Findings from the Northampton Faith Communities Survey.

faithI reported a few months ago that Northampton Council had commissioned a survey into the status and needs of faith communities across the town. A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop for faith leaders to discuss and critique their initial findings. The final report will go towards influencing planning policy in the future.

They heard in their survey from 113 faith groups in Northampton. All were invited to the workshop and about 30 chose to attend. The majority were from Christian groups of different denominations, but there were also a handful of Muslims, a few Hindus and Sikhs, two of Jews, one Bahai, and two people who described themselves as ‘other’ (although I’m not sure what). There were significant omissions in the scale of the survey however, as I know of a number of churches who did not fill it in, others could not be contacted, and the largest mosque in Northampton also wasn’t able to respond (for reasons I don’t know).

Findings

Using the survey combined with the most recent census data (2011). This showed that the largest ethnic group in Northampton is still White:British, followed by white:other, Pakistani, and then a combination of African nationalities. Overall there are 150 different buildings used by faith groups in Northampton.

Christianity

Between 2001 and 2011, the census data for Northampton shows a decline of 9.7%, to roughly 60%, in those who describe themselves as Christian. All other religions except Judaism showed an increase of some sort. However, as we noted in our discussions, the Christian data should be read carefully as the nature of the question in the census measured Christian allegiance rather than Christian practice. (If 60% of the population came to church, our churches would all be overflowing!).

The survey did record growth in some Christian ares, notably in informal and evangelical churches, in Catholic churches (due to Polish immigration?), and in black-led Pentecostal churches. What was clear from the survey was, quoting the workshop facilitator:

Churches are involved in a very wide and growing range of faith, cultural and community activities.

Islam

Amongst Muslim communities, the census counted roughly 8-9000 in Northampton, with the largest group being Bangladeshi, then Somali, the Pakistani. Local estimates put the total number closer to 14000, and they also questioned the methods used to discern the size of the groupings, estimating the Pakistani group to be larger than the Somali group. The error seems to have occurred in using the country of birth to determine the numbers, rather than the cultural allegiance of the worshipper. One commenter, who is a member of the Pakistani Muslim community, gained a laugh when he said “Where is the group for Muslims born in Wolverhampton?” It was also noted that the largest mosque was unable to contribute to the survey.

In all, there are 8 different mosques in Northampton which offer prayers and teaching, cultural activities, and community groups. It was asked and it is not known, however, how many of the community groups are for their own communities and how many reach out into the wider non-Muslim residential communities.

Hindu

There has been more than 50% growth since 2001. In Northampton there are 10 different Hindu groups with large Diwali celebrations. They offer faith related and community activities.

Other Religions, and ‘others’

There are two smallish Sikh groups in Northampton offering regular worship. The one Buddhist group is small but growing. They primarily meet in people’s homes. There has been a slight decrease in the Jewish population between the 2001 and 2011 census. They have an ageing membership but they get involved in prayers, meals, and talks for the Jewish community.

Just over 100 people in Northampton responded to the religion question by ticking the box ‘other’.

Needs

The survey generated needs in key areas:

  • 25 groups say they need additional space, most significantly (but not confined to) Christian groups. Many of these groups were outside mainstream churches.
  • There is demand for additional mosque capacity particularly for key events in the Islamic calendar. There has been talk of a possibility of a purpose-built mosque (as opposed to a converted shop) in Northampton for years.
  • Broadly speaking, other religions were well catered-for. Both Hindus and Sikhs are currently building large new facilities in the town.

Fortunately, it was noted that the survey revealed almost no interest in a multi-faith worship centre, but the idea of community centres which could be used for a variety of activities, including worship, was encouraged.

In the discussion time (taken within faith groups), one church highlighted the difficulty of finding a patch of land to buy freehold on which to build a church. Developers are apparently not keen on letting go of their land!

Proposals which could influence policy

In planning, they should recognise the need for the retention and (this is key) adaptation of existing facilities. Faith groups could benefit from a supplementary planning document for places of worship, including a ‘how-to’ of the planning process, which is quite complicated.

The council could also introduce a directory of places to hire. Often there are places to meet but they just aren’t well publicised. There could also be a gathering of information of vacant non-residential institutions which could be hired, bought or adapted.

Overall it was an interesting evening, although I’m sure nothing is going to change soon. The fact that the council is funding this survey (and only a couple of other councils in the country are doing anything like this) is very encouraging. This was not the right group to be pushing the St Crispin’s community centre with, as this is already in the planning system. But the opportunity to say what we are giving to society, and what we would do with the right facilities is very much welcomed.

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