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Parish embraces Pentecost story — all year round    

17 May 2024

Madeleine Davies reports on a parish taking an intercultural approach

MADELEINE DAVIES

The congregation at St James’s, Alperton, in the London Borough of Brent

The congregation at St James’s, Alperton, in the London Borough of Brent

WHEN members of the congregation of St James’s, Alperton, in Brent, north-west London, meet for worship at Pentecost, they will sing hymns incorporating eight different languages, hear the Bible read in Chinese and Tamil, listen to the eucharist liturgy in French, and be invited to pray “in the language of your heart”.

While it may seem particularly apt, given the feast day, this approach is now the norm at the church. While for decades it has welcomed worshippers from different cultures, and enabled them to pray and worship in their mother tongue (Features, 2 June 2017), the “intercultural approach”, in which the parish’s diverse communities worship together in multiple languages, is a relatively new direction. What Professor Andrew Root might call the “watchword” at St James’s (Features, 25 August 2023) is Acts 10.34: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism.”

 

REFLECTING on the journey to this point, the Revd Ali Taylor and the Revd Steve Taylor, who joined St James’s as joint vicars in 2012, recall a sense that “God was asking us to go further.” They inherited four congregations, including Hindi-speaking and Tamil-speaking ones, and, while these groups came together regularly to worship, they remained distinct gatherings.

As time passed, further joint services were added, and worshippers were encouraged to visit one another’s services. But, Mrs Taylor says, some in the church felt inspired to consider a more radical change. One model was the Trinity, in which “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equal.”

In the end, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that proved the catalyst. The church was advised that it could have one service. But how to choose? In the end, the decision was taken to have one service that incorporated elements from each of the four.

The English congregation was the first to ask for the reinstatement of their own service. But by this point, new people had joined the one service at 10.30 a.m. “We didn’t feel it was right to cancel it, in case more English people came to an English service,” Mrs Taylor recalls. “So we had an exodus of English speakers who didn’t like to hear other languages. And that’s fine; there are lots of English churches that people can go to. But this is what God is doing here.”

A similar thing happened with the Hindi-speaking congregation, who had been travelling for miles. “For bums and seats and for money, it hurt,” she says. “But, for the soul of the church, it felt like the right thing to do.”

TODAY, the church is growing again. Two weeks before Pentecost, the service begins with coffee and pastries at the back of the building, while, at the front, a large screen proclaims “Welcome” in English, Tamil, and French. Playing in the background is worship music sung in Hindi, Farsi, Tamil, and English.

Among the worshippers arriving are an Iranian family. They bring good news: their visas have been granted, and they can remain in the country. The mother tells a delighted Mr Taylor that they have been waiting for this morning to bring him their news.

The service begins with a prayer, before the congregation are invited to share something for which they are thankful, “in the language of your heart”. This, Mrs Taylor tells me later, is a legacy of the pandemic, when such prayers replaced the singing that was prohibited.

Mrs Taylor plays the guitar, accompanied by ten-year-old Heidi, as we sing “God is so good”: a hymn by the Namibian minister Paul Makai, with each line in a different language. In total, worshippers will hear ten different tongues spoken: English, Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Farsi, Afrikaans, Bulgarian, French, Chinese, and Yoruba.

The first reading is Acts 10.44-48, read in Farsi by the father of the family with newly granted visas. An English translation is available on screen. The second reading, 1 John 5.1-6m is read boldly by eight-year-old Tabitha.

”As a family here, we speak different languages; we have different ways of being well-behaved; we have different ways of showing kindness; but we have one Father, one Spirit, one Son, and one baptism; and, look, we all need the Holy Spirit,” Mrs Taylor explains in her sermon, which emphasises the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a time of prayer, the invitation to pray in our own languages, and to listen to those of others, is repeated. And, after a time of prayer, communion, and a final blessing, the congregation is invited to join either an English “worship space” or a prayer walk out in the parish. The space rotates across the languages week by week.

 

OVER in the church kitchen, a Sri Lankan feast is being prepared. In the past, Mr Taylor says, a “bring and share” lunch was in place, but resulted in people eating their own food, and sitting with those who spoke the same language. Since the pandemic, just one cuisine is prepared so that everyone has the opportunity to both serve, and be served.

The experience can be transformative, he suggests, recalling how an Iranian, with her family, spent hours one Saturday evening, cooking in the church kitchen. “The difference it made to her sense of self, her sense of dignity — that she could offer something of her culture that everyone was enjoying: she glowed. It was beautiful.”

Today, the meal is prefaced by a short talk by Anishkaa Worthington, who was born in the UK and attended St James’s before leaving for Sri Lanka when she was five. The family returned in 2017, and she now works for the organisation Southall Black Sisters. In her remarks, she asks for prayer for greater religious freedom in Sri Lanka, where she is aware that, in certain areas, it can be “very, very difficult to practise Christianity”, partly because of its association with colonialism.

Life as a Christian can be different for those who grow up in communities where it is not the majority religion, she tells me. She describes St James’s, which her father attended for 30 years before their departure for Sri Lanka, as a “safe space: the only place they have in their own lives where they don’t have to meet the expectations of being a good immigrant and having to blend in, especially when they can express themselves to God in their own language.”

