Easter among Middle Eastern Christians: field visit to London

by Sara Lei Sparre

For four sunny days in April, all three research teams met again in London. Like the meeting in Sweden, these days offered an opportunity for the researchers to discuss and compare fieldwork experiences and, not least, for the Danish and Swedish teams to get a glimpse of the situation of Middle Eastern Christian communities in Europe’s largest metropolis. Our British colleagues, Fiona and Alistair, had put together an excellent programme which included several church services, a Coptic youth meeting, a children’s party organised by the UK Assyrian Society, and a walking tour in the ‘super-diverse’ borough of Ealing, including stops in Southall and Hanwell. These activities were only a selection of the many religious, cultural and social places and events catering to Christians of Middle Eastern origin.

The DIMECCE team in London

The DIMECCE team in London. From left: Alistair Hunter, Marta Wozniak, Fiona McCallum, Lise Paulsen Galal and Sara Lei Sparre (photo by Marta Wozniak)

With a population of around 8 million and a long history of immigration from, among other places, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), London presents a wide range of Middle Eastern Christian congregations and organisations which is one of the most diverse outside the MENA region. Coming from the Danish context where the largest among these denominations numbers a few thousands nationwide, it was striking how, for example, some of the churches we attended could gather a congregation of several hundred for a single service. Below, I will briefly touch upon some of the potential analytical implications when comparing the situation of these communities in London with that of their equivalents in a small country like Denmark. But first, let me highlight some of our field experiences.

St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Kensington (photos by Sara Lei Sparre)

St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Kensington (photos by Sara Lei Sparre)

On Palm Sunday we had to make the difficult choice of which services to attend. The possibilities were many, almost overwhelming, and we decided to split the group in two. While Alistair and Marta attended the service of the Ancient Church of the East in Hanwell in the morning, followed by the Syriac Orthodox Church in Acton in the afternoon, Fiona, Lise and I decided to go for the Holy Liturgy service in St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in the morning after which we visited the Living Water Arabic Church. In both churches the priests were of Egyptian origin, but when it came to liturgy and ritual practice, they could not have been more different.

Established in 1975, St Mark’s is the oldest Coptic Orthodox church in the United Kingdom and indeed is believed to be the oldest Coptic Orthodox church in Europe. The church is located in a quiet street in the affluent neighbourhood of Kensington. We arrived at the church just before 9:30 am in time for the liturgy service, but due to the Palm Sunday procession which was just finishing, the church was already packed. A quick count revealed that at least 600 people were gathered in the church. According to Fiona, this was more than on ‘usual’ Sundays. We found our way through the crowded entrance area and were lucky to find three empty plastic chairs at the back behind the pews in the right side of the church together with the other women. A middle-aged woman seated just in front of us gave us the palm crosses that everyone seemed to have.

The service was held by four priests with the help of around twenty-five deacons, all of whom were dressed in white robes. All the priests wore white mitres on their heads. The priests switched between English, Arabic and Coptic, although Coptic was dominant especially for the parts requiring congregation participation. Compared to the Lutheran evangelical service that I know, there was a lot more standing and congregational responses. And every time we stood up, our chairs were pushed towards the back of our legs as people continued to enter the church room and the areas around the pews got more and more crowded. On our way out, we noticed that the vestibule of the church was full of people.

Another obvious difference with the service that I know was the intense use of incense which filled the church from floor to roof and sometimes along the way made my eyes water and my throat feel dry. Four large TV screens at each side of the room displayed the words of the chants and prayers in English, Arabic and Coptic. Towards the end of the service, one of the priests held a short sermon on the theme of Jesus the King entering one’s life.

St John’s Church of England, West Ealing (photos by Marta Wozniak)

St John’s Church of England, West Ealing (photos by Marta Wozniak)

From Kensington we went to West Ealing in order to attend the Palm Sunday service of the evangelical Living Water Arabic Church. Living Water is an Anglican Arabic-speaking church founded by an Egyptian couple in 1993, and it holds its services in St. John’s Church of England. We arrived a little early and observed how the people were setting up sound and musical equipment. When everything was ready, the band leader, a middle-aged man speaking with an Egyptian Arabic dialect started playing on his keyboard. Shortly, the worship band and the eight-person choir followed. The music was loud and the songs included Arab tunes and some recognisable Western Christian worship songs with lyrics in Arabic. A large projector gave the words in order for the congregation to sing along. The majority of the congregation of around one hundred people, mostly of Egyptian and Iraqi origin, participated, often clapping, raising hands and moving to the music. At the end of each song, the band leader cried out loud: “Hallelujah!”

The singing lasted around fifty minutes, whereupon the band leader took the microphone with him from the keyboard and moved closer to the congregation. The rest of the orchestra left the altar. I now realized that the band leader was in fact the pastor. He started speaking to the congregation, and after a short bible reading, he gave a long sermon on the same theme as in the Coptic Orthodox Church of letting Jesus be the king of your life. Comparing the morning service in St Mark’s Church, attendance of the Living Water Arabic Church was a completely different experience – in sensory, social and liturgical terms. First of all, the pastor wore no religious vestments, and apart from the bible and the palm crosses no religious items were used during the sermon. This was in stark contrast to the Coptic Orthodox service where anyone with a religious function had at least one special vestment, and where the priests and their deacons made frequent use of, among other things, crosses, icons and incense. Secondly, unlike in the Coptic Orthodox Church, men and women in the congregation sat beside each other. Thirdly, whereas the theme was the same, the two sermons differed in terms of length and style. In St. Mark’s, the sermon lasted only about five minutes, while in the Living Water Church it went on for more than an hour. Finally, unlike the orthodox priests, the pastor of Living Water church deliberately spoke more directly to the congregation, rarely stayed in the altar area, asked rhetorical questions, and invited people to put their hand up if they believed in certain things. Thus, although the theme of the two sermons was the same, the language and preaching style was very different. The Living Water service ended by singing one of the previous songs while almost everyone marched around the church waving their palm crosses.

In London, all Middle Eastern Christian denominations are represented, which means that everyone in principle has the choice of attending his or her own church. Unlike in the Danish context, all churches have weekly services and a resident priest. Furthermore, due to the size of many of the congregations, it is possible for most of these churches to offer various kinds of activities, for example catering to different age groups within the congregation. In St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, there is a large youth group which runs its own activities. Also outside the churches, there are possibilities in London to meet people of similar ethnic and/or religious background. The Assyrian House in Ealing, a large meeting hall which belongs to the Assyrian Society of the United Kingdom, is one such example.

Another significant characteristic is the role of the language. It was my impression that English is more commonly used as part of the liturgy than in most Middle Eastern churches in Denmark. In the Coptic Orthodox Church we attended, English was an integrated part, and when either Arabic or Coptic was used, a translation was provided on the TV screen. The service at Living Water Church was in Arabic, except for a few songs in English, but an English simultaneous interpretation was provided for non-Arabic speakers. A relevant perspective to pursue is therefore what it means for the linguistic practices of the churches that the language of the country of residence is a world language like English or small languages like Danish or Swedish. Furthermore, it would be interesting to compare the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion of e.g. particular age groups and generations in the three countries as a result of particular linguistic practices.

As a fieldtrip, our stay in London was extremely relevant and fruitful. By visiting neighbourhoods, churches and a cultural association, we got a small but telling glimpse of the reality of Middle Eastern Christians in London. This raised new questions and ideas about our ‘own’ fieldwork contexts, in particular the importance of the size these communities, their access to priests and church facilities, and the role of language. But it also provided us with a better understanding of the UK as one of the transnational centres of Middle Eastern Christians.

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