STARTING ETHNO-LINGUISTIC CONGREGATIONS

Author: Andy Walton

Date: 02 January 2010

By Revd Preb John Root

General Synod in February 2004 requested the Mission and Public Affairs Council “to consider how the contributions and needs of minority ethnic people relate to an inclusive theology in changing models of church; consider the growing contribution of minority ethnic people to mission and parish renewal; and draw upon the experience of minority ethnic clergy and laity at looking at new ways of being church”. Such an embrace of ethnic diversity by the Church of England is encouraging; though, conversely, it was ominous that the report to Synod ‘Mission Shaped Church’ (hereafter MSC), should take a close look at culture yet still have nothing to say about the church’s ministry to minority ethnic cultures, nor list the growth in size and diversity of Britain’s minority ethnic population as amongst the significant social trends of the last 30 years.

The time has come, therefore, for the Church of England to be considerably more vigorous and creative in its ministry with and to people of minority ethnic backgrounds, including those who form the focus of this paper, that is people whose mother tongue is not English.

In this paper I want to share our experience at St James church in Alperton (which is near Wembley, a somewhat better known place name). For three years now we have had an Urdu/Hindi service at 4 pm each Sunday. At present we average about 30 adults and a dozen children. They are mostly Pakistani Christians with their roots in the mass conversions of Hindus in the early 20th century; and therefore not from out of the majority Moslem Pakistani community. There is also a small group of interrelated Maharati Indian young couples.

We have also just tentatively begun to have a Tamil language service at 1.30pm, normally with about 10 adults attending, all from Sri Lanka – the core of whom have been members of St James for several years, but with a fringe of other Tamils starting to come.

As a preliminary to other points I will make, it is important to begin by stressing the differences between these two services and their congregations. In part this reflects characteristics which are particular to our situation, but also underlines the increasingly recognised point that terms like ’minority ethnic’, ‘ black’ or ‘Asian’ can obscure major differences, and that we are seriously misled if we adopt common policies for very different ethnic groups. In our situation, the differences between Pakistanis and Sri Lankan Tamils outweigh the similarities and make a uniform approach unviable. Differences between the two services in terms of aims, constituency, and relationship to the other congregations will become apparent in this article. It is vital to recognise that there is no one blue-print for an ‘Asian congregation’ – this article is deliberately specific about our experiences at Alperton in order to avoid the impression that our approach can be simply replicated elsewhere.

Aims

Why start a service worshipping in a language other than English? We need to be clear about what our specific aims are, rather than simply thinking it is an exciting or unusual thing to do. Indeed, there may b e good reasons not to start. As well as wasting time and energy and spreading our resources too thinly, we are also dividing the worshipping community on an ethnic basis. Such preferences for culturally homogenous worship may

represent at worst racism, and a desire to separate others off from ourselves )probably from the ‘host’ side); or cultural conservatism and reluctance to engage with the multi-cultural body of Christ in a given locality (probably on the minority group side). From the start therefore there needs to be a clear commitment to the ‘mother tongue’ services by the whole congregation, including both a formal decision by the Church Council, and by regular prayer involving the whole congregation.

One obvious aim is to build the church amongst people for whom, at the least, English may not be their ‘heart language’; or who, more drastically may not be able to function in English at all. For the former, mother tongue worship has a richness and reality, whereas English language services will always seem at one remove from the depths of their being. Significantly, Tamil Christians who can function perfectly well in the English language have told me of the added richness they find in worshipping in their mother tongue. For others, of course, mother tongue worship is the only way they can worship and hear the word of God. This need becomes focussed when there are large numbers of non-English speaking people of non-Christian backgrounds in an area. Either we evangelise in mother tongues, or we don’t evangelise at all. Over the past 20 years a very large number of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have settled in Alperton; mostly Hindu and often with little facility in English. For several years we have struggled to provide some sort of Tamil language fellowship ad worship essential to our mission in the parish. In the last decade or so conversion to Christianity and church planting has been widespread throughout the worldwide Tamil diaspora. (I came across a Tamil convert congregation in Odense, Denmark). Despite the strength of Anglicans in Sri Lanka, the Church of England has so far played little part in this.

As well as evangelism, supporting and strengthening people of Christian background may be another aim. Many members of our Urdu/Hindi congregation are fluent in English, and often attend a variety of English speaking churches in the morning. For them mother tongue worship and music (indigenous Pakistani Christian music is particularly inspiring) can play n important role in sustaining their faith, as well as being essential for those with very limited English, or those in danger of lapsing if they are not able to find warmth of fellowship in a familiar situation.

