What It's Like to Run a Church in the UK's Least Religious City

What I learned after talking to the men and women trying to bring a palatable version of Jesus to the UK's "most godless" city.
September 11, 2016, 1:00pm

All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

As an atheist, I'm almost exclusively never at church. But it's a quiet Sunday afternoon in late August and I'm sat on a church pew next to Eileen Richards, an elderly lady with a story to share. God had told Eileen's mum to uproot from Essex and settle here in Norfolk's capital, via prayer, and Eileen says her mom conceded. Eileen was eight at the time. Did mom do the right thing? Eileen leans closer to me and nods. "God was here," she says, beaming.

Norwich's bond with God goes way back. In the middle ages, the city's booming wool trade funded several elaborate churches. At its peak, Norwich held 57 of them ("one for every week of the year!" locals will tell you). Those halcyon days reportedly came and went—the most recent census, from 2011, shows that Norwich has the highest proportion of respondents in England and Wales who identify with "no religion."

According to Eileen, Norwich churches are no longer good at deliverance. Her 45-year-old son, Matt Richards, agrees. For this reason, he founded the Radical Church—the one where I'm sitting in next to Eileen. Matt's movement joins an undercurrent of subversive churches running through the city. So how do you run a radical Christian campaign in a city with so few Christians?

Well, some would disagree that Norwich's Christian population has dwindled. Bishop of Norwich Graham James contested a census back in 2011, telling the BBC that Norwich is "a center of vibrant Christianity today." Richard George, of Norwich's Cornerstone Church, backs the Bishop. "Many churches, not necessarily the traditional churches, are growing rather than shrinking," he says. "I don't really know what happened with that survey... I don't think that's a true resemblance of reality." Richards' church rejects tradition; they have no set meeting day or time, choosing to move elusively throughout the city. Similarly, a representative from Burn 24-7 Norwich, a movement that meets for six, 12, or 24 hours for non-stop worship and prayer, shares Richard's skepticism.

But, according to church minister and professor of quantitative social geography Richard Harris, the census may have underestimated a lack of religion in England and Wales. "The 25 percent in the 2011 census is likely to be an under-estimate: the 2011 and 2014 British Social Attitudes Surveys suggest the figure is closer to 50 percent." An Ipsos Mori survey analysed by the Guardian in 2014 seems to land in a similar area, with 59 percent of the UK's overall population self-identifying as Christian.

Eileen's son, Matt agrees with the census outcome. While at the meeting, he tells me that churches in Norwich have become lukewarm, insular bubbles: "People have become disenfranchised. Norwich is full of apathetic people." An ex-mental health nurse, Matt says he built the Radical Church for the homeless people, sex workers, drug users, former inmates, and others who "don't fit into traditional church." Church meetings take place at various locations. Completely voluntarily run (bar a member stationed in India), the group can't afford their own building. "We had to baptize him in a recycling skip," Richards says, laughing and referring to 23-year-old ex-user Aiden Matthams.

Having no official church building is a recurrent theme with Norwich's unorthodox movements. Burn Norwich are also hosted by range of churches, allowing the movement to be "totally non-denominational" where "anyone can come," a representative tells me. Cornerstone Church changes location and meets on random weekdays because people "are less likely to enter a church building," leader Richard explains. Eschewing the 10 AM to 12 AM Sunday service seems to be a strategic move, which implies to me that the people behind these religious movements sense Christianity may be losing its dominant hold in Norwich. After all, with the increase of shift work and 24/7 services, Sunday is no longer a blanket "day of rest." To the city's disillusioned, churches that evolve from traditional structures might be more relatable.

Aiden explains that when churches are bound by conservatism, there's "no passion to go out and reach the people—it becomes like a country club." The Radical Church is anything but. I arrive in a sweater and shirt, and ended up being huddled by a Mackenzie-clad former drug user, a Roma woman in Superdry, and an elderly woman in her fuchsia Sunday best, all praying for my happiness.

"They're speaking in tongues," a former sex worker informs me, as the group move on to an elderly Filipino lady, attempting to heal her sight problems. Inches away from her face, Matt booms: "Cataracts, be gone!" On top of speaking in tongues and "healing" ceremonies, the Radical Church seems to want to challenge what it sees as apathy in "godless" Norwich in other ways.

"I just think, what a good opportunity!" Matt says. "If you're in a city where people say there's not many Christians, well fantastic! What a place to be. Christianity is for you. It's for the ravers, it's for the hippies, it's for the emos, and the people that don't fit in. It's for everybody. I believe a revolution is coming on the street."

During a modern, reggae-tinged hymn ("no thees, or thous!") Eileen jumps up, grabs a tambourine from under her chair and starts to bash it. The Filipino woman's daughter stops dancing, falls into her chair, and starts crying. Whether it's through day-long prayer sessions or rejecting church buildings, Norwich's subversive Christian scene is finding a way to affirm this immovable passion for Christ. Their message to the city? You may not think traditional Christianity is relevant to your lives, but don't give up on it. Find a new, radical way to express it. It's not quite worked for me, but that was probably too steep an uphill battle for the Radical Church anyway.

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