From every nation: the Revd Hugo Adán-Fernández with the Latin American mission

Everytime I think I’ve forgotten,
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,
it blossoms out of my mouth.


SUJATA BHATT’s poem “Search for my Tongue” is a meditation, written partly in Gujarati, about what it is like to have “two tongues in your mouth”. The conflict that it describes is likely to resonate with an increasing number of wor­shippers in the C of E, who are listening to services in English, a foreign tongue.

“Crying and hoping together to­­wards God is something which is so strong and powerful,” the Assistant Curate at St Laurence’s, Catford, the Revd Hugo Adán-Fernández, reflects. He helps to lead a Hispanic mission: “It is a challenge to do that in a differ­ent language.”

One in eight people in the UK were born abroad, and eight per cent have a tongue other than English as their main language. So churches are increasingly investing in ways to en­­sure that language is not a barrier to worship for the souls in their care. At the same time, they are reflecting on how to balance this with the need for integration.

It is a pertinent question, given concerns about communities’ living “parallel lives”, and calls by politi­cians and others for a greater onus on immigrants to learn English.


IN THE parish of St James’s, Al­­perton, in west London, home to a large Gujarati-speaking population, most people were born abroad, and almost half are Hindu. The church has four congregations, including Hindi-speaking and Tamil-speaking ones, who come together regularly to worship. At these services of celeb­­­­ration, multiple languages are used, and translations are available for all. It is an approach in which “every­one is equally inconveni­enced”, one of its priests, the Revd Steve Taylor, says.

“People have gone on a journey here, where there’s a sense that they shouldn’t have to change, that they should be able to have worship the way they like it,” he explains. “Actu­ally, the challenge is God calls us to reach out to other people and serve other people. While worship that feeds us is important, we also need to have an outward focus where we are thinking about what helps people who don’t currently come to church.”

ST PAUL’S, STRATFORDSt Paul and St James, Stratford, where multiple languages are spoken and translations are delivered via headsetsThe Revd Alison Taylor — who, with her husband, Steve, is joint Vicar — is enthusiastic about enab­ling worship in the mother tongues of the congregants.

“However good your English is, if the language of your heart is not English, then, if the church only speaks English, you are continually translating, and you cannot speak the language that God meets you in,” she argues. At PCC meetings, members are encouraged to pray in their own language. Mr Taylor tells them: “We trust that what you are praying is good and godly, because we know you, and we will say ‘Amen’ at the end.”

The leadership of the church re­­flects its diverse make-up: the Assistant Cur­ate, the Revd Ajay More, was born in India; the Revd Amelia Jacob, a Pakistani priest, serves as an NSM; and the PCC contains representat­ives from all four of its congrega­tions including Joy Joseph, who helps lead in Tamil. Mr and Mrs Taylor are speaking to several members about ordination, in­­clud­ing a number for whom English is not their mother tongue. They are conscious that the path ahead may not be easy, given the need to be able to read and write English at a high level.

Mr More, who is reaching the end of his curacy, is pondering questions about where his future lies, having invested in relationships in the parish. He is excited about the potential for the C of E to reach mi­norities, but feels that it “doesn’t know exactly how to attract them, or to care for them”.

Crossing barriers is about more than language, the team believe. The culture of the four congrega­tions varies: fellowship at the morn­ing English-speaking services might focus on “small talk around the tea and coffee”, but members of the Hindi and Tamil congregations would think nothing of asking for a mobile-phone number of a new ac­­quaintance, or texting late at night to request prayer.

The readiness to share troubles is something that Mr Taylor hopes can be absorbed by the English-speaking congregations, who are more likely to “struggle alone” away from church.


MANCHESTER, where 200 lan­guages are spoken, is reported to be the most linguistically diverse city in Western Europe. It is estimated that half the city’s adult population is multilingual. In 2015, the diocese appointed a mission-support priest for cultural diversity, the Revd Omid Moludy, who was given the task of providing pastoral care to congregations whose first language was not English.

After arriving from Iran, Mr Moludy pioneered a Persian church in Greater Manchester which now has 120 attending. When he first started his job, he noticed that “usually, people from minority backgrounds were sitting at the back, not really involved in the life of the Church — not always because the Church did not want to involve them, but be­­cause of the language and culture barrier.”

Many churches want to join the C of E, he says, “as they are inde­pend­ent, like an isolated island, and they want to join the Anglican fam­ily”. Yet he fears that the national Church does not have plans for non-English speaking churches to do so, because “nobody knows how to deal with that, legally.”

It is notable that non-English-speaking congregations are, in some areas, helping the C of E to fill churches that are facing uncertain futures. St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, is to be home to a new Chinese congregation, led by a Mandarin-speaking priest.

