There has been a rather heated debate in the last few weeks about new church-planting initiatives in the Church of England, particularly with recent reporting of an initiative called Myriad, and its partnership with the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication. The Gregory Centre describes itself in these terms:
The Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication supports leaders, church teams and diocese across London, England and beyond as they multiply disciples, churches and networks.
CCX is led by the Bishop of Islington, the Rt Revd Ric Thorpe. In 2015, Bishop Ric was consecrated as the Bishop of Islington in order to support the Diocese of London’s goal of creating new worshipping communities across the capital.
We’re part of the Church of England but work with many denominations and networks.
The heated debate centred around some comments about church planting made by John McGinley, whom I know through New Wine and his leadership of Holy Trinity, Leicester. I had a chance to talk to John about his own faith, church planting, and the Church of England.
IP: How did you come to faith yourself, and how did you end up being ordained in the Church of England?
JMcG: The Church of England is in my blood! I’m the son of a vicar, and there hasn’t been a single day of my 52 years on which I haven’t belonged to a Church of England church. When I married Bridget, my mother-in-law was a priest and father-in-law a Church Commissioner—I’ve got the full set! Between the ages of 11 and 14 I rebelled quite strongly against my Christian upbringing; there was no-one my age in the church we belonged to and I found it hard to connect with God and my faith.
But I wasn’t happy, and I saw something good in the lives of my parents and people at church. So like the prodigal son in the pig-sty I came to my senses. I decided to attend confirmation classes, and I came face to face again with the wonderful truth of God’s love for me in Jesus and was amazed that the God who created everything would come and give his life for me so that I could be saved from sin and death. At the confirmation service I declared my faith in reaffirming my baptism; as Bishop Timothy Dudley Smith laid his hands upon me, the Spirit flowed within me, cleansing me and renewing me and I wept and I knew God had forgiven me and brought me back to himself.
IP: You have spent quite some time in ‘regular’ parish ministry. How did you become interested in the whole issue of church planting?
JMcG: I have been ordained for 26 years and throughout my ministry, in three different parishes, I have served with a conviction that the church of Jesus Christ is called to proclaim the gospel, make disciples and grow. In my curacy I had the privilege of leading a team of people to plant into a redundant church building within our parish which we had redeveloped. It was in a very multi-cultural community, and by God’s grace that church community grew, and we saw people converted and baptised from every different world faith background; when I left we were a church with people from 35 different nationalities.
What I learned from that experience is that we reached people who would never have come into the orbit of our parish church. And so I came to the conviction that churches needed to be planted in proximity to where people lived and the places where they formed community. Jesus called us to go and make disciples and so at times that means we need to move and plant churches to reach new people.
IP: Where do you see the foundations of church planting in scripture and theology? How does it relate to the gospel?
JMcG: In Scripture I don’t think we are taught to plant churches; instead we are called to plant the gospel. But the consequence of God using us to plant the seed of the gospel in people’s lives and make new disciples is church. ‘Church’ is, if you like, the plural of ‘disciple’; it is the ekklesia, the gathering of God’s people with Jesus at the centre of that community. This is what we see in the book of Acts: here, as Paul and other apostles proclaimed the gospel, new churches formed.
It has been said that a churchless mission is as offensive as a missionless church. Mission is never an individualistic calling; we are always called together and so we plant churches as a means of sustaining people in mission and as a consequence of mission as new people become disciples of Jesus Christ. I love the snapshot of this in the Letter to Titus. Paul and Titus had been involved in evangelism and strengthening the church on the island of Crete. Small church communities have formed in different parts of the island, and as Paul has left Titus to oversee the church there, he now writes to him instructing him to appoint elders for each church community in each town (Titus 1:5).
Here we see how the church can plant new churches that are part of and accountable to the wider church. Paul is acting in the way a bishop oversees churches and ministers and he then appoints Titus as his local pastor and he commissions him to appoint local members of these communities as elders—they are untrained but are tested to be of sound faith and good character and Titus is to support them. It sounds a little bit like lay-led church planters being supported by priests and bishops!