However we should not be over-sanguine about the evangelistic potential of such Pakistani congregations. On the one hand the experience of being Christians in a hostile Muslim environment has led to there often being thick defensive psychological walls around churches, with very little commitment to seeing Muslims becoming Christians; whilst internally within the Christian community there is a very high level of family relatedness, with the contrasting tendencies of close loyalty and bitter conflict. Western church leaders need to exercise imagination and sensitivity to recognise very different and unfamiliar dynamics of church life. Therefore I see our Urdu/Hindi congregation as aiming firstly to deepen faith and discipleship amongst a fairly defined and restricted network of people from a Christian background, with a real danger that otherwise over a generation or two they will simply lapse in to western irreligious materialism. Beyond this, it is to develop their confidence to contribute much more significantly to the overall life of the church of England.

Leadership

How does one start an ethno-linguistic congregation? As well as there being a legitimate

need for such a congregation, there needs to be suitable leadership and a nucleus of worshippers. Out Urdu/Hindi service began because we has already had on our staff a Pakistani NSM minister, Rev Amelia Jacob , who has originally been ordained to serve an Asia congregation, before coming to St James. It was important that she had several years where her ministry was greatly valued and developed serving across the whole life of a multi-ethnic church. However the time came when we had both a number of possible assistant leaders, and also the potential to strengthen and encourage discipleship amongst the Pakistani Christian community that made a separate service seem desirable.

By contrast, with our Tamil congregation the need has been apparent long before leadership was available. Over the years a number of Sri Lankans in the 25 to 45 age range have joined our church, mostly though not entirely professionals with a strong English language background, and not that typical of the larger refugee and Hindu population in the area. For several years we have had a monthly English language Sri Lankan fellowship of both Tamils and Singhalese. We also held Tamil services ever few months with visiting speakers or with interpreters, supported significantly by the wider network of Tamil Christians in London, and tried unsuccessfully to run weekly Tamil bible studies. But these initiatives were too sporadic to gather a regular constituency amongst the very mobile Tail refugee community in this area. It is only recently, both as our own members have grown in faith and

confidence and since a couple from East London have joined us, that we have had leadership resources to mount a weekly Tamil service. It is still early days, but we believe we will slowly gather a congregation of enquirers and new Christians.

“No one practical factor has a greater influence than the quality of leadership was a key lesson identified by MSC (132). Unsuitable leadership has been a serious problem with the minority ethnic congregations in the Church of England; two of the initial leadership team of our Urdu/Hindi service have withdrawn unsatisfactorily. Discerning suitable leaders is always a delicate task, it becomes particularly difficult when there is a difference of culture, but it is important to be rigorous and not pressured by those who are over ambitious. Poor leadership is damaging to minority ethnic participation in the church; on the other hand leadership which is tried and trusted builds warm working relationships between ethnic groups.

Relationships to the wider church

Accountability is a key issue in setting up ethno-linguistic congregations. There have been ‘Asian congregations’ n London diocese for well over 30 years, but the history has not always been a happy one. (When visiting Pakistan, I was browsing through a book on the sociology of Pakistanis, which said that factionalism was a major problem in Pakistani society. It is certainly true in the church.) To avoid both schisms and the possibility of financial scandals, we have written a constitution for the congregation which firmly establishes the Urdu/Hindi service as one of our regular services. This was agreed to by our PCC, who also agreed to the leaders – who had t be members of St James, and licensed by the Bishop. Nor does the Urdu/Hindi congregation have a separate financial existence. Offerings are part of the church’s direct giving income, and expenses paid by the PCC. We try to look for ways to strengthen face-to-face contact with our other congregations, though this is not always easily done. In the past neglect, isolation from the wider church, and lack of close oversight have been bigger problems with Asian congregations than paternalism or

lack of freedom. Embedding ethno-linguistic congregations in clear church structures – either in one local church or a wider grouping – is a vital foundation that requires careful planning and thought.

The preceding paragraph assumes that the ethno-linguistic congregation will be developed by a particular parish church. Whilst in some parts of the country ethnic minority communities are ‘encapsulated’ in a small area, more often they can be dispersed much more widely; with people operating on a network (and often family) rather than locality basis and travelling considerable distances to worship. By far the majority of both our Asian congregations live outside St James parish. Operating on a network rather than a parochial basis is even more necessary with minority ethnic groups that with eh host community.

Thus many parishes will contain significant numbers from several minority ethnic groups – certainly more than they can ever hope to minister to effectively, an even less make worship provision for. For example the biggest ethnic group in our parish is Gujarati, who we barely touch at all. However the local Baptist church has a Gujerati minister and Asian fellowship.