ST PAUL’S, STRATFORDOrder of service for the new French service at St Paul and St JamesMr Moludy has also diagnosed “some racism in the Church”, in­­cluding some that he has experi­enced personally. Among the pro­jects that he is de­­veloping is a database of clergy who can speak different languages, and a guide to support people who convert to Christianity. He is con­scious of many asylum-seekers who want to convert to Christianity who are suffering from trauma, and a lack of training available for priests who may be trying to sup­port them.

“If you look at the history of Anglicanism, we sent missionaries overseas for so many years to pro­claim the gospel of Jesus Christ; now the nations are here,” he says. “The responsibility of the Church is to help these people to keep their ident­ity and language, and still be part of the bigger family of the Anglican Church.”


IN THE London borough of South­wark, Spanish is now the second most-spoken language: 8.9 per cent of the population identify them­selves as Latin American (about 8000 people). Eighteen months ago, Mr Adán-Fernández met families who lived in London, in the Elephant and Castle area, who were interested in a Spanish service. The five or six people who convened have now grown to a worshipping congrega­tion of between 60 and 100, who meet twice a month at St Philip and St Mark, Avondale Square, in Camber­well.

He agrees with others that lan­guage is about more than compre­hension. “Your language connects you with your memories, with your background and culture; so it’s some­thing beyond reason, especially when you are an immigrant,” he explains.

Problems faced by the commun­ity can include visa problems caused by poor English, he says. “When it’s difficult even to go to your GP, to be able to express all that frustration, all your dreams, sorrows, and hopes, and everything in your own lan­guage to God is quite powerful, and not only in your private room, but to be able to do that with commun­ity.”

He believes that there are lessons to be learned from experience in the United States, where there are bilingual parishes serving the Latino communities. He has been spending time there to learn about the model.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to create a ghetto where people can live and worship in Spanish without ap­­pre­ciating the culture of the country where we are living,” he observes.


THE importance of immigrants’ learning English was reiterated this year in a report by a parliamentary group on integration (News, 13 January). Also this year, it was re­ported that funding for ESOL (Eng­lish for Speakers of Other Languages) has been more than halved over the past seven years. C of E churches are involved in delivering free classes.

At St Paul and St James, Stratford, where languages from Bulgarian to Yoruba are spo­ken by worshippers, technology is being de­­ployed in the form of translations delivered by headsets. In a recent Church House podcast, the Vicar, the Revd Jeremy Fraser, described how a recent baptism of Bulgarians was carried out in English, in a ser­vice largely held in Portuguese: “So people were swapping over the headphone sets, depending on what bit of the service we were in. But we rub along well together, and it’s fun.”

ST JAMES’S, ALPERTONChange-makers: the Revd Ajay More leads a Pentecost celebration at St James’s, Alperton, last yearA traditional Anglican service is still held on Sunday morning, but hymns will be often be sung in dif­ferent languages. The Revd Pro­fessor Jeanette Meadway, an NSM at the church, would like the C of E to develop liturgies for communion, baptism, confirmation, funerals, and weddings in collaboration with teachers of ESOL, so that people with a limited vocabulary can understand them.

She remembers one young man coming up to her after a service in which members of the congregation were asked to say the Lord’s Prayer in their own language. He described “a profound experience he had of the closeness to God during the service, and especially during the Lord’s Prayer. He only heard the prayer in Yoruba. People were pray­ing in many languages, and I didn’t hear Yoruba at all.”

St Paul’s has two Bulgarian assist­ant cur­ates: the Revd Ivo Anderson, and the Revd Milen Bennett.

Mr Bennett believes that language “may be the most basic and import­ant cultural marker after fervent religious faith”, and that the “relati­vely basic level” of English of many people from other nationalities is a “major issue when trying to reach them with the gospel, and then teach them the Bible”.

A person’s mother-tongue “in­­vokes feelings and emotions which go back to the very early child de­­velopment of the individual, and its psychological imprinting makes it a fantastic help to bring down some mental barriers and offer spiritual relaxation in service.

”Of course, a Spirit-filled sermon, with translation for those who need it, is equally touching and effective as one in the native tongue; so we shouldn’t overstate the language’s importance; but it is still very im­­portant and a facilitating skill to possess.”

He also believes that, while other languages should be encouraged, "conditions should be created which would make English language easy to learn and engage with," arguing that "unity is not really possible without a lingua franca."

The newest foreign-language service at the church is a French one, held monthly. It was set up by José Mbenga, who also believes that the incorporation of other cultures “must not erode traditional values”.

“We need to uphold some tradi­tions whilst we adopt a progressive attitude to change,” he says. “Many people resist cultural integration, as they believe it requires a denial of their history, identity, and values. Those who reject multiculturalism often wrongly assume it involves welcoming other cultures and no longer maintaining or having any pride in their own.

