Can Anglo-Catholic churches grow?

Richard Peers writes: Not so many years ago it was generally accepted that the Church of England was a finely balanced three-legged stool of Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals and the liberal establishment. The debate about the ordination of women has diminished Anglo-Catholicism both in numbers and in the diversion of energy – particularly of our best leaders and organisers. The liberal establishment has been reduced by the rise of what at least one bishop describes as the neo-orthodoxy of our times. It is hard to imagine either David Jenkins or John Robinson in the episcopate now.

It is equally accepted that in our time the Church is dominated by evangelicals. As a committed Anglo-Catholic, I am pretty relaxed by that. Movements wax and wane; in the 1930s Anglo-Catholics held sway, post-war it was the liberals and now the evangelicals. I am, however, concerned that despite evangelical successes in church planting and in the growth of large congregations this has not halted or even slowed overall decline. Church growth needs to happen on a much wider and more diverse scale than it is at present if we are to sustain even our current position.

The Centre for Theology and Community has this week published a new report on church growth as seen in seven Anglo-Catholic parishes in London (both north and south of the river, in London and Southwark dioceses). This is an important and significant report, the first, as far as I know of its kind. It is important, not in the least for including parishes from both the traditionalist stream of anglo-catholicism and those who embrace the ordination of women. The Centre is exactly what is says it is. It is a theologically-based organisation working “to equip churches to transform their communities.” All their publications are worth reading and provide important information on what is happening in the church and in communities.

A Time To Sow is an important contribution to those of us who hope to renew the Anglo-Catholic contribution to the life of the church. However, a very significant and disappointing lack is the presence of a woman priest leading a growing parish. Concerned about this I contacted the author, Tim Thorlby, who explained that this was because of the difficulty of finding growing Anglo-Catholic parishes of any kind. This in itself should be food for thought.

At this September’s Anglican Catholic Future conference Bishop Philip North spoke about evangelism:

“The mere fact there is a subject called ‘Catholic Evangelism’ which merits study on its own for me rather illustrates the problem. Do we have talks and papers on ‘Evangelical evangelism?’ No, because they’re too busy doing it. In our defence, we are living through a time of immense evangelical influence in Church of England and as a result the techniques and ideas that surround evangelism are largely drawn from one tradition. Inevitably that means that we can feel at odds with much of the language of evangelism that is around today.”

He goes on to offer four features of Catholic Evangelism as it is practised: Incarnational, Sacramental, Communal and Lifelong. Each of these elements is clearly present in the seven parishes studied, although by the nature of the report, which seeks to look at growth over a five year period, the final element of lifelong evangelism is harder to judge.

Each of the parishes is showing incarnational evangelism in that they are centred on particular localities, parishes with all that each context brings them. The parish clergy are clearly deeply rooted in their communities, very often in schools but also in other organisations and in the use of church premises by other groups.

All of the parishes described are practising deeply sacramental evangelism. In each of them not only the use of the daily Office but often of daily or near daily Eucharist are central to the work that is being done. The communities in which these churches are situated will know that they are praying communities.

The seven parishes are engaged in profoundly communal evangelism. In none of them is evangelism about what happens simply to an individual but in that person becoming part of a wider community of church that makes a contribution to the wider community.

Every one of these communities is showing significant and sustained growth. That is deeply encouraging. These are not becoming mega-churches; the growth is significant rather than dramatic. Nevertheless in a context in which many congregations are shrinking the growth in these churches not only halts but reverses that and is therefore highly significant. If every Anglican parish, or even half of Anglican parishes were able to do what these parishes are doing the national data would look very different indeed.

As the author notes, this study is of only one city, and because of the incarnational nature of these parishes it reflects that context. Having left London for the north-west just 15 months ago I know that there are many differences between the capital and the rest of the country, both parish and educational contexts. Almost all of the parishes in the report have been able to utilise their buildings either to make money or not to lose money. This is the result of excellent management, very often by the clergy involved. In the Catholic context, where good management is often sneered at, it is good to see priests as excellent managers. The reality is, however, that this is much harder to do in communities where property has relatively low value and attracts very low rents and where a number of publically available facilities – halls and community centres etc – may be competing for very few groups needing such accommodation and those that there are having very little funding.

Likewise, the presence of significant numbers of Black, African and Afro-Caribbean families, can have a very different effect on a congregation to the monochrome white working classes of many northern estates and towns. Loyalty to the church, and perhaps more so to grandparents in black families, can mean significant numbers of children and young people in church on a Sunday.

