The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Are believers forming exclusively Romanian mono-cultural churches? Are they integrating into existing British churches? Are they joining in with multicultural churches that reflect Britain’s cultural and ethnic diversity?
Upon arriving in the UK, Romanian migrants who in one sense or another identify as Christian face a range of options if they wish to meet with other Christians and enjoy fellowship with them.
This article describes some of the choices they have made, including attending local churches or ethnic Romanian churches. Of these, my preliminary research has identified at least 83 Romanian Protestant or Pentecostal churches or ‘mission points’ throughout the UK, in addition to Romanian Orthodox churches.
Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, significant numbers of Romanians have migrated to the UK. Initially there were work restrictions on Romanians (and Bulgarians) but these expired in 2014. Consequently, the number of Romanians in the UK rose from 136,000 in 2013, to 220,000 in 2015.1
Given that the 2001 Census recorded less than 8,000 Romanian-born residents in the UK,2 this represents a huge increase in little over a decade. Romanians are now the sixth largest foreign-born nationality in the UK (after Poland, India, Pakistan, Ireland and Germany) and the UK has the fifth highest concentration of the global Romanian diaspora (after Italy, Spain, Germany and the USA).3
Given the relative religiosity of Romanians, it is worth asking where this new group of immigrant is worshipping: are they forming exclusively Romanian mono-cultural churches? Are they integrating into existing British churches? Or are they joining in with – or forming – multicultural churches that reflect Britain’s cultural and ethnic diversity?
With research in this area only at a preliminary stage, we can claim neither a comprehensive answer nor to have a representative sample. But we can look at some interesting case studies that shed light on the religious experience of Romanian Christians now living in the UK. This study has limited itself to non-Orthodox expressions of church, though these too are significant.4
Case Study 1 – The Mono-ethnic Romanian Church
Whilst staying in London in 2013, I was visited by a Moldovan pastor and, with Romanian being his mother tongue, we decided to visit a Romanian church.
We did not have to look far: there are approximately 35 Romanian churches in London alone, and we chose to visit the Romanian Pentecostal Church meeting at Kenton Baptist Church. Despite it being a Thursday evening, there were 120-150 Romanians present for the lively service.
Pastor Victor and I noted a few differences between his own church and this diaspora one. But these differences stemmed from his church being rural, not urban; and in the former Romanian territory of Moldova, rather than modern-day Romania. In most aspects, the service was strikingly similar to those we had attended in Romania and Moldova: the format of the service (conducted entirely in Romanian); the worship; the style of leadership; the dress of the churchgoers, etc. This was a thriving church, clearly attractive to many Romanians but making little or no concession to British culture. This observation is not a criticism but it does illustrate a popular form of Romanian ethnic church in the UK today, with little contextualisation and a faithfulness to traditional forms and expressions of worship. This tendency will be familiar to those who have seen or experienced diaspora churches in many other parts of the world.
Case Study 2 – The Romanian Church Plant
Emmaus Church, Birmingham, is at the centre of a growing network of Romanian churches in the UK. It was initially planted in collaboration with the Baptist Union of Romania and today works with George Road Baptist Church, Birmingham, the Heart of England Baptist Association and a number of other partners.5
Emmaus describes itself as a “kingdom-minded church… making disciples and planting new churches mainly focusing on East Europeans.” This mission mindset has led to an emerging network of churches as part of a vision for planting 12 churches in towns and cities around the UK, the most recent of which was in Coventry in February 2016.
This is a well-established and well-connected church network. At its centre, Emmaus Church is active in many domains, including overseas mission trips, evangelistic events and a considerable social media presence. This last factor is an important one: Romanians throughout the UK are well connected, especially through Facebook, sharing news, contact details, clips of worship songs, spiritual encouragements and online sermons. Emmaus Church operates chiefly in Romanian, though with some sermons in English and once a month has a joint service in English with George Road Baptist Church.
