At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Against a low hum of conversation, the pews were slowly filling up with people, the smell of incense began to waft over and the gentle tones of the organ started up. As the priest walked in, it could have been one of thousands of church services taking place up and down England.
Except that when the priest started talking, it quickly became clear that this service was different, and in a very fundamental way. For this typical Church of England Sunday service was being conducted not in English, in fact, but in Spanish.
St Philip’s Church in Southwark in south London has been proactive in trying to reverse the national trend of falling church attendance. By holding a regular service in Spanish, St Philip’s gets members of the fast-growing local Latino community through its doors. The community is growing so fast, Spanish has become the second most commonly spoken language in the borough.
Although South Americans in London can go to Catholic services in Spanish, the Latino residents of Southwark say that having a service in their own language at a local church makes an enormous difference to their sense of belonging and community.
Local Columbian resident Lorena Ospine normally travels into central London to attend a church service in Spanish. She says it’s important to her to have a service in her own language not only as she doesn’t always understand English, but also because of the boost to the local community.
“There are a lot of South American people around here. We are one community, and I think this is good way for us to be together. It’s a good way to share a day, to share an afternoon, and to talk about things and to hear a service in Spanish, in our own language,” she says. “It’s so important for us all to be together.”
The service, believed to be the Church of England’s first in Spanish in the UK and certainly the first in Southwark, was the brainchild of local clergy John Watts and Hugo Adam, who is originally from Spain.
“I had dreams of doing something last year. Hugo has now come to the diocese, and we met up and we said, ‘Let’s just do it’. And with Hugo being Spanish, it’s really easy,” John explains. “The Church of England has lots of services every Sunday only in English. So having something in Spanish was I think, for many, a great joy.”
Hugo says the Church of England has now recognised the significance of the Latino community and is reaching out to it, as it has done with the Nigerian, Filipino and West Indian communities. “The Church of England wants to be a diverse community,” he says. “[The Latino community] have brought not only their identity, but their culture, also. The church has realised that now is the time to open itself up to them.”
The number of people regularly attending church in England has halved over the past forty years, figures have shown. A recent report from the Church of England showed that 980,000 people went to a service every week in 2014, a fall of 1% year-on-year and dropping below one million for the first time. The number means that less that 2% of the population no regularly goes to church.
The Church said it was not surprised by the report; numbers are thought to be dwindling because of the ageing profile of its congregation, growing secularism and an increasingly religiously diverse population.
However, it said the trend was “not one of inevitable decline” and that attendance figures did not tell the whole story. Indeed, John and Hugo’s project in Southwark is one example of how the Church is successfully attracting worshippers back through its doors. And it’s not the only one; the Church pointed to churches in Bournemouth, Norwich and Birmingham which have seen congregations grow in very recent years.
It added: “We lose approximately 1% of our churchgoers to death each year. Given the age profile of the Church of England, the next few years will continue to have downward pressure as people die or become housebound and unable to attend church.”
In London at least, the Church is proving its credentials in reaching out to new groups of people away from its traditional demographic. But the extent to which it can rely on the capital’s growing faith groups may be limited. Nevertheless, the success of John and Hugo’s project could see it being rolled out to other language groups in London.
Edited by Max Burnell