Comments: Opinion - 6 January 2018 - Epiphany

A Happy Epiphany throughout the octave, and throughout the season beyond. The link below will take you to a reading of T.S. Eliot's, Journey of the Magi as read by Sir Alec Guinness. Blessings.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Saturday, 6 January 2018 at 8:15pm GMT

David Goodhew’s article on growth is right (in my view) to emphasise the need for numerical congregational growth, and to argue the need to think this through theologically. But his article also shows why many of us are still sceptical of what often passes for such a theology.

To understand growth we need also to understand decline. One of the issues in much of the Old Testament, for example, was to make sense of the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the experience of exile. If God promised to be faithful, the prophets (and the Deuteronomic editors) asked, why has Jerusalem fallen? What went on?

Similar questions could be asked, for example, about the collapse of the Church of the East in the centuries following the rise of Islam, and of the virtual eradication of Christianity in much the middle east in recent decades. It’s too simple, not to say crass, to suggest it’s because they weren’t praying or trying hard enough, or they had a deficient theology. We need a more sophisticated sociological, political, and economic analysis than that.

The value of the work of Charles Taylor (to which Goodhew refers) and others (I would include David Martin here) is that they help provide sociological tools to understand what’s been going on in the west that has led to church decline in virtually all European (and to a lesser extent North American) societies.

(to be continued...)

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Sunday, 7 January 2018 at 2:36pm GMT

(continued from above...)

The value of the work of Charles Taylor (to which Goodhew refers) and others (I would include David Martin here) is that they help provide sociological tools to understand what’s been going on in the west that has led to church decline in virtually all European (and to a lesser extent North American) societies.

So (for instance) the 19th century alignment of the Catholic church with the ancien regime in Europe, and its vociferous resistance to liberal democratic movements or socialism, arguably pushed those on the centre and left of politics into anti-clericalism and atheism, thus marginalising the church as these movements became mainstream.

Or again (for example) the collapse of the Catholic church in Ireland, for example, can be traced not only to recent child abuse scandals, but also to the way in which the church functioned as a marker of national identity and resistance during the period of British colonialism - a role which dramatically reduced following the Good Friday agreement and Irish and British integration into the EU.

It’s not possible to understand decline without understanding these kinds of sociological factors, and it won’t be possible to understand growth without them either. The recent growth of the church in China or Africa, for example, or its dramatic recovery in Russia, are not just explicable on the basis that clergy there (in contrast with the UK) are intentional about growth. They reflect the ways in which different forms of Christianity have become associated with the processes of urbanisation and modernisation (in China or Africa), or with the resurgence of nationalism (in Russia).

So if we want to understand church growth and decline in the UK, for example, we need sociological analysis to understand what consumer-capitalism does to traditional forms of religion: how a market economy transforms Christianity into a consumer product; and to understand who buys this new product, under what circumstances, and why. And above all, we will need to evaluate the results much more critically.

Goodhew is right that we need a nuanced theology of church growth. But it will need more than what’s on offer in his article.

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Sunday, 7 January 2018 at 2:37pm GMT

A well-said response re ‘Anglican Church growth’:

Posted by Melissa Holloway at Sunday, 7 January 2018 at 3:16pm GMT

Charles Clapham makes excellent points. But ignores the elephant in the room: LGBTQ issues. Let us use "same sex" as a shorthand, recognising that it isn't precise or inclusive enough. Same sex relationships are mainstream: many, if not most, families and social circles include at least one, and fulminating about how they shouldn't be allowed or aren't right is now pretty much the province of the elderly relative everyone avoids at parties. It is hard to imagine any middle-class and/or educated environment in which opposition to SSM is acceptable, and increasingly it isn't just the Waitrose classes. Essentially, homophobia (and opposition to SSM is now classed as homophobia, all the logic chopping some bishops have tried has been seen as the "separate but equal" sophistry it is) is not a good look any more, and people who are homophobic are not taken seriously on other topics. Homophobia is now in the same place racism has been for the past thirty years: the sole preserve of thugs, bigots and a minority of largely elderly, largely poorly educated people.