Many of the studies mention pastoral assistant schemes having an effect on church growth. There are excellent examples of this in London. For young people leaving university and considering a vocation to ordained life they can provide a cheap way of living in London and being involved in church life as a preparation for selection panels. London is a buzzy and exciting place to live. It is harder to attract either funding or young people to live in less attractive locations.

Thorlby draws attention to the fact that Anglo-Catholics have not produced an equivalent to HTB—a ‘megachurch’ to resource other churches. There are several churches in London which have substantial resources (All Saints, Margaret Street; Bourne Street; Holy Trinity, Sloane Street; St Matthew’s, Westminster all spring to mind), and while these are thriving in their own way, they have not seen substantial growth and are not making the major contribution that HTB does to the national life of the church. The report raises this question but does not attempt to answer it.

This report is a heartening read. I know many of the, mainly young, clergy who have achieved the growth identified and they deserve the praise this report implies. I know some of the parishes, particularly St John’s, Catford, and the report accurately depicts the vibrant life there. The report shows a model that can be followed elsewhere and does not require huge resources. Because, quite rightly, it focusses on the communities involved and not on the individual clergy it misses the fact that these individuals bring great positivity, energy, managerial skills and prayerfulness to their tasks. However, I wonder if the nature of the parishes, the difficulty of finding other Catholic parishes that are growing and the complete absence of large Anglo-Catholic congregations resourcing the wider movement and church suggests a more fundamental problem? The four marks of mission that Bishop Philip identifies would be accepted by most Catholic Anglicans—but perhaps they tie us too deeply to the parish system? An evangelical friend recently asked me if I thought there was a structural issue that was leading to Anglo-Catholic decline. It could be that we are tied too firmly to the parish model and that what Anglo-Catholics would criticise as evangelical congregationalism actually frees evangelicals to create growth.

It occurs to me in reading this report that in its heyday Anglo-Catholicism was really a church-planting movement. Many of the great Catholic shrines, such as St Agatha’s in Landport, Portsmouth where I ministered for a time at St Faith’s, were planted in the newly built slums where there was no established parish. Anglo-Catholicism was counter-cultural, subversive of the existing establishment just as Evangelicals are today. Could it be that Anglo-Catholics have become too establishment? Too attached to the parish system? Have we lost our missionary edge because we can’t see beyond the institutions which imprison us? Is the Anglican three-legged stool unbalanced, not so much by the decline of Anglo-Catholicism but because too much of it has been swallowed up by the Establishment?

Bishop Philip is himself a member of the Company of Mission Priests, who challenged the established pattern of one priest, one parish; the mission today demands new structures and new systems if we are to re-invent ourselves. A Time to Sow is an important, interesting and useful document but it is closer to a first than a last word.

Additional Note: Tim Thorlby’s summary of his report includes a similar balance between encouragement and challenge:

Perhaps most striking of all is that the ‘habits of growth’ displayed by these faithful Anglican Catholic churches are almost indistinguishable from the habits in evidence amongst neighbouring evangelical churches which are also growing. The liturgies, language and church culture may be different, but a number of key habits are shared. In particular, the practice of community organising is being harnessed by a growing number of churches to develop the congregation and act with its neighbours for the common good…

The stories of growth which we have told are not typical of Anglican Catholic parishes – they illustrate what is possible but are not the norm. The report sets out the reasons why we believe that Anglican Catholic parishes are less likely to be growing than their neighbouring evangelical counterparts. Anglican Catholic parishes make up something like 1 in 5 Anglican parishes in London and with every passing year this proportion is probably declining.

The reason for this lack of growth in the Anglican Catholic tradition is not because their parishes are more ‘difficult’ – our reports show that growth is entirely possible in such neighbourhoods, and the Pentecostals and Roman Catholics don’t seem to have a problem with this. The reason also cannot be because the Tradition doesn’t have the ‘tools’, as we have shown that some of its parishes clearly do – and where they needed to learn new habits, they didn’t have to look far to find help.

It rather looks as though too many parishes are not growing because they either don’t think it’s important or just don’t believe they can. As Canon Angus Ritchie concludes in the Afterword – “there is a need for a change in the culture of Anglican Catholicism.”

We hope and pray that the stories in our report will encourage more Anglican Catholic parishes to take up the challenge of growth, in ways which are faithful to the tradition and confounding to the critics.

Father Richard Peers is Director of Education in the Diocese of Liverpool, and tweets (often!) at @educationpriest and blogs at Quodcumque

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30 thoughts on “Can Anglo-Catholic churches grow?”

  1. Hi again Richard. Some thoughts-

    (1) The idea that somehow there is this three-legged stool, as it was in the beginning is now and – that idea ‘has not a leg to stand on'(!)

