Conventional wisdom dictates that the number of people following religions — more specifically, Christianity — is falling in Britain. That's correct, bar one massive exception. London. Christianity is on the rise in the capital, and in November 2017 a new purpose-built Anglican church opened in London for the first time in four decades.
That church is St Francis at the Engine Room in Tottenham Hale. It's part of the new-build development Hale Village, that sits behind the station. We visit and are shown round by the church's Reverend, Andrew Williams, who takes us through his church's story and explains why London may see more churches like this in the near future.
St Francis' beginnings
Andrew starts by rewinding a few years, to St Francis' genesis. "We were in a temporary space before here, on the corner, which was a couple flats which the developer gave us to use. We were about four years in there, doing community work and trying to build up as this community literally grew around us."
"There were a few reasons that the church decided it needed to do something down here. Firstly, the local clergy were aware of this development happening here. In 2008 the church formulated a strategic development department." The church is desperate not to miss out on its opportunity to get a foot in at these new developments, as they have done in the past — for example Canary Wharf's church is on a barge.
"Secondly, there were the riots of 2011." Mark Duggan's death, which sparked the riots, occurred on Ferry Lane, a short walk from the church.
"The local council saw that the church was involved in all areas of society at that point. It was one of the few organisations whose professionals were on the ground. Duggan's children went to a church youth group on Broadwater Farm."
Things started slowly, as there was a lot of suspicion in the local community after the riots, with people asking; "why now, why not before?" Over time, the church managed to build a relationship on a foundation of trust, and after Haringey Council rejected plans for a vertical school on the site, the developer began talks with the clergy.
The "flexible" church
Not only is the Engine Room a new church, but as its esoteric name suggests, it's a new model for a church. "What we agreed early on is that we, the church said to the developer and the local council, will run a community centre for you, one of the activities that we'll do from there will be church. Rather than build a church and do community activities."
It's quite a subtle difference, but I think it's quite an important one.
While speaking to us, a manifestation of this strategy occurs before our eyes — a parent and toddler play group is running riot in the room next to us. Not so unusual so far, but what's different here is that these toddlers are taking over the main church space, not some out-of-the-way hall. "This is our space where we hold church on a Sunday, but it's very much a community space the rest of week."
As we wander through the space, Andrew cheerfully greets everyone, even the whizzing toddlers. There are no church pews here blocking their path as they sprint about — services are held with removable chairs, something Andrew had a say in. The room is decorated with attention-grabbing artworks by Graeme Evelyn, specifically commissioned by the Church. It's another change from the safe canvases that so many churches hang in their halls.
On the other side of the large, open space is a more intimate chapel, filled with natural light from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking onto the street. "The idea is for people to come in and out — even without us knowing — and just use it as a quiet space, which I know a lot of people are looking forward to in busy London."
Not just for Hale Village
Hale Village is part of that modern, growing, busy London, but the church is eager not to be exclusive to its residents. "What we've ended up defining as our natural neighbourhood is not just Hale Village, but also Ferry Lane Estate opposite — a 1970s/80s council estate. Right from the very beginning, the very first church workers were very concerned that it wasn't just about Hale Village."
Andrew is well aware of the issues that surround the thin line between regeneration and gentrification, but thinks the Engine Room has managed to sidestep them. "We're quite fortunate here in that there was no existing community on this site, it was brownfield. So nobody was moved out."
That said, Hale Village itself isn't a preserve for the elites: there's a high percentage of social housing here. The development is roughly 50% affordable housing, which includes low-rent, shared ownership and key worker accommodation. The rest of the development is made up of 1200 students, and owner-occupiers, who are largely young working professionals.
"What we do need to be aware of, is this half a billion pound development, and then opposite, you've got a council estate that's gradually lost so much over the year. It used to have a pub, a few shops, a GP surgery and a school. Now all that's left is the school and one small shop." St Francis runs a weekly after-school club with said school as part of their efforts to not leave those in Ferry Lane behind.
"At the very beginning Andrew and Martina [the first church workers on site] had to walk people over to Hale Village [from Ferry Lane], saying 'this is for you as well'."
"One of the things they found over there, is that people were scared to go out, because they didn't know their neighbour, they didn't know each other. So they started this pop-up cafe once a week; there was no proclaiming the gospel in any sense, nothing religious about it. Just come and get to know your neighbour and have tea, coffee and cake, and go from there. That became an essential element of what we do here."
The people who come to the church were not attending other churches locally. A lot of them had experiences of church in their past.
About a year after the pop-up cafe, the church started doing small Sunday services. "There were a dozen people that first Sunday." Nowadays the church sees between 40 and 50 people a Sunday, and half of those are from Ferry Lane.
An extensive beer selection for a church
Andrew takes us through to the cafe, buzzing with a few punters grabbing their morning cappuccino and croissant. It's not run by the church, instead local restaurant Loven does it. It's a trendy spot and in the evening it transforms, becoming a bar serving wine and many of the beers brewed in the local area, including Beavertown and Pressure Drop. Andrew doesn't see any conflict of interest in a place on church property doubling as a place for people to get a bit tipsy.
"I've talked about how it's a new model, but actually this is a bit of an ancient model. Reclaiming the medieval model of the parish church, it was the only decent building in the village, the only place for people to meet. So everything happened in the church." That everything included drinking then as it does now. Still, it's a shock to see a church with such a well-stocked spirits range.
Andrew tells me all this over a cup of tea in Loven. We're sat by the windows and every few minutes he interrupts himself to wave to people outside with a beaming smile etched across his face. Nearly all of them smile and wave back. It's easy for developments like Hale Village to feel soulless, but these small actions stave off that sensation.
While speaking we're drawn to Andrew's clothes. He's wearing a Barbour jumper with his traditional dog collar underneath, along with a pair of dark jeans. Though no one's about to call him a fashion icon, this relaxed attire feels emblematic of the church he runs. In touch with modernity, while not forgetting the past.
The future of London's churches
Circling back to the wider of context of growing Christianity in London while it dwindles elsewhere, Andrew speaks pragmatically on the trend. "The Anglican church has done a few studies on it, because London is so unusual. Part of the reason that Christianity is growing in London, is because London itself is growing at a phenomenal rate, so as a knock on effect more people go to church."
The question could be asked: 'why build another church, we've got too many?'
"But actually this is exactly what the church should be doing. Here's a new community, which will eventually be a community of about 10,000 people, well you need facilities, you need options for people."
Immigration is another factor. "Lots of people come from corners of the world where they're more used to active churches." Again the Engine Room is symptomatic of this; the community is made up of Turkish, Somali, eastern European and other immigrant cultures. Andrew relishes this diversity: "If you walk into a church service on a Sunday morning, if you reflect the people who live here, you're on the right lines. Unfortunately lots of churches, don't. They can be ageing, white and middle class, when that's not what the area is."
Soon London and further afield could see more churches coming from this approach.
"We get lots of interest. The Diocese of London is looking at several projects around London at the moment, to do something similar to this. They're in dialogue with developers, and sometimes they bring developers here and show them round. We also had 12 students from the United States here last week. They're from the Episcopal Church doing a course called Learning From London, that comes twice a year."
They're here to see what London is doing, why is the church growing here, what's working?
Hopefully if the city continues to gain churches in this vein, they'll all have such funky names. Andrew laughs as he casually explains the reasoning behind it. "Engine, as an active word — the engine of community. Also this site was Lebus' furniture factory, the largest furniture factory in Europe. During the war it made engine parts, aircraft engine parts." So the name has one eye on the past and another on the present, just like the church itself.