Case Study 3 – The Romanian Church with a ‘British Infusion’
An interesting, alternative picture emerges from Bristol, where Crestina Dragostea Church has been meeting since 2011.6 This church has up to 100 adults and children worshipping there in each Sunday, and up to 250 coming for evangelistic outreach events. What is striking about this church is its multicultural leadership: Pastor Adrian Carey-Jones is a Welshman; he is assisted by two Romanian deacons, Cornel and Daniel. Their church has Baptist roots but now identifies denominationally as Evangelical.
A typical service at Biserica Crestina Dragostea consists of Romanian worship songs, Bible readings in Romanian but sometimes also English, a sermon in English that is translated into Romanian, and prayers typically in Romanian but with scatterings of English thrown in. The congregation is almost entirely Romanian but the service is bilingual, with Romanian church culture being replicated less rigidly than other ethnic churches.
Pastor Adrian is open to “reciprocal learning” between Romanian and British Christians but at the same time worried that if Romanian Christians were “assimilated” into British churches, they would forfeit the opportunity of inviting other Romanians to a shared cultural experience; and that Romanians would lose the support of being with compatriots. He argues against “intentional multiculturalism [being]… biblically mandated” and potentially being a “mis-prioritising” distraction.
One current priority for the leadership is pastoral: addressing the “clear sense of rejection and hurt in the fellowship” as a result of the Brexit vote, which has led to racist insults and a sense insecurity for members of his church.
Case Study 4 – A British Church with a ‘Romanian Infusion’
Larne Gospel Hall in Northern Ireland has recently witnessed an influx of Romanians – up to 30 on Sunday mornings and 48 on a special Romanian-themed evening. According to one definition – which gives 10% from one minority culture as a threshold – this church is multicultural, or multi-ethnic.7
The church is an independent local church, overseen by three elders, one of whom has been learning Romanian and has been able to preach some short messages in Romanian. As well as attending Sunday services, the Romanian members of the congregation meet on a Friday afternoon to have fellowship together in limba romana. The elders encourage the Romanian members to maintain their identity but without splitting from the rest of the church; they work hard at promoting unity within the church and do what they can to promote this on a practical level, by using bilingual Bibles, worshipping in both languages in the main service, and translating the sermon into Romanian.
Elder Dessie Colvin believes multicultural church is important: “the bottom line is we are one local church made up of different facets of the community.” Significantly, the church has been prepared to change some of its practices (such as introducing blessing meetings for new-born Romanian children) and not expect all change to come from the Romanian minority. Dessie reflects that “as time evolves our Romanian community seems to be integrating reasonably well.”
Outside of these case studies, I have met many Romanians – from Harrow to Gloucester and Finchley to Diss – who either as single people or married couples have chosen to simply attend their local church, whether Anglican, Baptist, free evangelical, or other. These Romanians may be more confident in their spoken English, and perhaps married to an English person. Such ‘Anglicised’ Romanians represent the other end of the spectrum from monocultural Romanian churches in the UK, with their ethnic identity not being a factor in where or how they worship. This may stem from a desire to blend in, a kind of cultural Anglophilia, or from a theological belief that ‘neither Jew nor Gentile’ (Galatians 3:28) should be a principle for our churches today.
These preliminary sketches show a diverse range of responses to the basic questions facing Romanian Christians in the UK:
Where to have fellowship?
How to express it?
And with whom?
For some, there is the further question of how to lead such a congregation.
Each of the different responses is of course legitimate, and may be determined by pragmatic as much as theological or biblical considerations. As we have seen, Romanian churches in the UK may be monocultural or more multicultural, monolingual or bilingual, independent or networked, contextualising or not.
It will be interesting to see how these churches continue to develop – especially their relationships with “Anglo” churches, their understanding and practice of mission, and their interaction with the local culture – familiar issues for missiologists the world over.
Chris Ducker, Lecturer in Mission, Redcliffe College.
This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Vista magazine.
1 https://www.ons.gov.uk (accessed 19/12/2016)
2 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/uk/05/ born_abroad/countries/html/romania.stm (accessed 19/12/2016)
3 http://www.dprp.gov.ro (accessed 19/12/2016)
4 There are Romanian Orthodox churches or priests serving in at least 42 UK locations: see http://www.mitropolia.eu/ro/site/173/
7 Kathleen Garces-Foley in Crossing the Ethnic Divide (2007, 22-24).