When the Tate Modern commissioned photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews to develop a project based in Southwark, her photographs portrayed seas of brightly clothed women in African traditional dress and commercial buildings converted into churches.
This should not be surprising, because in the 2013 report ‘Being Built Together‘, Andrew Rogers argues that with 240 African churches, the London borough of Southwark has the largest concentration of African churches outside of Africa.
Certainly the proliferation of church buildings is changing the visual landscape of south London, captured not only by Dewe Mathews, but also seen in David Sampson’s photographic study of pop-up churches in South London.
But what does this mean for community life in this part of London? Andrew Rogers notes in his report that when applying for planning permission to convert industrial or commercial space into a place of worship, the churches benefit from being able to demonstrate community engagement. It’s interesting that we see the local government potentially acting as an impetus for churches to seek out social engagement opportunities within their communities. Roger records that the churches are involved in countless activities within their local areas.
But there is the potential for misunderstandings between government agencies and these migrant churches. Rogers points out that for new Black Majority Churches, the term ‘community’ needs to be carefully defined. At times it can refer to the geographical location of the church, but it also can be associational, relating to the community of believers who travel from diverse places to gather within the church. He also identifies that churches often define mission in the community as evangelism, not necessarily social action, which may not be viewed by the local council as community engagement.
Rogers believes that these churches need to be better at demonstrating how much benefit they do bring to the local community, because he thinks they are a blessing to borough of Southwark. He points out that even though some churches appear to be entirely inward focused, nevertheless, this can still be a way of offering support to people who might otherwise fall outside the remit of support from government agencies.