Hongkongers increase number of UK churches

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OHENS RESIDENTS of Sutton, then parish of Surrey, gathered for the opening of Trinity Wesleyan Church in 1907, they would surely never have imagined that a century later its pews would be occupied by colonial subjects from the Far East. They would have been confused by sermons in a foreign language and texts in a foreign script. But “everything is guided by God,” says Jimmy, one of the new devotees. “He brought us to settle here.”

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Jimmy is one of about 300 Hong Kongers who recently joined the congregation of what is now called Trinity Church Sutton. Last year almost 100,000 visas were granted for the British National Overseas (BNO) immigration route for residents of the territory opened in January 2021. Sutton, now a suburb of London, has been a popular destination: Hong Kongers are drawn to the low crime rate and local schools. Although only 16% of Hong Kongers are Christians, the share of BNO arrivals seem to be higher. A survey by UKHKa denominational scheme set up to accommodate them, suggests that nearly half are Christian, mostly Protestant (the sample, reached via UKHK‘s, may have been biased towards believers).

The new arrivals have been a boon to British churches, which have struggled to recruit new members. Between 2009 and 2019, attendance at Church of England services fell by 15-20%. But most Cantonese-speaking congregations in Britain doubled or tripled in size last year, according to the Chinese Overseas Christian Mission, a charity based in Milton Keynes. One congregation, the Manchester Chinese Alliance Church, quadrupled in size to 600 congregants.

Christians are particularly likely to feel persecuted in Hong Kong. Although there is still more religious freedom than in mainland China, restrictions on worship will only get tougher. Many Christians have expressed support for the pro-democracy movement that preceded the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on the city. After the June 2020 introduction of a draconian national security law, which was used to retrospectively punish people for their involvement in pro-democracy protests, they feared they would run into trouble, says organizer Richard Choi community in Sutton.

The churches hope their embrace of Hong Kongers can make the newcomers feel more welcome than previous cohorts of immigrants. UKHK has worked with hundreds of churches to make them “Hong Kong ready”, for example by recruiting Cantonese-speaking volunteers. This was partly motivated by a desire not to repeat the “terrible job” the churches did in welcoming the Windrush generation – people from the Caribbean who came to Britain from the late 1940s – says Krish Kandiah, UKHKthe director. The influx of former colonial subjects from Hong Kong was a chance to ensure that when it came to offering help, Christians would be ‘front of the queue’.

This help has come in various ways. Trinity Church now holds services in Cantonese once a fortnight; The nearby Hope Church offers English classes especially for Hong Kongers. Separate services mean that Trinity worshipers have yet to become fully integrated into the wider Christian community. But services in their own language are badly needed, says Stephen Lam, another Trinity member who arrived from Hong Kong last year. “You use the language of your heart to pray.”

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Answered Prayers”

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