 

ST JAMES’s is operating against a backdrop of increased commitment to racial justice in the Church of England, and wider conversations in society about the integration of immigrants. At their last awayday, the PCC discussed “the difference between assimilation and integration”. English is the common language at the church, and English-language lessons are available (through which some participants have come to faith); but, Mrs Taylor says, “the church service is there to honour God, not to enforce a language.”

MADELEINE DAVIESThe Revd Ali Taylor presides at the eucharist

“This whole colonialism — ‘You must be like us’ — stuff is so close behind everybody’s thoughts,” she says. “I think St James’s is on the way to trying to heal some of that. But I think that some people don’t like the freedom that that might possibly give. They would rather fit in, assimilate, hide, and then you’ve got nothing to lose when actually you have already lost so much, because you are not bringing yourself, and God loves your self.”

Edna Emmanuel, who has been coming to the church since 1989, and has since served as a churchwarden, agrees that the transition to an intercultural service “hasn’t been smooth. We have lost people along the way, whether they didn’t like the different languages, or it was just different to what they had. But we are growing again; so the people that are now coming, that’s all they know.” Her hope for the future is for “people to come in and see that they are accepted”. She thinks of a new Chinese worshipper who prayed aloud in Mandarin the very first Sunday he attended.

Around the church, the parish is growing in population. Between the 2011 and 2021 census, it grew by more than one third, and further construction is evident: the council has plans for 6000 new homes in the area. The new growth in the church is coming from people seeking out “their local church”, Mrs Taylor reports, and some of this may be transient. Those granted visas, for example, may be rehoused outside the borough.

This is where the intercultural approach works well, she suggests, “because we add in”. The service itself is a form of preserving memories: departed worshippers are remembered through the retention of their language. The congregation still sings “God is good” in Bulgarian, despite the fact that “Dima” now lives elsewhere.

 

WHEN the 10.30-a.m. service was started during the pandemic, it was simply called the “common service”. The language of “intercultural” is one that the church has acquired more recently, and something that is growing in resonance, the Taylors believe. In March, 200 people attended the three-day Anglican Intercultural Mission Conference, a partnership between the Anglican Network of Intercultural Churches and the diocese of Leicester.

This year brought the publication of Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World: Reflections on gift exchange (Church House Publishing), by the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, and his co-authors (Comment, 3 May).

Interculturalism is, he argues, a third option to assimilation and multiculturalism, “a narrative that not only combats fear, but also makes love of one’s neighbour tangibly real, seeing them as a gift to you, just as you can be a gift to them”.

Among his co-authors is the Area Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, who will be presiding in Alperton on Sunday. St James’s is unique, but not exclusive, he says. While a number of monolinguistic church communities are emerging, there is also, he says, “a huge appetite, particularly from second- and third-generation communities wanting to be part of establishing churches that aren’t built around ethnic or linguistic lines”.

But he is conscious, too, of “the temptation of painting things positively. We ought to recognise some of the pressures that it also puts in terms of community cohesion, and the opportunities to then get involved in conversations that lead to creative initiatives.” The evidence suggests, he says, that turning a church into an intercultural space is “generally not the quickest way towards growth, because the default for all of us in many ways is to be in practically homogeneous spaces.

“So, it is about building new institutional muscle-memory, and developing new patterns of relating with one another, and renegotiating some of the dynamics of power that often assumes when you walk into a space that has a relatively homogeneous and monocultural shape to it . . . that whoever comes in will assimilate into the norm. What the intercultural church does is to redistribute all of the normative cards and invite everyone to participate in shaping the new dynamic.”

In recent years, he reports, the Church, “both locally and globally, is finding better ways of articulating a theological rationale for intercultural ministry. Once your eyes have been opened to that, it’s very difficult to imagine a church otherwise than intercultural.”

 

IN ALPERTON, the PCC will shortly be drawing up a parish profile, as the Taylors prepare to move to new posts at St Paul’s, Harrow. What has their experience so far taught them?

“It’s reinforced our sense that you can’t dictate what’s going to happen,” Mr Taylor says. “For us, it’s that sense that everyone is journeying; so you treat everyone with dignity, and you trust that God is at work in these different people.” For Mrs Taylor, it has led her to ask, “What’s my culture?” The child of parents from two different countries, she moved around while she was growing up, and has been prompted to ask “What is it to not fit? And where do you find your home?”

Leaving Alperton, the couple do not feel anxious about the recruitment of their successors.

“I have every confidence that someone will come, look around, and go ‘Oh, this is beautiful,’” Mrs Taylor says. “I don’t think the church will choose somebody with their old colonial hat on that says you want a white skin tone, you want a male rather than a female. I am fairly confident that they are able to recognise themselves as a bit more, and God in themselves a bit more.”

During the service, we sing “Good, good Father” by Chris Tomlin and Pat Barrett, and I spot the Iranian father, newly granted permission to remain here, sing with evident joy the line in Farsi.
 

A free webinar, “Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World”, organised by the Church Times and Church House Publishing, will be held on 28 May at 6 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, click here

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