To misquote Sayeed Warsi (who herself claims to have come on a journey, a journey one might see as somewhat ironic) it no longer passes the dinner party test.

The Anglican church is institutionally homophobic. Not all its members, not most of its members, perhaps not even many of its members, but its institutions and leadership are. It refuses to recognise same-sex marriage or the reality of same-sex sexual relationships, and (for example) actively refuses to employ people in such relationships. Want a "theology of decline?" Sticking to positions which the majority of your target audience regard as repugnant is a pretty good way to get one.

Posted by Interested Observer at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 7:57am GMT

I don't think Charles Clapham'a purpose is to discuss the elephants. He is asking very perceptive questions about the room/building itself - how it came to be and its presumed use and purpose over time. I for one would love to hear more. A lot of the discussion about growth/decline lacks this longer term perspective and gets based on very recent history and quite simplistic assumptions as to what the' problem' or 'answer' is: the choice is wide but there are very predictable ones ...
'evangelicals' - mindless, dumbing down, bums in pews, GAFCON etc
'liberals' - ignoring scripture, selling out to culture.
Sexuality - on whatever side of the debate
Managerial bishops
Bishops lacking theology
Bishops lacking anything and everything
Archbishop/Archbishop's council/Anglican communion/Cathedrals/stressed clergy/imprisoned laity - add and delete as applicable.

Can Charles Clapham point us to anywhere else this thinking is analysis is being taken further?
My only comment is that the Hebrew self-reflections on their decline and exile was very strongly theological and spiritual in focus. Whilst I agree social analysis is needed today I am not sure where I find that level of spiritual analysis today.

Posted by David Runcorn at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 9:38am GMT

I may be reading the wrong article, but I can't see that Charles Clapham's piece is about either elephants or rooms, but who gets murdered in what room, how, why and by whom - and why we are so fascinated by the whole story.

And I'm sure Clapham is right - it's our innate longing for wrongs to be righted and justice to be done. That's why it's so important that we keep Advent as a time of looking forward to Christ's return, when 'in his name all oppression shall cease.'

Posted by Janet Fife at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 11:34am GMT

A characteristically searching article by Margaret Barker, challenging the status quo in biblical scholarship. I am so grateful to this Methodist lay preacher for driving a coach and horses through many entrenched protestant assumptions about the New Testament, and the way we rationalise our worship in such a myopic way.

Posted by Michael Mulhern at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 11:50am GMT

It’s several years since I taught in the area of mission, so my reading is not up-to-date. But I think one of the problems is that the critical study of church growth does not yet have a sufficient institutional basis in the UK: we do not have enough researchers, PhD students, and analysts working on (and arguing about) these issues. I do recognise that David Goodhew (and others) have been trying to build this up, which is welcome. (I recently suggested to Graham Tomlin that it be extremely helpful if St Mellitus in London, for example, could develop an institute for the Study of Evangelism and Church Growth to take this further - if there are wealthy sympathetic funders out there??).

But what this means is that much research into church growth is still overly anecdotal, and claims are made that are overstated or exaggerated. Recall, for example, of Mark Hart’s careful dissection of the claims made about the findings in “From Anecdote to Evidence” by the Church Growth Research Programme (reported on Thinking Anglicans

So in most of current talk about church growth, there is still a widespread tendency to explain growth or decline based on anecdotal or correlational evidence, in accordance with one’s own theological, ethical, or liturgical views, or preferred managerial/leadership theories: conservative evangelicals argue decline is because of a lack of biblical preaching; liberals say it is because the church is not affirming enough of LGBTQI people; those who love the BCP argue it is because of the decline in use of the BCP; etc. So a first step would be to resist this kind of approach: the more painful truth might be to recognise that church growth may in fact be associated with practices with which one disagrees!

