Comments: Opinion - 22 April 2017

Viz. Adrian Harris and Madeline Davies: I have attended services at more than 3,000 churches, urban, suburban and rural, chiefly in southern, eastern and midland England. Whilst not all of the services I have attended are representative of the wider health of a given church I would suggest that c.95% of congregations are heading very rapidly towards extinction.

The only ones that appear to be bucking this calamitous trend are: (i) HTB or Bishopsgate plants; (ii) churches in affluent dormitory towns and suburbs with a critical mass of young people; (iii) a student-orientated church in many university towns; (iv) those churches with particularly dynamic, friendly and/or pastorally gifted leaders; and (vi) those ‘gathered’ churches which attract refugees from a particular Anglican tradition. (i) to (iii) are overwhelmingly evangelical, though not always theologically conservative; (iv) are frequently very conservative.

Whilst I am not certain that HTB has been quite as successful as some claim (at least relative to the investment), it is still almost the best show in town. What has happened at Brighton, Hammersmith, Hoxton, Onslow Square, Queen’s Gate, etc., is a joy to behold. Attendance in much of Brighton and Hove has undergone a painful collapse (though not as bad as elsewhere); having worshipped over all Sussex it was a palpable relief seeing a church like St Peter’s (which escaped final closure by a whisker) stuffed with young people and young adults; attendance has all but collapsed in much of Middlesex (largely a function of radical demographic changes), but to see the old church at Hammersmith, say, brought back from near-death was a tremendous relief.

However, I am of the view that many churches falling outside the categories itemised above can succeed and buck the trend towards morbidity. Sunday mornings are now given over to other activities; Church has simply been crowded out. Timetable is key, so hold genuine all-age services between 4 PM (when people return from relatives, the supermarkets close, etc.) and 6 PM (when they are readying themselves for the coming week)! It can be done successfully (see, for instance, Bathford in Somerset, Southwick or Westhampnett in Sussex, etc.). Size doesn’t matter for the purpose of securing a very successful turnout at the right time (from 4 PM), as I witnessed in the tiny community of Hilfield in Dorset last Sunday. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean churches shouldn’t try.

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 12:00pm BST

Politicians, like Donald Trump, have media advisers to think up slogans and "Make America Great Again" did appeal to many voters, even if they weren't sure how that was going to come about. After reading the first fourteen verses of Luke 14 earlier today, I have a word - humility. I'm not sure it's a word that would survive a political campaign but in real life, it means everything.

Posted by Pam at Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 12:37pm BST

I believe community is 'lived' not 'marketed'.

Technology may support the process of information sharing. But of course, it's not a substitute for holding hands with a dying neighbour, or feeding an elderly person who's got dementia.

There is also the issue - where 'marketing' is involved - of 'control'. Is there a place in the driven marketing campaigns for dissident voices, critique, and open dialogue?

Would Adrian, for example, allow me space on the Church of England website, to write about my life as a trans Christian and nurse, and the disappointment I feel at the shortfall of acceptance and affirmation in the Church, compared to society at large?

Or is 'communications' controlled by 'managers' with their own management agenda.

The enigma who was Jesus was not very easy to 'manage'. He went off-message frequently. I suspect Christian community - lived offline and face to face, is a bit like that. Rough at the edges, improvising, but somehow living the blood, the tears, the pain that is not a digital collection of Facebook 'likes'.

So although I use technology myself, I am cautious about its claims. It can become part of a management culture, propagating party lines.

Even the relatively benign diocesan websites are an illustration. While a few champion and affirm gay and lesbian lives, for the most part they 'erase' LGBT issues, except where they are subjects of debate as problems, but the use of technology through diocesan websites is commonly a management of what is best to 'market' - highlighting some features but often marginalising or making invisible the lesbian and gay lives that are a precious part of community out in the real world.

As a nurse in a big secondary school, I have 3 trans pupils and many lesbian and gay pupils - where do they find support and links and affirmation on C of E websites? Where could someone like Lizzie Lowe have logged on and found help from the Church?

So 'marketing' can sometimes be a management tool, and a means of controlling image to placate a particular market. Jesus was more awkward than that.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 12:59pm BST

While I agree with Froghole on his analysis of the situation there are a couple of points from the Church Planting article that give the this rural church member pause for thought. We couldn't achieve a nominal congregation of 500, the 2011 census had 327 souls in the parish, without recruiting from elsewhere. I could get the whole population in if we had three sittings and, if they all wanted Eucharist, I could find additional clergy to take the burden given we share a vicar. While we do try to make sure that there are a varied diet of worship activities in the rural churches; it is increasingly difficult to do so given the time pressures on those of us who can facilitate and lead worship. We are very aware of what we could do, and in many cases would be happy for it to happen. But bringing in something like the HTB model would cause serious unease if it came with external staffing. The perception of Empire building is still very real and the cultural differences too marked to make the intervention style unlikely to succeed long term.

What would be useful, and this links into the digital explosion, would be practical support. Tweeting prayer at a national level is all well and good, but what is more useful is a website for every parish. Most of us can get the hang of the "free" web builders, but an hour of technical help would be invaluable for those parishes who can't afford a professional web builder. The same goes for sorting out CCLI licenses and the other nuts and bolts, that many parishes don't have experience of and could just do with a helping hand. This needn't and shouldn't need staffing from the diocese, but is best served by local communication and sharing best Prentice across parish and deanery boundaries.

Posted by Lavinia Nelder at Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 10:03pm BST

I believe community is 'lived' not 'marketed'.

I don't wish to hurt anyone, but I am sick to death with binarisms like this. Why in the world would one think that the two are at odds with one another? There is a lot the Church can learn from marketing experts.

True one can define and practise "marketing" in a way that is antithetical to Christian values, but it's not necessary to do so. To stop the conversation by making it a binarism of either this or that otoh, is contrary to good Christian values and practice. It reminds me of the kind of person who says, "I don't believe in God," when I would like to say that if I understood God in their way I wouldn't believe in God either.

Posted by Garry Lovatt at Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 10:20pm BST

Re: the Bishop Walker article, and "solidarity", as far as I can tell the good bishop is confusing solidarity with modeling corporate policy. Upper management cannot but be pleased.

Walker writes, "...the relative subtleties of the 'Five Guiding Principles' were drowned out by more visceral cries of sexism or intolerance..." You want to pay attention when people cry out. Sometimes, when shouts of "fire" are heard, the place may actually be burning down.

We've just celebrated our Lord's passion which may be understood as the gold standard for Christ's solidarity with humankind. Yet, one reading makes it very clear, events may have been triggered by the cleansing of the temple. Solidarity.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Saturday, 22 April 2017 at 11:27pm BST

'We couldn't achieve a nominal congregation of 500'

To be fair, Lavinia, there was only one person in that article who said this, and most of the church plants mentioned were a lot smaller than that.

Personally, I think that if the New Testament is true, everything essential to church is doable in a living room...

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Sunday, 23 April 2017 at 1:06am BST

So sorry to see that +David does not get it at all. The rejection of +North and the 5 Guiding Principles was not due to intolerance, it was due to the fact that no one could explain how women and girls were to flourish.

As for solidarity... Goodness. Jesus never asked us to be in solidarity with Pharisees who were demeaning people. Asking women and gay people to be in solidarity with the oppressors before anything like equality is achieved is crazy. It's just asking us to suck it up and support the status quo, no matter how homophobic, sexist, deaf, etc., it may be.

Posted by Cynthia at Sunday, 23 April 2017 at 7:53am BST

@Lavinia Nelder: These are very useful comments; many thanks. Your remarks about digital information are especially handy. I cannot stress how important it is for parishes to advertise themselves online and, most especially, to make it extremely clear precisely when their services are due to take place.

What I have found striking is how often this absolutely fundamental detail is omitted from websites or the information supplied is either difficult (sometime very difficult) to access, or is incorrect, or is impossible too find even via a physical and time-consuming reccie, or via phone calls to often grudging and/or suspicious personnel (assuming they can be contacted at all). As to incorrect information, and it can be somewhat frustrating rising at an ungodly hour to get to an advertised 8 AM service, only to find that it has vanished or been cancelled.

I have attempted to assemble an inventory of service times for each of the 30+ dioceses I have toured in detail as part of my extended pilgrimage. About three fifths to three quarters have websites (on average), but a significant minority of these will not have up to date information, and many will not have updated their information for several years. Of the rest a number will have posted information on achurchnearyou (that vital, but curiously neglected, resource), but much of that detail often comprises a lot of guff about the history of a parish and all its activities, missing the vital ingredient of service times. A significant minority will not have any online information, and a significant minority of that minority will not even have information on notice boards or available within the relevant church building, assuming it can be accessed. Some even lock their church porches, even though that that is the only place where information can be found. The authorities should know about this, and they should do something about it.

I would suggest that each diocese provides every parish with instructions on how to use achurchnearyou, with the rider that the authorities expect (i.e., demand on pain of a severe wigging) that basic details (contact, times of availability for pastoral care and, above all, current and accurate service times, plus details of other material activities) are posted. All else is superfluous.

