Person and plate: a morning shandy with Tunde Roberts

Vicar Tunde Roberts, St. Olave' s, Woodberry Down

Pragmatic: Reverend Tunde Roberts. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

It’s just barely noon and Reverend Tunde Roberts hasn’t eaten all day, but he is adamant that he share his lunch: “If I get a plate of chicken wings, then you can have some too,” he reasons.

It’s early doors at the Rochester Castle pub on Stoke Newington High Street. The venue is inconsequential – it’s the only place that seems to be open, but as we’re in a pub: “I have to have a shandy” Roberts insists. “If I’m in a pub, I always have to have a
lager shandy.”

Settling into a booth in the cavernous, near-empty pub, the vicar of St Olave Woodberry Down wastes no time getting to the point.

“I’m an Anglican. I will always be an Anglican. But the church is shooting itself in the foot,” he says, gently chopping the table with the side of his hand. Roberts holds this view in spite of his considerable personal victories within the church.

Last month marked Roberts’ 15th year at St Olave, the Anglican church smack in the middle of Hackney’s Woodberry Down estate. Now famed as the site of a controversial public-private redevelopment, upon completion, it will see million-pound flats rubbing shoulders with re-homed residents of the old estate. Roberts concedes the site “needed a lot of money spent on it”, despite his concerns with the project — namely its  difficult-to-measure claims to benefit to local residents.

Roberts came to London from Nigeria in 1975, studying accountancy, eventually training for his ordination part-time. He moved around several churches before taking on the “Herculean” task of bringing St Olave back to life after a year’s closure.

This was 1999, and the church had no lighting, no heating, no musical instruments. The vicarage, where Roberts now lives, was marked by a collapsing fence and massive overgrowth on the grounds.

Since then, the congregation has swelled from just six devoted parishioners to an average of 150 every Sunday – 98% Afro-Caribbean, the rest indigenous white, Roberts estimates.

But overall, the C of E is fighting a losing battle, Roberts laments, taking a swig of his shandy: “We’re losing our young people to the Pentecostal church, and it’s our own making.”

Part of this, says Roberts, is a dearth of minority Anglican leaders, leaving young church-goers without “good role models” among the minority groups that are seeing a growing profile within the church, as white participation slips ever-more.

By contrast, young people “go to the Pentecostal church and on the podium, there are people like them.”

“We (C of E) have maybe 150 area bishops, and you only have one from the black, asian and minority ethnic community. That is not good enough.”

But retention is only one challenge in the new era of St Olave’s — staying relevant goes well beyond appealing to the pious. It will require “a new way of being a church.

“New people might not be Christian and may not want to go to church. We need to be ready to welcome them.”