Church growth in Britain 2: Mainstream churches

Posted on June 24, 2012

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The section on mainstream churches contains chapters on the London diocese (of the Church of England) (by John Wolffe and Bob Jackson); Catholicism in London’s East End (Alana Harris); Baptist growth in England (Ian Randall); growth in (Anglican) cathedral congregations (Lynda Barley); and reverse mission (Rebecca Catto). For me, the study of London Anglicanism is the single most interesting chapter in the book. By giving a comparison with Southwark (the diocese that covers the Anglican parishes of the London urban area south of the river Thames, roughly), where a steady decline has only very recently stabilised, the authors are able to demonstrate that London’s growth is not an inevitable result of demographic changes in the capital. The simple story of immigrant-driven growth must apply roughly equally across the whole urban area, and so if London has been growing as Southwark has declined, the story must go beyond that. (What knowledge I have of patterns of immigration into the capital suggests that actually Southwark should benefit disproportionately from immigrant driven growth if that were the only story.)

So what has driven growth in London? Wolffe and Jackson identify three structural factors – and behind all three, the purposeful and expert leadership of the two most recent bishops, David Hope and Richard Chartres. The turning point was around 1990 – the low point in electoral roll figures (at 45 000); in 2010 the electoral roll stood at 77 000, a 71% increase in two decades. In the same period Sunday attendance has risen 15% (compared to a 10% decline in Southwark). This is probably a significant undercount, in that those involved in midweek services or fresh expressions of church, both of which have mushroomed in the last two decades, are unlikely to find their way onto the electoral roll very rapidly. It might be reasonable to postulate a doubling of regular worshippers within the diocese of London since 1990.

Hope arrived as bishop in 1991; he first changed the criteria for the appointment of new priests, who were no longer to be chosen for their ability to care for the existing congregation, but for their ability to mobilise mission. ‘Every major individual church growth story since 1990 began with the appointment of a new incumbent chosen with mission and growth in mind and tasked to lead it.’ Next, Hope asked every parish to produce a ‘mission action plan’ (Wolffe and Jackson repeat the joke I remember from the time, that none of those three words had previously featured in the vocabulary of the average Anglican parish…), and appointed people to give the parishes support in the development and implementation of the MAP. Third, the system of calculating a parish’s required contribution to the diocese based solely on its numbers was discontinued. This system had rewarded failure and penalised success (falling numbers saved you money and vice-versa); in its place came a system of negotiation which would challenge failure and allow growing churches to request to keep a greater proportion of their income in order to cement growth.

Within the parishes, clergy have been released (by changing social expectations) from many traditional and time-consuming roles within the local community and able to focus their efforts on areas of perceived need; London clergy tend to be younger, and involved in strong interchurch networks, such as New Wine; a model of church planting that has emphasised the revival of fading congregations by transplanting leadership and a new congregation from a growing neighboring parish has also been a significant motor for growth, in that a significant number of shrinking congregations have been revitalised.

Ian Randall’s study of Baptist growth in the period makes some fairly similar points. Charismatic renewal was significant in changing expectations, as was the Church Growth Movement: decline was no longer to be seen as inevitable, by some at least; the denomination, because of its congregational heritage, was much less wedded to a Christendom model of ministry, and so found it easier to move towards a missional orientation; the rise in interest in the Anabaptists helped and hastened this. Gifted and visionary national leaders – notably David Coffey – put the structures on a missional footing; church planting was a significant motor; the denomination was aided by the rise in black majority and immigrant Christianity. As a result, in the period in question the Baptist Union of Great Britain recorded growth, albeit generally modest, but certainly fared much better than any other mainline denomination nationally.

Cathedral congregations are an interesting contemporary story, which I had heard but never seen figures or analysis. Lynda Barley provides both. The figures are slightly frustrating, because they would seem to involve extensive ‘double counting’ (measuring total attendance at all Advent services, for instance), and it is not clear how much of the growth has come from multiplying numbers of services. Nonetheless clear patterns of growth are evident. Barley indicates total attendance at regular cathedral worship doubled between 2000 and 2010; a more detailed analysis of Bradford Cathedral shows an increased in the electoral roll of 33% (from 150 to 200), coupled with an increased attendance at special services (Scouts on St George’s Day is an example offered), leading to a doubling of the number of worshippers. Barley also notes that many visitors to cathedrals are drawn into the spiritual life of the church by invitations to light a candle, offer a prayer, or similar, and that visitor surveys suggest that these opportunities are greatly valued.

How to analyse this? Grace Davies ‘believing without belonging’ trope is attractive, and noted here, and the informal prayers and candles perhaps fit well into Linda Woodhead’s account of the turn away from collective expressions of faith to individualised spirituality (Linda describes this as ‘de-reformation’; I have asked her why, and not been very satisfied with the answer…). Barley, however, notes a further theme: the excellence of cathedral worship. Liturgy, music, and preaching will be of a consistently high standard and, outside of Guildford, the architecture is of course stunning.

One of the analytic tools referred to more than once in the book, although not by Barley, is Rodney Stark’s development of ‘Rational Choice Theory’. This, not uncontroversial, account of religious sociology goes something like this: human beings are innately religious, and will generally be happiest when able to express their religious feelings in a satisfying way; if there is a variety of high-quality religious community and worship on offer in a locality, then, participation in religion will inevitably increase. Only when what is on offer is poor – tedious, irrelevant preaching; amateurish music; cringeworthy liturgy; uncomfortable and ugly surroundings – will religious decline happen.

As with most explanatory theories, it seems unlikely that this can explain everything adequately; it is very plausible as a part of the equation. Cathedrals offer a rich and satisfying experience of (at least one style of) Christian worship; as such, they will be attractive.

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