We are twenty years into the online revolution and the current state of online information provided by much of the Church simply isn't good enough.

Posted by Froghole at Sunday, 23 April 2017 at 11:49pm BST

@ Tim Chesterton, "... everything essential to church is doable in a living room..." But Tim, the way things are heading, it may be doable in a phone booth. In fact, the institutional church may be on the verge of going the way of the phone booth.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Sunday, 23 April 2017 at 11:51pm BST

"When, a few days ago, I attended, robed and received communion at the Chrism Mass presided over by the Bishop of Beverley, nobody imagined that my strong convictions on the full inclusion of women in the Church’s ordained ministry were wavering."

It can be argued that vestments are appropriate for for leading communion but personally I find it abhorrent that anyone would robe to receive communion. Everything in the Bible suggests that communion is about meekness, supplication and penitence. Stressing one's office is the opposite of that.

Bishop David also says, in criticism of those who spoke against the appointment of Bishop Philip:

"It’s certainly true that the shortest and sharpest messages, the ones that are easiest to get across in a contested situation, are often the most negative or polemical."

That's a travesty. Equality is one word and is positive, not negative. What about "respect for women", is that negative too? Indeed he is utterly wrong. The message which failed to get across was how Bishop Philip could become the Bishop of Sheffield. Quite simply, it was an unbelievable message. And the appointment collapsed ultimately led, not because of the opposition, but because the Society and others did not have a credible message.

Posted by Kate at Monday, 24 April 2017 at 5:20am BST

Yes, Kate, exactly. "Respect for women" and girls takes a clear back seat to "solidarity." I can't believe that the Kingdom of God is a place where women and girls continually have to suck it up, at great expense to our well being. But that is what +David is asking us to do. Because obviously there's no "solidarity" in equality, that would upset the power holders and we can't have that...

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 25 April 2017 at 4:42am BST

I think I'm called to be in 'solidarity' with everyone in the Body of Christ, aren't I?

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Tuesday, 25 April 2017 at 5:14pm BST

Re: Tim, "I think I'm called to be in 'solidarity' with everyone in the Body of Christ, aren't I?"

And what might that look like, if some members of the body are oppressed and others are doing the oppressing?

"O you dear idiots of Galatia, who saw Jesus Christ the crucified so plainly, who has been casting a spell over you?"
--Paul's letter to the Christians in Galatia (3:1) ( :

The verse, for colour commentary purposes, is taken from the J.B. Phillips translation (which the ordaining bishop presented to us at our ordination).

Posted by Rod Gillis at Tuesday, 25 April 2017 at 9:47pm BST

Solidarity: unity or agreement of feeling or action especially among individuals with a common interest. An important word in that description is 'individuals'. We are called as Christians to love one another but that doesn't mean to put up with being less than someone else. If the hierarchy of a male-dominated organisation, such as the church, does not love and respect all members, problems abound. It's not exactly about equality but about self-sacrificing love.

Posted by Pam at Tuesday, 25 April 2017 at 10:25pm BST

Rod: 'And what might that look like, if some members of the body are oppressed and others are doing the oppressing?'

Rod, I would fully support the duty of mutual admonition in the Body. It isn't something, however, that Anglicans have been particularly known for over the years, is it?

I would hope, however, that we are all as ready to receive admonition as we are to dish it out.

I'm mindful of the joke I read in one of C.S. Lewis' letters, to this effect: Dogs and cats both have consciences, but the dog is an honest fellow; he always has a guilty conscience. The cat, on the other hand, is a Pharisee. He's always thinking "I thank thee, Lord, that i am not as these humans".

I don't know about you, but I find I'm quite susceptible to the temptation to feel (although of course not to say) "I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as these _________" (fill in blank with appropriate word). And that's when I need to think of solidarity in the Body of Christ, I think.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Wednesday, 26 April 2017 at 12:28am BST

"I think I'm called to be in 'solidarity' with everyone in the Body of Christ, aren't I?"

Sure. In Christ there is neither male or female, Greek nor Jew, slave or free, etc. And I don't believe gay people are excluded either. Being in solidarity as the Body of Christ is great. Being a doormat for the straight male status quo is not.

Posted by Cynthia at Wednesday, 26 April 2017 at 4:41am BST

Re:Tim, "I don't know about you, but I find I'm quite susceptible to the temptation to feel... 'I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as these _________'"

Nope, not my temptation. Why are evangelicals so obsessed with self guilt and the need to project it on others, do you suppose?

The notion of "mutual admonition" is nice; unfortunately it is often applied without attentiveness to power imbalances in the church. Now that is something very Anglican.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Monday, 1 May 2017 at 12:32pm BST
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