“Good integration values the best aspects of a country’s history, and seeks to embrace social change.”

People born in other cultures have gifts that must be cultivated, he says, and the Church has “lost time” in integrating communities.


DIOCESE OF MANCHESTERThe Revd Omid Moludy, who has pioneered a Persian church in Greater ManchesterWHILE headsets that offer trans­la­tions may be a relatively new development, sign-language interpreters have been working in churches for many years, and also at the General Synod, where Mary Bucknall represents Deaf Anglicans Together. British Sign Language (BSL) was officially recognised as a language by the UK Government in 2003.

Ms Bucknall warns that provision of interpretation is “patchy”, and “mostly found in the big cities and towns”, although she has found a priest in a village who arranged for an interpreter to sign the commu­nion service once a month.

“I imagine the impact of the sign­ing on the hearing congregation must have been quite ‘pictorial’ and moving at times,” she says. “How­ever, deaf Christians often prefer to worship together as a Deaf Church, where all the services are in BSL, without the need for inter­preters and note-takers.”

In some dioceses, there is a dedic­ated chaplain for deaf people, and, in others, there are licensed lay ministers. Deaf Anglicans Together are working to encourage and train deaf people to “step forward and use their gifts” in leading worship in BSL. “The more provision and support for deaf people there is in the Church to combat isolation, ignor­ance, and discrimination, the bet­ter,” Ms Bucknall says.


A SENSE of isolation is one of the challenges that are being addressed by the Zinafe Anglican Fellowship (ZAF). “Living in the United King­dom means that we meet daily challenges that can leave us feeling weary, cheated, and alone,” the web­site reads. “Through Zinafe and the branches, we have the assurance of worth and value through Christ who brought us together.”

About 1000 people born in Zimbabwe live in Bradford (0.2 per cent of the population), and, in the five years after he arrived in 2000, Lenny Danga had “very little contact” with anyone from his country. Now, through the ZAF North branch, he has people who “understand how I am”. He speaks of a sense of belonging and support, outside Sunday services, from people who “know when you are strug­gling”.

Founded in 2009, in the diocese of Chester, by the Rector of Tattenhall, Canon Lameck Mutete, five years after his arrival in the UK, ZAF en­­courages participants to worship weekly in C of E parishes, besides joining its monthly gatherings for fellowship “in the style we are ac­­customed to”.

The North branch has grown from just a few families to more than 50 regular attending, and meets monthly at St Stephen’s, Bowling, in Bradford. Worship is held in two languages: Shona and Ndebele.

“Faith is personal, and the only way you grow your own faith is by understanding,” Mr Danga says. “Our understanding comes from our own local language. I have a certain understanding of something explained to me in my own lan­guage. It enriches your own faith. It maintains our own way of worship, which is very, very important to us as culture.”


THE multiple languages spoken in the UK include those native to its isles. The Church in Wales has been bilingual since the Reformation: Welsh and English enjoy equal sta­tus. Queen Elizabeth I introduced a law commanding that the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible be translated into Welsh in 1563.

Although many churches in Wales hold services and events in Welsh, or bilingually, Eglwys Dewi Sant, Cardiff, is the only parish church where all activities, from worship to social activities and gov­ernance meetings, are conducted in Welsh.

The Vicar, the Revd Dyfrig Lloyd, grew up speaking Welsh; English was his second language. “In my own experience, theological, litur­gical words don’t have the same resonance in your second language as your first. It’s the language of the heart: the way you express your emotions and your feelings much more freely than you can in your first language.”

In recent years, Welsh has been removed from the global Endan­gered Languages list, which Mr Dyfrig attributes to the flourishing of Welsh schools, although he is still concerned for its future.

"The Welsh language allows people a greater wealth of experiences, of entering into the rich heritage of Wales's literature and poetry, which goes back centuries," he reflects. "It's also a beautiful language to express yourself through, and it marks out identity as well. It's one of the oldest Celtic languages still in use day to day."

Today, people travel long dis­tances to come to Eglwys Dewi Sant, including Welsh learners who want to practise. All the service books, apart from the hymn book, are written in both languages, and are, Mr Lloyd thinks, “a gateway into the rich cultural herit­age associated with the Church”.


IN ALPERTON, the congregations are preparing to come together for the Pentecost celebration. Last year, Mr More brought the biblical scene to life by getting members to read out the same Bible passage in their mother tongue, while playing the sound of rushing wind.

Mrs Taylor cites another passage as an inspiration for the church: “There before me was a great multi­tude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and lan­guage” (Revelation 7.9).

“We will end up at this point,” Mr Taylor says. “It might be a shock to you, or you might already have been joining in. But you will, at one point, end up here.”


'Tongues of fire'

Watch the Pentecost celebration at St James's, Alperton, 2016


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