Moral bankruptcy in Sutton? Far from it!
An article in the Sutton Advertiser today bemoans the reduction in numbers of residents counting themselves as Christians in Sutton borough – a twelve percent drop in the past decade – with one pastor interpreting this as evidence that society is going “morally bankrupt.”
“Sutton faces becoming “morally bankrupt”, borough church leaders have warned, due to a sharp decline in the number of Christians and an apparent upsurge of atheists.
“Data from the 2011 Census shows 58 per cent of people – 110,285 of Sutton’s 190,146 population – now consider themselves Christian, compared with 70.5 per cent in 2001.
“Despite still being the largest faith group, the drop makes Christianity the fastest declining religion.
“Sina Adesanya, pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Carshalton, said: ‘Society is going to go bankrupt at the rate we are going, especially in morality. It’s going down faster than I ever thought.
“‘It is very disappointing and it’s very worrying. People are left alone to do things the way they want to and the doctrines of God are not being passed down from generation to generation any more.’
“Martin Camroux, vicar of Trinity Church in Cheam Road, added: “It is a reflection of a society that has been secularising for the last 50 years.’”.
The reality is it’s the Church of England who are morally bankrupt, not Christianity in general. Traditional CofE churches have been shutting up shop over many years as their aged congregation float upwards to meet their maker and the institution fails to replenish their pews with more youthful flock.
The recent vote against the ordination of women and lobbying for the ‘triple-lock’ to prevent any obligation to marry gay and lesbian couples has made the traditional church look more removed than ever from society while offering precious-little to get excited about for those who agree with such views.
By contrast charismatic and pentecostal churches have been enjoying a major renaissance. And not just African and Caribbean churches either. Holy Brompton church in west London has long since been transformed from a dying traditional church to a vibrant evangelical organisation running popular Alpha courses and much more. Elim churches are also on the up.
Black-majority churches, meanwhile, have seen an incredible explosion over the past couple of decades and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. From the well-known New Testament churches to the growth of the Potters House franchise of US pastor TD Jakes, the collective charismatic church has taken hold of the capital.
The mega-churches like KICC and Ruach are swelling and expanding, and there is a proliferation of small and medium churches springing up all the time.
People identifying themselves as Christian may have shrunk in Sutton, but the opposite is true in Barking and Dagenham, the London borough that has witnessed the fastest growth in the Black African and Caribbean population.
Barking and Dagenham has witnessed a stunning 73 percent increase in Africans between 2001 and 2011, largely attracted to the lowest property prices in London for ‘cottage estate’ houses with gardens. Essentially the only place in the capital that families of moderate means could purchase such a house.
It is no coincidence that the latest census figures show that the Christian population of Barking and Dagenham has more than doubled in the past decade, rising from 113,000 to 277,000. No talk of moral bankruptcy there.
There is no doubt that if the census had defined between Church of England stalwarts and followers of the more lively churches it would have shown the CofE trend falling even more sharply while the evangelical footfall climbs to the heavens.
Last week I reported that the BAME population of Sutton had doubled in the same decade to 20 percent. The African and Caribbean population is just under five percent, a significant increase in itself. It is likely that a growing proportion of these residents are Christian.
We have already seen an increase in the numbers of small and medium evangelical ‘mainstream’ churches in Sutton. United Life, which meets at the Empire cinema and runs the Tazza cafe in the High Street, is expanding. The Sutton Christian Centre, which meet at Greenshaw High School in my Sutton North ward, and the Sutton Family Church are among those also doing well. I have visited all three.
There has also been a growth in small to medium Black-majority churches in Sutton. There’s a Ghanaian church at Manor Park school and two Black churches meet at the Granfers Community Centre – again in Sutton North ward – including a Potters House one.
I predict that all these evangelical churches – both ‘mainstream’ and Black-majority varieties – will continue to grow while the traditional church dies off, literally. The decline in Christianity in Sutton highlighted by the 2011 census is almost certainly a feature of the changing demographics of the borough not some moral bankruptcy.
The likelihood is that numbers of Christians will begin to rise again in Sutton as the evangelical churches win over yet more followers. If the African and Caribbean population continue the upward trend will get more wind in the sails.
In many senses this is good news. Evangelical churches tend to be more active in the community. I am aware of several community projects and young Christian rappers from two churches in particular can be seen and heard spittin’ their God-inspired lyrics to backing tracks every Saturday in the High Street.
It all adds to the vibrancy of the borough, as well as actively reaching out to those in need and offering practical help as well as the Gospel.
The attractiveness of evangelical churches to youth is well-noted. I am not Christian myself but I have no doubt that the youth-driven activism of many churches is helping divert the lives young people from a path of destructiveness, and across London many social ills would be considerably worse were it not for the charismatic churches.
Of course some such churches have their problems too. Clearly accountability and standard-setting is still needed. A small minority of newer African churches go too far in blending Christianity with other spiritual beliefs and practices. Some churches are too cliquey, others too greedy. But I believe they are the exception rather than the rule.
Most are welcoming. Their Sunday messages delivered with a passion entirely absent from many Church of England services. And the vibrant musical style of worship – which even the ‘mainstream’ evangelical churches have borrowed from the black-majority church – delivers cracking entertainment.
Some traditional churches have belatedly woken up to this, getting in the drum-kit and other modern instruments, but most still rank well-behind the evangelicals for experience.
The biggest ‘issue’ that I have with evangelical churches is their more literal interpretation of the Word, often to the point of dogma. Much of it grates painfully in-between my social-Liberalism on one side, and my historical knowledge and Pan-Africanism on the other. But each to their own, I’m not going to beat them or join them.
We can have a theological argument about whether there is any moral vacuum in their doctrine but what is clear is that Christianity is not dying out, it is evolving and much of it is expanding. Amen to that!
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway