Meet Britain’s next religious bogeyman

Muslims seem to have replaced Jews as the focus of popular prejudice.  Could African Christians be the next group to inherit this unfortunate mantle?

Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi were jailed for life for murdering a teenage boy they believed to be a witch

Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi were jailed for life for murdering a teenage boy they believed to be a witch

I blogged earlier this week about the explosive growth of worldwide Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity. This is a trend that’s been felt most strongly in the Global South. However it’s having an impact in the UK too:

Since 2005, there has been a 50% increase in the numbers of people attending Pentecostal Churches in London — a phenomenon explained by a large influx of immigrants from Africa during that period……..The new study carried out for the evangelical group The London City Mission by the Brierley Consultancy showed that 230,000 people attended Pentecostal services last year compared to 198,300 at Catholic Masses.……Overall, though, because of the Pentecostal growth, church-going in London rose by 16 per cent between 2005 and 2012 to 720,000. This means that nearly 10% of Londoners attend a church each week, compared with 5.6% nationally. Pentecostal churches now make up 30% of the total number of churches in London — more than 1450 of them. The only other denomination with more than 1,000 churches in the capital is the Church of England.

One of the questions this poses is whether such a rapid expansion might create a backlash?  I’m not aware of it doing so far. However, I fear that Pentecostal churches might be vulnerable to demonisation for the following reasons:

  • They draw their members primarily from an easily identifiable minority. Do all the black people in London freak you out? Want to express that concern without appearing racist? Why not start raising ‘legitimate concerns’ about their religion instead?
  • There’s a clear issue for demonisation to focus on. It seems there is a problem within some African Churches with children being accused of witchcraft or being possessed by demons. The attempts to ‘exorcise’ these problems can sometimes amount to serious child abuse. That’s clearly the behaviour of minority, which the majority of African Pentecostals find abhorrent. But the same could be said of Muslims and terrorism, and that’s not stopped them becoming the target of religious hatred.
  • That issue involves children. I recently posted about the moral panic in the 80s/90s about Satanic Ritual Child Abuse. What that suggests – along with a host of other incidents – is that child abuse is a subject our society struggles to deal with rationally.
  • Pentecostal services make for good TV. They quite often include florid language, shouting and of course speaking in tongues. In fact, to an outsider they may look like mass hysteria. Therefore, if you want to illustrate a piece of TV in a way that makes them look sinister that’s easy to do.
  • The British African community will shortly face the second generation problem. Large scale migration to Britain from Africa began later than migration from South Asia and the Caribbean. Therefore, have yet to fully face the ‘second generation problem.’ In this leader article, The Economist warns that ethnic tensions are often greatest not when a community first arrives but a generation later. Whereas new arrivals tend to keep their heads down, their children are often more assertive and that can lead to conflict. Given that migration from Africa took off around 2000 that’s an issue that will be confronting the British African community very shortly.

That said such a situation is not inevitable. This is a community that does well in terms of education and employment which should help.  There are also things that could be done to reduce the risks of African Christians becoming the target of prejudice. Action to reduce the instances of religiously motivated child abuse is needed not only to protect the children involved but also to prevent the law abiding majority within the community being tarnished by it. And media reporting of the issue must be careful to avoid giving the impression that it’s more than a minority who engage in such practices.