    (2) If people assume labels on the basis of (e.g.) upbringing or personal aesthetics or style or simply not being aware of the alternatives – before doing the thinking and coming to the provisional conclusions that merit the labels.

    (3) Most labels will not apply across the board anyway – at least not for honest non-tribal people. But tribalism is exactly what should be discouraged (in groups and out groups, taking positions because of being scared of being in a minority among one’s peer-group, virtue signalling etc.). So why can’t people just develop by research, trial and error their own worldviews which are open to adjustment on the basis of evidence. When they do so, the chances of it falling into neat pre-labelled boxes is small. Also small is the chance of all those pre-existing labels by coincidence being precisely equal in how well they reflect what it is to be Christian.

    (4) I was brought up anglocatholic and passed from there at the age of 8 to a bastion of liberalism (Edward Carpenter, David Edwards, Trevor Beeson) till 13. Some say we are affected by our upbringing, but I wasn’t on this occasion. I saw some strengths in the former as well as weaknesses, and few strengths in the latter. It is all about truth-seeking, which is the pursuit of every scholar.

  2. The Company of Mission Priests did not challenge “The established pattern of one priest, one parish”. In fact the opposite is true: the established pattern was two or three curates per parish and far from challenging that pattern, the Company merely enabled poorer parishes to have those curates on the cheap.

    Indeed, I suspect the whole question is a matter of resources; always was, always will be.

    Stop feeling guilty, folk and stop worrying about worldly success.

  3. “It is hard to imagine either David Jenkins or John Robinson in the episcopate now.”

    True: you either get bishops who share their beliefs but obfuscate; or those who never fully develop them, and have instead jumped down the identity politics rabbit hole. Instead of crisp debates with people who treasure reason, you get told to check your privilege. Evangelicals have banished liberalism only for the theological New Left to take its place. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that gods suppressed become devils — dial down the designations, and guy had a point.

    • But it is right that leaders and foci of unity ought not to approximate to any of the stereotypes that even schoolchildren can fix on, e.g. clergyman as silly-ass, the See yieldeth up its dead and all that.

      John Robinson’s proposal to cut the ”age of consent” (I can think only of the poor girls who would have been affected, but in fact already are being in Rochdale etc etc because the law as applied in practice is different from the law as written) was wrong. Also, he virtually called adultery ‘holy communion’. The country looked at him then (and a few years later: the pivotal culture-change year 1963 was also the year of Honest To God) and thought ‘much good Christianity has done for the Christians’. The abandonment of Christianity was the most serious ill in the social revolution, the meta-ill or umbrella for all the others. His depth-good height-bad is arbitrary. His situation ethics is open to precisely the same criticism, since it says that content is nothing, context is everything. I am still trying to work out why. Lewis was still alive at the time of HtG and wrote of it in terms of goddess-worship, which showed foresight or at least wisdom, JATR was also a very good New Testament scholar.

    • Jim, All very interesting points.

      One of the challenges I feel we need to address is the role of episcopacy in mission. See my contribution below. Anglo-Catholics need to look anew at their pneumatology. What is needed, I feel, is a less structural and more functional form of authority to speak to the current intellectual climate and sociological conditions of the 21st century in Britain. If bishops are unable to provide that it will have to come from elsewhere.

      As to the point about “gods and devils” I think it was Freud who pointed out the need to look at the shadow side of life, wasn’t it? His thinking in its time was truly creative in the sense of creation ex-nihilo.


  4. It is heartening to hear that growth in the Anglo – Catholic churches is increasing. It’s especially nice to hear a note of optimism in the CofE every now and again.

  5. I would like to recommend the book “Divine Renovation” by Fr. James Mallon, a Scottish-born Roman Catholic priest in Canada who revolutionized his parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, mostly with the aid of the Alpha Course.

    If the Alpha Course can be very successfully used to turn stagnating R.C. parishes into growing communities of what Mallon calls “missionary disciples” it should be equally useful in an Anglo-Catholic context.

  6. It strikes me that the biggest barrier to anglo catholic church growth is that the Priest has to be at the centre of everything. If you’ve got a priest who can do at least two services a day, as well as doing the community work and going into schools, and doing all these things well, then you’ll hopefully see some growth, but ultimately you’re still limited by what one person can do, and then the only answer seems to be to bring in more Priests!

