Indian Christian communities revitalising British churches amid declining congregations

(Photo: Unsplash/James Coleman)

An encouraging report published on December 24 by The Guardian, brings hope during a prevailing trend of shrinking church congregations in the UK. The article titled Indian Christians find comfort and joy in church communities across Britain, tells an exciting story of strength and renewal in traditional places of worship.

The article notes an increase in Church attendance across the nation, from Liverpool to London, Preston to Bristol and begins with the story of Father Happy Jacob at St Thomas’s Indian Orthodox Church in Liverpool whose congregation that was stagnant for almost two decades at 60 families has grown rapidly to 110 families at the last count.

The surge is not confined to a single locality, the article notes, but resonates across the UK, presenting a pattern of revival against the backdrop of diminishing Christian numbers. The Guardian’s analysis reveals that Indian Christians, predominantly hailing from southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where Christianity has deep roots, are adding liveliness into the churches of UK, particularly those that are facing challenges of dwindling congregations.

Contrary to the overall decline in Christianity in England and Wales, the latest census reveals a significant surge in the number of Indian Christians. While the national percentage of those identifying as Christian dropped from 59.3% in 2011 to 46.2% in 2021, Indian Christians saw a remarkable rise from 135,988 in 2011 to 225,935 in 2021, the fastest growth among ethnic groups.

The Guardian quotes Rev Joshva Raja of the British and Foreign Bible Society, who confirms that the phenomenon is real and significant. “There are lots and lots of Christians coming from India,” he says and notes that while most of the new arrivals are joining Catholic churches, “I see some of the Anglican churches growing too.” The reason is that some who are arriving in the UK are part of protestant denominations from India that were founded after India gained independence from the British in 1947.

The Guardian introduces readers to narratives such as that of Pradeep George, a 42-year-old NHS worker and secretary at the Church of South India in East Ham, East London. George confirms a doubling of attending families since pre-pandemic times and highlights a convergence of traditions mirroring Church of England practices infused with distinctive elements from Kerala, South India, including the popular plum cake.

The article digs beyond religious rituals, showcasing the community-centric culture prevailing in these churches. Because of this, families like Suriya Varghese and Anup Cherian, recently relocated from Qatar, find an extensive support network, ranging from housing assistance to acclimatising to the peculiarities of British weather. Not surprisingly their life revolves around the Church. “The church plays a very big role in our lives,” the report quotes Anup Cherian. “This is about being part of the community, especially for the kids.”

The young people’s involvement in these communities is highlighted in the report by figures like Ephrem Sam Mattappallil, a 25-year-old student in London, leading a support group for Indian Orthodox Church students. The initiative, which has so far helped around 120 people, is centred around the Church, and offers help to those who are “struggling” in the absence of family and dealing with the pressures of adapting to a new country.

In other parts of the country, Indian Christians are also integrating into mainstream churches. The report focuses on the Catholic church of St Osmund in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where Father Jonathan Creer expresses both surprise and delight at the unfolding ‘trend’. He noted an upswing in mass attendance because of a “huge increase in the Indian community,” many of whom are employed at the local NHS hospital. Father Creer observes that these Indian families, comprising a considerable number of children, teenagers, and individuals in their twenties, exhibit a notably positive attitude towards religion compared to some of their British counterparts of the same age group.

The Guardian’s report concludes while noting that there are Churches where Indian Christians find themselves in a minority, however they encounter warmth and acceptance. This demonstrates that the experience of an Indian Christian immigrant can vary from place to place.

The report quotes 25-year-old Arun Vedhanayagam Selwyn, who arrived in Eltham, south-east London from Chennai in Tamil Nadu last year and attends the Anglican St John the Baptist church. In his experience, as narrated by him, he very rarely comes across an Indian and notes that most of the congregants are much older than him but comments that the community has been “very welcoming.”

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