‘Living as Londoners do’: Cohesion, contradictions, and (religious) difference

Published 26 April 2016 / By COMPAS Communications

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Worries about how culturally diverse people live together dominate much public and policy discussion in the United Kingdom and Europe more generally. Anxieties about social cohesion and integration have transformed the ways people live together into objects of (state) scrutiny and sites of intervention.  I’ve been thinking about these worries and anxieties with regard to my research among Pentecostal Christian migrants in London who aim to ‘live as Londoners do’.  Many Pentecostals see themselves in cosmopolitan terms and yet Pentecostalism is an ideologically exclusionary project.  What then might they mean by ‘living as Londoners do’? How do they live with ‘others’?

Pentecostalism: Inclusive and exclusive

Pentecostals seek to relate to each other without regard to race, class, or national background. While identifying as Christian takes precedence over other forms of identification, it does not erase cultural differences. Rather, the Pentecostals I work with often talk about people and places in national terms, envisioning the globe as a mosaic of nations. One church in East London where I conduct fieldwork hosts an international day annually to celebrate the countries of origin of its members.  While Kenyans predominate in the congregation, members also hail from Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Jamaica, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.  Services are conducted in English because it is the language of ‘where they are’ and despite it being the second or third language of most members.  While these ways of being suggest openness and inclusiveness, Pentecostals also maintain an exclusive view – only those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour will be saved.

Life in East London

Most of my Pentecostal interlocutors live, work, and worship in East London; While they may attend churches that are more or less mono-national or -ethnic, they live in Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, which are ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse.  Many work in mixed settings – the NHS, care and service sectors, local councils, schools.  And, in their everyday lives, they visit local shops run by their neighbours.  For example, the masala spices needed to make ‘Kenyan tea’ are readily available at Asian-run stores in Newham.

Awareness of (religious) difference

Although Pentecostal Christians may downplay differences of race, class, and culture, they are acutely aware of religious difference. In Newham, for example, 32% of residents identify as Muslim, a population that is over 2.5 times that of London generally, and more than 6 times that of England (Aston Mansfield 2013: 8). Mosques and madrasas compete for space with Pentecostal churches, and calls to prayer can be easily heard.[1] At the same time, Pentecostals are concerned about the social and moral consequences of secularism for British society. While concern is typically expressed about morally corrupt(ing) behaviour, such as, drinking and promiscuity, they also worry about how secular attitudes can lead to bias. For example, when a British Airways employee who had been suspended for refusing to remove her cross at work, won her case before the European Court of Human Rights in 2013, several interlocutors I spoke with felt vindicated by the judgment.  Trying to create a ‘neutral’ secular space, they believed, can translate into ‘anti-Christian’ actions.

Living together – with contradictions

While Pentecostal doctrine offers its believers moral guidance as to how to live and relate, Pentecostalism in practice is neither totalizing nor definitive. Being Pentecostal is thus better understood in processual terms, an ideal that is never fully realised.  While it might seem that Pentecostals could not live with ‘others’, especially religious ones, they do so in London and elsewhere.  Although pastors preach about the ‘spiritual battles’ they must wage against Islam (and secularism) in order to bring London ‘back into the Kingdom of God’, the Pentecostal Christians among whom I work live their daily lives without much talk of (Muslim) ‘others’.  Instead, they tend to talk about their children and their educations, about business opportunities, about living as ‘good’ Christians.  We know also that, when tensions and conflicts arise in diverse neighbourhoods, it is often over quality of life issues, such as, parking, litter, and noise (e.g., Rogers 2013; Dench et al. 2006; Hudson et al. 2007) that do not easily map onto ethnic or racial difference, much less religious difference.

Surprisingly, the Pentecostal Christians I work with draw inspiration from an unlikely source, their Muslim neighbours. One pastor mentioned how he would like to start a school for the children who attend his church and others like it, citing the example of a nearby madrassa. While talking about the ease with which I can find vegetarian food, another interlocutor drew an analogy with the availability of halal meat.  And, thinking of the BA employee with her cross, I have had numerous conversations about how doing so should be treated no differently than Muslim women wearing veils.

‘Living as Londoners do’ might then be understood as (trying to) co-exist civilly with culturally diverse ‘others’ without compromising religious allegiances. If ‘living together’ necessitates that Pentecostal Christians continually consider what constitutes ‘good’ Christian behaviour, then integral to their practices of self-making is self-monitoring. But, rather than being an anxious politico-ethical ideal of the state, ‘living together’ in London for Pentecostal Christians is the relational context in which they engage in ethical projects of self- and community-making, a context that entails navigating and living with contradictions in daily life.


Aston-Mansfield Community Involvement Unit (2014) Newham: Key Statistics 2013. 2014. Newham, UK: Aston-Mansfield Community Involvement Unit.

Dench, Geoff, Kate Gavron, and Michael Young (2006) The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict. London: Profile Books.

Hudson, Maria, Joan Phillips, Kathryn Ray, and Helen Barnes (2007) Social cohesion in diverse communities. York, UK: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Rogers, Andrew (2013) Being Built Together: A Story of new Black Majority Churches in the London Borough of Southwark.  London: University of Roehampton.

[1] With 93 churches, according to a church census conducted in 2005 (as cited in Rogers 2013: 118), Newham has more Pentecostal churches than any other borough in London.