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 12:26pm GMT

I suppose I was prompted to make these comments in part because David Goodhew gives a good example of the kind of exaggerated claim often made regarding church growth when he states in his article that: ‘A range of research shows that churches that intend to grow tend to grow.’ I myself agree that being intentional about numerical growth is a good thing, but I don’t think there is rigorous empirical evidence for the claim David Goodhew makes here, and anecdotally I could think of dozens of churches which demonstrate the opposite. (It’s perhaps worth noting that reviews of Goodhew’s books by sociologists like Steve Bruce and David Martin have not been very favourable.)

So one can argue that the size of congregations like HTB or St Helen’s Bishopsgate and their impressive church-planting records are because they are intentional in their evangelistic and church-growth strategy - and I don’t entirely disagree. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that both these churches are also located in what one can only describe as areas of extreme concentrated wealth - Kensington and the City of London perhaps the two richest square miles in Western Europe (if not the planet?). This is not to make a cheap point (my own part of West London is not exactly poor), but to observe that there is an economy and sociology of growth that these churches recognise in their practice (who they target, where they plant), but which is not acknowledged sufficiently in theory, or reflected on theologically: what kind of Christianity is produced in these contexts, are there are elements of inculturation here that need critique, and would such approaches in fact be reproducible in other - very different - contexts?

For what it's worth, my own hunch, having worked in a variety of contexts across England, is that overall patterns of church growth in the UK are more directly related to patterns of immigration and economic growth than to whether clergy are sufficiently hoping/praying/working for numerical growth. But it's as anecdotal and unevidenced a claim as everyone else's.

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 12:32pm GMT

Discussion of a full ‘theology’ of church growth would need much time and space (my own notes for a proposed book on contemporary mission lie tucked away long-forgotten in a folder somewhere). But in term of the ‘biblical basis’, I agree that some of Jesus’ parables use metaphors which involve growth (e.g. seeds) to illustrate the kingdom, that Paul understood himself as an evangelist and church planter, and that Book of Acts is careful to record numerical growth. And these are the sorts of passages church growth theorists point to. But you can also read vast swathes of the rest of the New Testament without seeing much emphasis on church growth. The advice (purportedly) given to Timothy in his role of a Bishop, for example, does not seem to me especially to emphasise the need for church growth; it is not obvious that growth is the preoccupation of the Book of Revelation, the letter of James, or many other parts of the bible.

So it all needs much more careful treatment, as do the relationships between church and kingdom, evangelism and social transformation, and dialogue and proclamation. There is substantial literature in the global church on the theology of mission, and (arguably) perhaps even a degree of ecumenical convergence, and I would have thought this would be helpful place to start. (Though as with the study of church growth, missiology is also under-resourced at an institutional level in the UK.)

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 12:36pm GMT

My real concern is that a market economy re-shapes traditional (pre-market) religion in all sorts of ways, and it would be helpful to reflect on this process of inculturation more critically in relation to church growth in the UK.

So under a market economy, worship songs, for example, become a consumer product: written, performed at concerts and festivals, marketed and sold within a culture that necessarily therefore (from the point of view of the producer) encourages the newest and latest: in practice, the ‘religious’ music market operates no differently from the market for contemporary pop music.

Sermons and teaching become a form of lifestyle coaching: what presents as ‘biblical teaching’ in fact reduces to a mixture of positive thinking and pop psychology couched in religious rhetoric: a spirituality of the entrepreneur (with a social conscience) that reflects contemporary cultural aspirations.

And books, courses and conferences on church growth and leadership are also part of a market: sold by ‘successful’ churches and leaders, with all the rhetoric and questionable claims of modern advertising, to those who are struggling, with the implicit message that is not your context that is responsible - it is you - whilst concealing the reality of the social and economic context that lies behind these ‘successful’ churches or leaders. (The historical targeting of public school boys and Oxbridge is not an incidental part of the evangelical Anglican economy: it was a deliberate strategic move.)

