Metro: Little harmony on day of rest: A Nigerian church in Bermondsey has disturbed the peace. Lynn Eaton asks what is really worrying the neighbours

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The Independent Culture
IT IS 10am on Sunday and outside the new Christ Apostolic pentecostal church in Bermondsey Nigerians from all over south London are already up and dressed in their finery.

The women are resplendent in vivid royal blues, garish yellows and shiny silvers. The swathes of colour brighten the grey street with its parked cars, run-down Victorian houses, pre-war council flats and post-war rabbit-hutch houses.

A man walks by on his way to get a paper, staring at the scene as he might at a stranger in his pub.

Bermondsey is renowned for its tight-knit, white working-class community, built around the docks. Although the docks have long gone, the sense of identity among locals remains strong. Even strangers from the south of the borough are regarded with suspicion.

Bermondsey is also a notorious British National Party stronghold. Two years ago a local college introduced surveillance cameras and security guards after a spate of racist attacks on students. Setting up a 'coloured church', as the locals call it, in this area was not perhaps the smartest of ideas.

Inside the red-brick church, known as St Andrew's until it closed 25 years ago, a group of early arrivals join hands in a circle and, one by one, begin to pray, each in his or her own language. As the intensity of the prayer grows, the others respond with a cry, swaying and punching the air. One or two of the men are jigging up and down, as if in a trance.

Then comes the hymn-singing as the service proper starts. A church elder praises God that they are alive - 'In Jesus's name'. Every time he utters the magic words over the loudspeakers the congregation responds with a loud 'Ay-men'. This is not the dour 'Ah-men' of an Anglican church, but a cry that grows in energy and intensity.

The tinny electric organ starts up and the amplified sound belts out from four speakers at every corner of the hall. 'My faith looks up to thee . . .' the congregation sways to a syncopated beat, 'thou Lamb of Calvary . . .' A woman dressed in blue choir robes raises her arms in rhythm to the beat and a mother, baby hugging one hip, clicks her fingers.

'I think their God must be deaf,' says Kathleen Moore, who lives in the council flat next to the church. From Mrs Moore's first-floor balcony you could almost touch the roof of the building, which had lain empty until the church moved in last November.

Even with the sound-proofing, which environmental health officers have demanded, and the limiters fitted on the sound system, you can still hear the noise from Mrs Moore's front door. The amplified sound of the organ and the 100-odd voices is more muted these days. The music makes up only a small part of the two- and-a-half-hour service, but it is still there, a dull throb.

'It just breaks your nerves,' says Mrs Moore. I'm a Catholic. When you go into church it should be quiet.'

Since the church started operating, there has been a flood of complaints from residents. First, it was the noise from the service. The church spent pounds 20,000 sound-proofing the roof, almost cutting off its ventilation. Then there were the problems with traffic and parking. The church arranged for cars to be left in the nearby car park and organised minibus transport to encourage the congregation to leave their cars at home. Now it is the noise people make leaving the church.

This is not the first place of worship to be at the centre of a noise row. In 1986, prayers relayed from the central mosque in Birmingham were monitored by environmental health officers after a local vicar complained that the noise could be compared to the sound of Concorde taking off. Even the Church of England has become a noise nuisance at times. Last year, for example, a Devon vicar found himself in court after a resident complained he was ringing the church bell too frequently.

But when the complaint is against a mosque or an African church, it can be difficult to decide how much is genuine grievance and how much ignorance and prejudice. Hyacinth Parsons, Southwark council's community relations director, says there is no way of knowing whether these complaints about noise have a racial overtone. 'Some people are far more sensitive to particular types of noise than others,' she says. 'You are never sure whether you are dealing with a genuine environmental health issue or because it is racially different.'

Mrs Moore says race has nothing to do with it. 'I don't care what they are as long as I don't hear them.'

Terri Skates, the landlady at the nearby Southwark Park Tavern, admits she was surprised when the African church moved in: 'It's a very strange choice, as this is not a racially tolerant area. It is still predominantly white. Not that there has been any trouble - so long as the regulars stay inside and they stay outside.'

'The regulars' are all men, all white, all in their late fifties. One propping up the bar is telling his mate how 'one of those blacks' came into the pub last week. 'He looked like that one out of Desmond's,' he says, mimicking a swaggering walk.

This year alone, Southwark council has issued nine High Court injunctions, many against residents in the Bermondsey area, as part of its get-tough measure on racial harassment. The few black families who do live in the area have been offered escorts to take their children to school, personal alarms and mobile phones. The incidents range from graffiti on the walls and verbal abuse to physical attack.

Although the neighbours of the Christ Apostolic church have not gone to these lengths to get the Nigerians out, there is little doubt that to some of them, the church is a red rag to a bull. The church elders however, feel they have bent over backwards to accommodate the views of local residents and are at a loss to know what to do next.

'We worship in a joyful way, like all pentecostal churches,' says Kola Adeniyi, one of the elders. 'The only thing we can say is there are some sort of people who want to get us out of this church at all costs.'

The windows of the church minibus have been smashed twice and cars have been vandalised.

According to Southwark Council, the church was advised by officials that it probably would not need planning permission, but that to be on the safe side, it should apply. Church officials say they were told planning permission was not necessary and so did not apply.

Now councillors have given the church three months to stop holding services because of the noise. The church has lodged an appeal against the decision.

Whatever the outcome, it won't be soon enough for Alice and Sydney Cooper, who live above the premises of the mini-cab business just along the road. From the living-room window of their first-floor flat you can see the churchgoers spill out on to the street. They stand in animated groups, shout across the road to friends or toot their horns as they drive off. This goes on for 15 minutes at most. 'These people don't come from this area. Bermondsey has always been free of them,' says Mrs Cooper. 'If they toed the line, nobody would bother.'

(Photograph omitted)