Religious diversity in London’s East End: an Anglican perspective

Adrian NewmanAdrian Newman

This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Tower Hamlets.

In the 1980s debates about diversity focused on cultural, racial and ethnic differences rather than religious ones. Today faith is, for good and bad reasons, back in the public eye.  This new interest has, however, made clear the difficulty that Britain’s secularized culture has understanding the language and concepts of the major faiths. This, argues Adrian Newman, the current Bishop of Stepney, is why East London is so important. Crowded, religiously diverse places like Tower Hamlets can show other parts of the UK how to build bridges and bonds between faiths.

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A few days after I was asked to consider writing this piece, I had a call from the local newspaper, the East London Advertiser. Would I like to comment on the so-called ‘Christian Patrols’ that were sweeping on to the streets of Tower Hamlets in camouflaged Armoured Personnel Carriers as a response to the ‘Muslim Patrols’ that we had seen the previous year? This is what I said in response:

East London is proud of its generous attitude to diversity, based on tolerance and respect. There is no place for vigilante patrols, Christian, Muslim or any other faith, on the streets of Tower Hamlets. Our kaleidoscopic community thrives on celebrating our differences, not condemning them.

Inevitably, the front-page headline was more colourful (‘Bishop of Stepney condemns BNP linked “Christian Patrols” in East End’), but what I found fascinating was the fact that religion – not for the first time in my short time here – was front page news. You do not need a long memory to understand how much has changed in the past generation for religion to be in the headlines like this.

Back in 2010 I took a sabbatical to look at the influence of an important Church of England report Faith in the City 25 years on. It was fascinating to see how much of the analysis of urban poverty still survived, and in some ways little had changed across the urban landscape in a quarter of a century.

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“The whole world is here, and that is both the charm and the challenge for human flourishing in this place.”

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But in other ways much is different. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than the changes that have taken place in terms of religious identity. 25 years ago, even in places like London, the ‘faith’ question was hidden behind the question of culture and race and ethnicity. Even in the 1990s, no less a political luminary than Henry Kissinger could write a magisterial summary of international political relations which did not have a single reference to ‘religion’ in the index. This is no longer possible. For some very bad reasons – 9/11 foremost among them – religion is now the hottest topic imaginable.

But this tectonic shift has revealed a yawning chasm in religious literacy – that ability for a secular culture to understand the language and concepts of the major faiths – including, I have to say, and despite its longevity and cultural influence in the UK, Christianity. This is why places like East London have such an important contribution to make to the development of a healthy society in modern Britain.

Let me explain what I mean. Urban areas are ‘contested’ places, where people of many types of difference have to learn to share the same space. Although this creates its own tensions (the ‘faith patrols’ are an example of how difficult it can be to share limited space with those who are different) it does mean that often places like this lead the way.

East London, down the centuries, has welcomed Huguenot Protestants, European Jews, Irish Catholics, Bengali and Somali Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, and many other immigrant communities. This is an extraordinary history. This part of London has been home to religious diversity for a very long time and therefore has much to teach the rest of the country about how to live with it.

The reality is that religion is just one aspect of the endlessly fascinating diversity of human beings. Age, ethnicity, culture, gender, race, sexual orientation, language, philosophy, religion – there is no end, thank God, to our diversity.

This diversity is one of the enormous strengths of cities, those places where we learn to live together in congested space, where we learn the art of generous politics, where we encounter people of difference in very human ways. This is not easy, but it is vital.

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“Part of the East End’s identity seems to have been an underlying identification with the outsider.”

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Down the years East London has afforded a home to many other outsiders. It’s tempting to interpret this in purely economic terms (as the cheapest place for immigrant communities to settle), but East London had a reputation for religious and cultural diversity even before immigration began in earnest. It was always a haven for refugees and free-thinkers. In the 17th century it was seen as a centre for non-conformity, a place to resist the authority of the Church of England. The first Baptist church was built here in 1612.

Brick_Lane_Mosque2
Brick Lane Mosque, which was built by French Protestant refugees in 1743 and functioned as a synagogue until 1976

Part of the East End’s identity seems to have been an underlying identification with the outsider, which may well go right back to Roman times when Brick Lane was a burial ground, deliberately positioned outside the walls of the City of London. From the earliest of days this seems to have influenced the self-identity of East London, as the place for those who were seen as outsiders.

So immigration was not just influenced by economics – finding the cheapest place to live. It was also influenced by a sense of identity, which welcomed people who thought and behaved differently from the cultural norms. That made it a natural choice for immigrant communities.

So, the whole world is here, and that is both the charm and the challenge for human flourishing in this place.

There’s a temptation when we use a phrase like ‘religious diversity’ to focus on the differences between the religions. Historically, when there was a stronger assumption in society that religion was important, interest and attention might well have focused on the differences between our various expressions of faith. Today, in a world where the underlying assumption, the world-view, the ‘meta-narrative’, is essentially secular, the focus shifts to our commonality. To be religious in a secular age is to share something fundamental in common – a belief in a metaphysical reality that undergirds, pervades and influences the observable, physical world.

Since this is now, in practice at least, a minority view, those who share it are united by something profoundly important. Being religious, understanding the world within a religious framework, naming ‘God’ in belief and practice, these are essentially unifying aspects of our common humanity. Diversity of belief and expression must be understood and explored within this context.

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“Today, in a world where the underlying assumption is essentially secular, the focus shifts to our commonality. To be religious in a secular age is to share something fundamental in common.”

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I often find that I have more in common with my Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist neighbour than I do with many others. I immediately empathise with someone who values the spiritual dimension to life, who shares a sense of transcendence, who practices the difficult art of prayer, who is willing to be turned inside out in worship.

This is not to deny our differences. It is not to accept the rather fluffy idea that we all believe in the same God and are climbing the same mountain by different paths (although despite its fluffiness, there’s an idea still worthy of consideration). No, it is merely to point out that the context for religious diversity, in a broadly secular culture, is one in which there is more that unites us than divides us. And that should be our starting point.

One of my most illustrious predecessors as Bishop of Stepney was Trevor Huddleston. He dedicated his life to the struggle against racism and colonialism. Before he died, in 1998, he said that if he could begin again, he would dedicate himself to interfaith work. He saw the central challenge of the first half of the 21st century as developing understanding between different religions.

This is why places of genuine religious diversity (like East London) are so important. They are laboratories of the spirit where future relationships can be worked out, and a new future cultivated.

When I began my public ministry as Bishop of Stepney, an area covering the three London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington, my service of welcome was held at Christ Church Spitalfields. Just round the corner from Christ Church is the Brick Lane Mosque, a building that has been a place of worship for different religious communities for 250 years. Built in 1743 by Huguenot refugees it began life as a Christian church. In 1898 it became an orthodox Jewish synagogue. In 1976 it became a mosque. This building is almost an icon for the East End’s long-standing religious diversity.

My hope is that our shared history, and our common understanding of the religious dimension to life’s mystery, will shape our contribution to the national debate about religious diversity in a society that will increasingly take its lead from places like this in the future.

Adrian Newman was born in Watford and survived. The youngest of six children, he worked as an economist before ordination in 1985. He served parish communities in East London, Sheffield, and central Birmingham (the Bullring) before being appointed Dean of Rochester in 2005. In 2011 he became Bishop of Stepney, serving an area covering the three London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington. He was once introduced as ‘the most un-Dean-like Dean in the Church of England’ – a description he quite liked at the time. He is currently intent on being a most un-Bishop-like Bishop.


The image of Brick Lane Mosque is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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