I don’t say all this to be cynical: it is exactly what one would expect in a market economy. But the danger is that couching all this in ‘spiritual’ language conceals the reality underneath: it functions as a kind of false ideology. We attend church meetings or read church reports where we are assured that this is not about a pragmatic strategy to avoid numerical or financial decline, but a process of prayerfully discerning God’s will - and yet the outcome is too often a plan which looks precisely like a pragmatic strategy to stop such decline, leading one to ask whether, if one skipped the prayer phase, and just concentrated on the marketing and management, the end result would be any different?

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 2:42pm GMT

So those who are in struggling churches, whether in Middlesborough or Salford, rural Cornwall or the Welsh valleys, are told: buy the latest book on church growth, attend this course, change your theology, and your church too can be transformed. Whereas the vast majority of empirical evidence suggests, in all likelihood, it won’t be: not because your theology is too liberal, or because you’ve been duped by secular sociologists (which is the rather extraordinary suggestion in one of Goodhew’s books), but because the contemporary context in the UK for mission is extremely hard in many areas, as a result of large-scale sweeping cultural, political and economic changes that lie outside individual control.

And for all that I’ve learned over the years from church growth theory, I think that for those clergy in hard contexts who feel ignored by the powers-that-be, unrecognised or overlooked for promotion in favour of colleagues who were cannier in their choice of easier-to-grow parishes or better networking opportunities, the book on mission we really need today is: "How to keep plugging away faithfully (including at evangelism) even when you don’t seem to be getting anywhere". That’s the book that interests me.

Apologies for writing too much on this. Signing out!

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 3:37pm GMT

What Charles points to is the inevitable tension of religion in 2018, when it is relatively unusual for people to have been cradle Christians who transitioned to regular involvement.

If people are starting from a position of passive agnosticism with a vaguely theistic overlay (which I think is probably the default position) then what will attract them to churches is feeling better for being involved than not being involved.

Few are going to start attending for fear of hellfire: if such people exist, they are already attending, but otherwise it is no longer 1750. Few are going to start attending for fear of social opprobrium: there is no stigma to not being a church goer: it is no longer 1850, either.

If you aren't attending church because you fear damnation, and you aren't attending church because you fear social oblivion, then why would you attend church unless it makes you feel better? And that feeling better is inevitably a market of opportunities for experiences of music, self-help and companionship also available elsewhere.

Posted by Interested Observer at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 6:15pm GMT

Nothing is more attractive to us sinners than the prospect of God's Love, Mercy and Forgiveness. The 'God of Wrath' is no longer feasible for people whose lives are constantly bombarded with the cares and distractions of our world. The Beatles had it right: "What we need is Love" (and the justice that Love begets).

When we speak of evangelism (Good News), the Church is sometimes the bearer of Bad News - the 'Wrath of God' rather than "the Great Love of God as revealed in the Son"

Maybe the Church is still too threatening to draw those most in need of God's Love, Forgiveness and Mercy. Business management for 'Bums on Seats' no longer cuts the mustard for other than the middle classes whose lives are not fraught by economic, domestic and social ills.

Interestingly, at this time of Epiphany, we note that the 3 Kings did not find Jesus in the Palace at Jerusalem. They found him in a stable, with the Poor and lowly. Poor people need to know that they are loved and accepted by God and the Church - not judged by their social standing, gender, their sexual orientation, or their ability to socialise.

The Prophet Micah knew this when he said: "What is good has been explained to you: this is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God".

Very often, the State is better at fulfilling this role than the Church that Christ brought into being for this precise purpose.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Monday, 8 January 2018 at 8:55pm GMT

Great article about night church - very encouraging.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Tuesday, 9 January 2018 at 4:45am GMT

The Scandinavian Churches have developed late night Nicodemas masses in large cities..does anyone on here know more?

