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25 June 2013

Evangelical Alliance ‘valuable to black-majority churches’

The London Borough of Southwark is home to more than 250 new black-majority churches (nBMCs), over twice the number of historic congregations, finds a new study into this area of church life in the borough.

Being Built Together (BBT), the final report of a two-year research project from the University of Roehampton, considers the spread of nBMCs in Southwark as well as looking at the nature of these churches and the challenges they face.

Over the past few decades the number of nBMCs has grown rapidly across London, but particularly in Southwark, and church leaders, community and local authority organisations supported this research to better understand this growth and the issues relating to it. One of the issues that provided a catalyst for BBT was the challenge for congregations of finding premises, and the linked issues of change of use and planning permission.

Across the borough 252 nBMCs were found, with 36 taking part in the research project through visits, interviews and questionnaires. As startling as the concentration of congregations across the borough is, even more remarkable is that nearly half of them, 118, operate in a single postcode area – SE15. The churches are largely, but not exclusively, Pentecostal, and tend to have strong international links. They are mostly African with a large proportion of congregants of West African origin.

Report author Dr Andrew Rogers commented: "The situation in London is not unique, though it is perhaps at its most intense in Southwark. We hope that by highlighting the problems that they face, the borough of Southwark and on a regional scale, the GLA ; the new black-majority churches, and the Church as a whole will take on board our report's recommendations to work towards finding innovative and lasting solutions to address these issues."

Church premises have to be classified as D1 by the council to be used as a place of worship, and Southwark was found to have the largest incidence of planning breaches of any London borough. This means nBMCs were renting and on occasion buying premises that did not come under the D1 use class. The situation has improved recently. In August 2011 there were 88 cases of unauthorised use which has decreased to 41 as of May 2013. However, between 2000 and 2011 there were 149 planning applications from places of worship, of which 60 per cent were from nBMCs, of these applications only 24 per cent were granted, 47 per cent refused and the rest either withdrawn or invalid.

The congregations were found to be clustered in a few specific areas with very high numbers of churches, on one industrial estate cited in the report 13 churches were located. It recommends that local authorities consider the value that congregations bring to their community when deciding whether to approve planning permission, and that a regional scope is taken for such decisions extending beyond the borough.

Being Built Together recognises that relationships between nBMCs and their neighbours are not always good, and suggests that the current planning problems lead to a competitive relationship between the churches and the local authority. It notes: "We find the 'equality and diversity' language insufficient for capturing the particular contributions and needs of faith groups, as it can easily be reductionist, portraying faith groups as victims in need of protection, rather than as active agents in society."

The study recognises the valuable role played by the umbrella bodies that are linked to the nBMCs in Southwark. Yet it found that less than 20 per cent of nBMCs were affiliated to the local umbrella organisation, Southwark for Jesus, and a similar number were members of the Evangelical Alliance.

The report comments: "The role of the local umbrella body was seen as key in offering a safe ecumenical space for pastors, although strategies for increasing participation are still needed. Local prayer networks for church leaders were understood to be valuable for, amongst other things, building relationships between different churches and communities."

It recommends that on both a local and a national level such bodies actively seek to include a greater number of nBMCs.

Fran Beckett, CEO of Transform Southwark, and a member of the Alliance council, said: "There has been a rapid growth in the number of new black-majority churches in the borough of Southwark over the last couple of decades. With that, the issues of finding suitable places for worship and the attendant problems of securing planning permissions for 'change of use' on property has become more acute."

Pastor Lincoln Serwanga, from Liberty Christian Fellowship in Camberwell, welcomed the report's recommendations: "The Being Built Together project has enabled all the various churches to come together and have a meaningful conversation about how we can exist and worship, both together and side by side. We all – new churches and old - need to learn from each other and acknowledge our mutual strengths and weaknesses. The report should help us to develop plans for working together to build God's Church in a lasting and harmonious way."

For more information on joining the Evangelical Alliance, visit www.eauk.org/joinus