  7. As the Rector of a large parish in Derbyshire which describes itself as ‘modern catholic’, and having myself come from an Evangelical/Charismatic background, I find the latter part of this piece compelling. Tim Thorlby’s call for parishes to ‘learn new habits’ is spot on. Because of my background I find that relational evangelism is part of my dna. However, being willing to learn new habits from the Anglo-catholic tradition, I feel that the combination of evangelistic enthusiasm, and a deep respect for the sacramental tradition, is what is helping our church grow. Sadly, in general, I find those identifying as Evangelical largely unwilling to explore sacramental worship, and those identifying as Anglo-catholic largely unwilling to explore relational evangelism. I think there is much cross-fertilisation needed if we are to be ‘all things to all people so that we might by any means win some’.

      • Philip, this is where the rubber hits the road. I have had to spend time finding my ‘red lines’ and being accommodating to a degree. There are times when doctrinally I have to tread incredibly carefully. However, working within the anglo-catholic tradition, with evangelical sensibilities, is not only possible, but is producing great results. I do not feel I am compromising on doctrine, although I do have to work hard sometimes to honour the traditions of the context while remaining true to myself. There are sacrifices to be made on both sides (if they are in fact ‘sides’). However, it is worth it for the huge potential.

        • Sorry Ben
          Given my understanding of Anglo-Catholicism (which may of course be incorrect – we would have to discuss that) and given the convictions that I hold (which I know are not shared by all who would call themselves ‘evangelical’) I don’t think it is possible if we are completely candid about what doctrines both sides believe. I am willing to go into detail if you want.
          Phil Almond

    • Yes – I see this often and lament this state of affairs. Grove has just published Discipline and desire: embracing charismatic liturgical worship by Graham Hunter. Ironic because early evangelicalism was very sacramentally minded – see in Charles Simeon and, of course, John Wesley.

  8. If anyone wants to read “The Daisy Chain” by the Victorian Anglo-Catholic novelist Charlotte Yonge, they will find a fictional example of church-planting in a poor area, inspired by the vision of a fifteen-year-old girl. (It’s also an exciting family saga.)

  9. “It is equally accepted that in our time the Church is dominated by evangelicals”.

    A Church dominated by evangelicals would be one in which the majority of Archbishops, Bishops and Ministers believed and preached both essential elements of the Apostolic Gospel: the terrible truth and warning that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and the wonderful, sincere, genuine command, invitation, exhortation to all of us to respond to the love, mercy and grace of God by repenting and submitting to Christ in his atoning propitiatory death and life giving resurrection, and thus to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and to be ultimately conformed by the Holy Spirit to the image of God’s Son.

    I would be humbled and glad to be shown convincing evidence that such is the real situation.

    Phil Almond

    • Exactly. Right now Christopher Cocksworth is in a minority of one. Whether the one is sometimes really zero (i.e. whether all this is accident or design) is another question.

        • He has been known to be absent minded and press the wrong button. On the 2 occasions where this was in question (I can’t remember if he actually pressed wrong twice) he once voted with the revisionists and once against.

  10. “It is equally accepted that in our time the Church is dominated by evangelicals. ”

    Isn’t this comparing (slight exaggeration) apples with pears. I do not think the definition of ‘evangelical’ has stood still. In the same way ‘conservative evangelical’ has changed in the light of contemporary issues.

  11. I wish to make two observations:

    First and foremost, I argue that the fundamental issue for Anglo-Catholics to address is their theology of the Holy Spirit.

    This article is a valuable contribution, but once again we see lots of talk about structures, theological party identity and the role of management in church growth. Instead of starting there begin with consideration of a pneumatology that speaks to the sociological conditions and intellectual climate of the 21st century in Britain. Such a theology is likely to embody values such as mutuality, non-hierarchical authority but authority based on function and to de-emphasise structure.

    Everything else will fall into place if pneumatology is given priority for consideration.

    Secondly it really is time for Anglo-Catholics to engage with evangelicals (and vice versa) from a posture of respect. Evangelicals are making a contribution to the national life of the church (as noted in the article) and they have much that Anglo-Catholics can learn from. The same will also be true if a conversation based on mutuality is established.

    I have written to Bishops Ric Thorpe and Philip North encouraging them to show an appropriate episcopal lead in this matter.

  12. As the leader of the (Anglican Catholic based) Youthlink organisation, I have noted that by far the best evangelists of the young are other young people. Also, young converts are more likely to bring their parents that the other way around. Also, young people love traditional church music as long as it is lively. (Youthlink handbook available by sending £5 (to include postage) to the printers and distributors, the Additional Curates Society. All other info from me at [email protected]

  13. When an Anglo Catholic parish was likely to have been merged with two Evangelical parishes on cost grounds it was suggested that an experienced and senior NSM priest of the Catholic tradition be appointed their NS incumbent. He was duly appointed incumbent. That was 9 years ago and the parish is thriving.


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