At present in most areas of the country there is a serious absence of extra-congregational, and ideally ecumenical, planning to plant congregations amongst different linguistic minorities. Deaneries, dioceses or inter-church are groupings need to be developing the capacity to form such congregations, whilst bearing in mind the previously identified need for a clear constitution, accountability and oversight. This will often require recruiting and paying for specialist network minsters if ministry to ethno-linguistic groups is to be more than haphazard – the recommendations of MSC that diocese have a ‘mission growth and opportunity fund” (p 148) is relevant to this need.

Training

Leadership, or lack of it, can therefore be a key barrier in starting ethnic specific congregations, particularly in terms of Eucharistic ministry. The Church of England only trains people in the English language. It tends to assume that ordinands should be very widely deployable, though it has fewer reservations about the ability of the ‘establishment’ to minister to the ‘non-establishment’ than is does about the ‘non-establishment’ to minster to the ‘establishment’. Similarly it finds it easier to pay for financially unviable ‘niche’ ministries in universities than it does for financially unviable ‘niche’ ministries amongst minority ethnic groups. The latter is largely supported by voluntary mission agencies, or, more often, simple does not happen.

Thus there is no separate ‘vocational pathway’ (MSC p 147) for selecting, training and appointing minority ethnic clergy to minister in mother tongues, such as a leader in our Tamil congregation who has long felt a call to ordination but whose command of English is limited. The result is that we do not evangelise, develop churches or produce leaders with anything remotely resembling the effectiveness of Pentecostal churches, despite the number of overseas Anglicans who have settled in England. Instead we have often imported leaders from overseas, or our leaders have risen by non-standard means. The leader of our Urdu/Hindi congregation, Rev Amelia Jacob, was selected and ordained simply on the say-so of the then Bishop of Stepney, the late Jim Thompson. If all sorts of ethnic and linguistic minority ministries are to flourish in the Church of England, the way that the above Synod

motion seeks, then the Church of England needs to think through a policy for developing and recognising the ministry of people whose fluency in English may be very limited, and who will not be culturally congruent with eh Church of England as it currently is.

More broadly the Church of England is seriously lacking in a co-ordinated policy to call, train, deploy and pay for leaders (by no means necessarily from minority ethnic backgrounds) to work with linguistic and ethnic minorities.

Resources

Leaders need resources. In our experience, the flow of Asian language material has been haphazard, which can lead to services falling back to a default position of unstructured, non- liturgical worship, combined with translations of Anglo-American songs and hymns. The longer history and greater numbers of Pakistani Christians means that both liturgical material and songs, especially zabur (metrical versions of the Psalms) are readily available. Tamil material is more limited, and the strongly Pentecostal nature of many Tamil churches in Britain has led to American material circulating more widely than indigenous Tamil music, poetry and other art forms, which is a serious impoverishment. The Church of Ceylon has produced a Communion Service printed in parallel English, Singhalese and Tamil colums which we have made use of.

Sadly Christian resources, including Bibles and books, from the Indian sub-continent are less readily available in Britain now than they were in the 1980s- hopefully some mission body will address the issue.

The Future

Eventually, however, we will reach a time when members of most ethnic minorities will be fluent in English. Will ethno-linguistic congregations ever pass their sell-by date? If it is hard to start a congregation, it is often even harder to top one. Yet already the children who have grown up in such churches are more fluent in English than their parents’ language; which indeed they may not be able to read. Our Urdu/Hindi has just started a (Korean-led) Sunday School. Similarly the Sunday Schools in independent Tamil churches are usually in English.

Even when congregation, and their intended constituency, become fluent in English there are still possible reasons for continuing – such as the maintenance of indigenous cultural, especially musical forms; or people’s desire to continue to network with people of their own cultural background (including for marriage).

However the problem of ‘ossification’ – becoming a lifeless, unresponsive cultural remnant – begins to loom larger on the horizon. Maintaining a cultural identity overtakes evangelism or Christian nurture as the church’s raison d’être. My wife had started meetings for British educated Asians in their 20s and 30s from such church backgrounds to think through what it means to be a Christian in such a newly forming context.

Whilst the diminution of cultural identities, as indeed the worldwide loss of less widely spoken languages, can be seen as a loss to the whole world; nonetheless on has to consider carefully how far Christians should expend their energies in preserving from the past rather than creating for the future.

Conclusion

These reflections on starting linguistic minority congregations are based on my experience with two specific groups. As I pointed out at the start, differences between ethnic groups ought to be taken seriously, and therefore generalisations only carried over from one context to another with considerable scrutiny. We are still at a stage where sharing experiences is more important than formulating principles, and where there is still a need for all sorts of experiments. Hopefully our experience at Alperton may encourage others to think about and possibly plan towards ethno-linguistic congregations.

Prebendary John Root St James Alperton April 2004