Caribbean Pentecostal Churches in Britain

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The tragic news stories in April of children of the Windrush-generation losing their jobs and livelihoods, carted off to detention centres as they await deportation back to the Caribbean shouldn’t overshadow the achievements of Caribbean community in Britain as we commemorate the 70th Anniversary of this pioneering generation. Rather, it should cause us to reflect upon the resilience, struggles and sacrifices of those, mainly young pioneers who came to Britain with ‘open hearts and hope in their eyes’ to build a better life for themselves and their families.

The Arrival of the Empire Windrush is ‘a watershed in the black history of Britain’ and ‘the symbolic beginning of the modern phase in the relationship between Britain and the West Indies’, according to Olusoga.

In the 70 years since the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury with the first wave of Caribbean immigrants, the black church has become the most cohesive and coherent section of black communities in the UK. And the Caribbean Christian community has played a significant role in this story.

The growth of African and Caribbean churches is a sign of hope and renewal worthy of emulation. Black Christianity, according to Ian Bradley, may well prove to be ‘a key agent in the re-evangelization of Christian Britain’.3 For those who were cold shouldered when they arrived and labelled as ‘sects’ by sociologists, this is a massive shift in perception and status.

Caribbean Christians are represented in all the mainstream churches in the UK; and Caribbean Pentecostal church organizations like the New Testament Church of God (NTCG), New Testament Assembly (NTA), Church of God of Prophecy (COGOP) and Ruach are now recognized as important ecumenical partners and players on the national religious landscape.

However, we must not forget the remonstrations from the 11 Labour MPs who, on the very day the ship arrived (22 June 1948), wrote to Prime Minister Atlee complaining  about the ‘discord and unhappiness’ this wave of Caribbean immigrants would cause.

Even though two-thirds of the passengers were ex-servicemen who fought for Britain during the Second World War, these MPs stated that the country ‘may become an open reception centre for immigrants not selected in respect of health, education, training, character, customs’.

The Labour MPs displayed the prejudice and fear that would set the tone for the discrimination and struggles that the Caribbean community would subsequently face.<

Arguing that British society is ‘blest by the absence of a colour racial problem’, they felt that an ‘influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned’.

Despite this early negative atmosphere, today there are a number of leading Caribbean Pentecostal churches in the UK as well as leaders in public life.

However, the growth and development of Caribbean Pentecostal churches were not without struggles, personal and institutional.

The perspectives of pioneers like Io Smith and Caribbean theologians such as Robert Beckford and Joe Aldred give us a critical insight into the experience of this community’s encounter with British society. Aldred suggests that Caribbean Christians have had to endure ‘a low level of acceptance and understanding and, conversely, a high level of rejection and misunderstanding from the host Christian and secular society’.

Although not all Caribbean Christians would have encountered this, Io Smith recalls:

‘The first place I visited was a church, but nobody said, “Welcome.” We felt a sense of rejection straight away…Another member told me: “I think the church down the road want black people.”… I was looking for love, warmth and encouragement. I believed the first place I would find that was in the Church, but it wasn’t there.’

Beckford signals a note of socio-historical honesty and experiential authenticity in saying: ‘English churches were at best paternal and at worst racist in their response to the Black settlers.’

But to see the development of Caribbean churches simply through the prism of racism would be to offer a mono-causual explanation. Indeed, leaders like Philip Mohabir (founder of the West Indian Evangelical Alliance) and Bishop Dunn (leader of the First United Church of Jesus Christ, Apostolic) and others came to the UK as missionaries.

As a leading Caribbean church in the UK, the NTCG has a remarkable history. It was started by its pioneering Bishop and first General Overseer, Dr Oliver A. Lyseight, in 1953. In a similar way, he recalls the early struggles for acceptance in the ‘Motherland’ when Caribbean Christians were ‘despised and made to feel unwelcomed by some of the main-line churches’. However, he testifies to ‘a better way to overcome these trials, and that was through the power of God’.

One of the major successes of the post-Windrush era is, undoubtedly, the growth and development of African and Caribbean churches. In London alone, 48% of church goers in 2012 were Black Christians.

In the year of its Diamond Jubilee (2013), NTCG had 230 credentialed ministers, 108 pastors and administrators, 120 congregations and missions, 11,000 registered members, around 40,000 adherents and an annual turnover of £11 million.

Caribbean Christian leaders, like Joel Edwards, Nezlin Sterling, Eric Brown (first Pentecostal President of CTE), Angela Sarkis, Esme Beswick and Joe Aldred have had prominent positions in national organisations like the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), Churches Together in England (CTE), Evangelical Alliance (EA) and the Church Urban Fund (CUF).

Caribbean Christian leaders (too many to mention), including Rev Les Isaacs (Street Pastors), Dr Cheron Byfield and Rev Stephen Brooks (Excell3 and Black Boys Can), Rev Phyllis Thompson (NTCG Leadership Centre), Rev Carmel Jones (founder of the Pentecostal Credit Union) Herman and Janet Allen (Hopewell School), Marcia Dixon (journalist commenting on the Black Church in Britain for over three decades) and Bishop Derek Webley (West Midlands Police Authority) have all made significant contributions to the church and wider society. 

And what about the future of Caribbean churches in Britain? Although we often hear a great deal about the ‘decline’ of church attendance in the UK, the Caribbean-led churches will continue to offer spiritual succour and practical support to its members and to society. Some, of course, will migrate to the African independent congregations that are flourishing in Britain. All churches face the challenges of ‘postmodernism’ and will have to find better ways to communicate the Gospel, especially to young people. But as we look back over the last seventy years there will be echoes of praise and testimonies of God’s faithfulness in the knowledge that ‘He has brought us from a mighty long way.’

David Muir is Senior Lecturer Public Theology at Roehampton University (RU). He came to the UK in the late 1960s from Guyana to join his parents in London. He started his career as a secondary school teacher in South London before becoming the youngest senior executive at the Commonwealth Institute in 1989. He taught Caribbean Studies at London Metropolitan University before his appointment to the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) in 2000, where he was deputy chairman and chaired the MPA’s first public inquiry. He is co-chair of the National Church Leaders Forum and was executive director of Public Policy & Public Theology at the Evangelical Alliance.

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