Posted by Perry Butler at Tuesday, 9 January 2018 at 8:14am GMT

This from Charles Clapham
... the implicit message that is not your context that is responsible - it is you ... says it all. Since 1984 I've lived and served in 4 parishes, each described by CUF as among the most deprived. In my experience the challenges for everyone here simply trying to stay alive have become harder and harder year on year.

It's not made easier by being part of an otherwise well off deanery and diocese where the emphasis is very much on growth and 'leadership' training for clergy.

Recently I asked for a meeting with my diocesan to explain how tired we are/I am of relentless pressure to be successful, to 'pay our way' etc etc and asked directly if he knew what it feels like to have been 'plugging away' at it for more the 30 years? To his credit his silence spoke volumes.

We are the last still standing in our patch. We plug gaps, we attend to areas of food poverty, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, we befriend, we do not judge .. how long, O Lord, how long?

Posted by AnotherFrDavid at Tuesday, 9 January 2018 at 10:34am GMT

To Interested Observer - absolutely. And to AnotherFrDavid - Amen.

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Tuesday, 9 January 2018 at 11:31pm GMT

"then why would you attend church unless it makes you feel better?"

To worship and praise the Living God? To find direction and centering in him? To be fed on his word and sacraments? To be able to confess and lay before God our sins and weaknesses, and be forgiven? To be given opportunies of service and catechism and support?

I suspect a lot of places are far better at making us feel better, at least in the sense that would be generally taken by the general public.

Posted by CRS at Wednesday, 10 January 2018 at 12:43pm GMT

"why would you attend church"?

To contribute to building up the kingdom that Christ proclaimed? To contribute to building up the common ife of the people of God? (Which are essentially the same things in different words.)

A key difference from earlier points is that these are not individualistic things but communal ones. The kingdom cannot be lived in isolation but only with our fellow human beings. The church should be the place where we meet others who share those goals and who have placed their trust in the Jesus of Nazareth and the good news that he preached.

That is partly about building up our social life with fish suppers, bingo sessions, beetle drives and so on. But it is also perhaps about together changing the world, one person at a time.

But we're not very good at that either, I suspect.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Wednesday, 10 January 2018 at 5:01pm GMT

"not individualistic things but communal ones"

SK. Just so I am not misrepresented, praise of God only makes sense in community, as well as every thing else mentioned.

We live in the catholic rectory of the parish church in Courances, France. I have never seen such lay involvement, at all levels: music, care for the dying, catechesis, youth leadership, Sunday leadership, sick-bed care. This is all the furthest thing from "individualistic" which I often witness in protestant contexts.

How to be fed on word and sacraments can be interpreted as individualistic is a context I do not know well.

Epiphany grace and peace.

Posted by CRS at Wednesday, 10 January 2018 at 6:32pm GMT

SK: in case any "communal Christians" would be interested, I hope this might be helpful. I share your concerns deeply.

Posted by CRS at Wednesday, 10 January 2018 at 6:36pm GMT

Re: going to church to make you feel better, here's C.S. Lewis (in answer to a question):

'Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is best...As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity' ('God in the Dock' Ch. 4 'Answers to Questions on Christianity').

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Wednesday, 10 January 2018 at 6:58pm GMT

That is an excellent point, Tim Chesterton. However, I also recall a comment by Lewis (exact quote not at hand) concerning the Hebrew Scriptures to the effect that the literature of no other people paints such an accurate and damning testimony of themselves, concerning the many failings rightly to worship. So one might just as well say that Judaism is not any more "comfortable" than Christianity. The warning is that just as Judaism did not prevent the self-righteous man in the temple proclaiming his virtues (beside the humble man who bewailed his sins, to whom the "righteous" one compared himself), being in "a church" is no guarantee the residents haven't fallen into that same trap of self-satisfaction through their contrast with those they deem to be "sinners."

Posted by Tobias Haller at Thursday, 11 January 2018 at 2:21pm GMT
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