IP: Some people have suggested that church planting is not very Anglican. Where do you see the importance of church planting in the history of the church, and the history of the Church of England in particular? Are there precedents for us to follow?
JMcG: We are all worshipping in an Anglican church plant! And there is a story behind why each church was planted—parish churches, daughter churches, tin tabernacles, and so on, were all established to meet a need and quite often this was due to population expansion. The vision was to enable everyone to have the opportunity to come to faith in Christ and worship him.
Our Anglican identity has been established on the vision of the parish system with a church for every community in which the priest takes spiritual responsibility for the cure of souls of people in that parish. I believe church planting is the fulfilment of that Anglican vision and identity, not a threat to it. Now that very few of those ‘souls’ will come to us at any point in their lives we need to go to them with church communities close to where they live or connected into the places where they are forming community. We are no longer in a Christendom pastoral situation and so our tradition now calls for us to move and change in order to care for the spiritual state of people in our parishes who are living with no knowledge of the good news of Jesus Christ.
The question about whether this is Anglican has already been answered. In the 1994 Breaking New Ground report on church planting, Bishop Patrick Harris wrote:
The structures and Canons of the Church of England are flexible enough to allow bishops to encourage and to enable Church Planting to take place in their dioceses.
In the history of the Church of England and in the Anglican communion, lay people have planted churches when there has been a need. And the missionary need has never been greater in England than it is today.
IP: How did the Myriad project come about? Is it a Church of England enterprise?
JMcG: The vision for Myriad came about from the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication which is overseen by The Bishop of Islington, Ric Thorpe. Ric was appointed by the Bishop of London to support the planting of new churches in London, and his role has expanded to offering support to bishops and dioceses across England wanting to encourage church planting and establish resourcing churches.
A couple of years ago he formed a group to consider what it would take to see an acceleration of church planting and mission in the Church of England. This group included a number of bishops, members of national Church of England departments, a breadth of tradition, age, gender and ethnicity. And as we prayed and discussed this question the vision for Myriad developed. We were inspired by the work of Pioneers and Fresh Expressions and we wanted to contribute our experience of church planting to the variety of ways that God is renewing his church.
We dared to ask the question about what it would mean for the church if God were to reach 1 million new disciples and see 10,000 churches planted. We realised that it would need every form of church—revitalised parish churches, and ‘resourcing; churches, but also thousands of lay-led congregations. We wrestled with the implications of this for our Anglican identity, the centrality of the sacraments, the nature of ordination, safeguarding and governance. And because of the complexity of all these issues we believed that God was calling us to give time to develop resources and understanding that would serve the church and allow churches to be planted in good and safe ways.
So Myriad comes out of the Church of England and all of the Myriad team are ordained or lay members of the Church of England. But it is not a national church initiative and we receive no national church or diocesan funding. We want to serve the national mixed ecology vision and offer our experience of church planting to help establish the 10,000 new Christian communities that has been set as part of this vision.
IP: There has been some reaction to the phrase you used, referring to buildings and paid and trained leadership as ‘limiting factors’. What did you mean by that in the context of this church planting initiative?
JMcG: I’m grateful for the opportunity to answer this question Ian. I don’t believe, and have never said, that clergy or parish churches are limiting factors. And I am sorry for any upset or frustration that has been caused by this misunderstanding. I also understand the sense of exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed by all we have experienced and all that we are facing. But I am convinced by the need of people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
The proposal that lay people can be supported in leading new worshipping communities relies on ordained leaders with theological and pastoral understanding. The Reformed Catholic tradition of the Church of England has a clear understanding of the role of ordained clergy in faithfully proclaiming the gospel, teaching the apostolic faith and administering the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. Myriad affirms this tradition and nothing in our proposal undermines these core understandings of Anglican ecclesiology. We have a ‘both-and’ vision which wants to develop the partnership between parish churches and church planting. It is a vision that involves building upon what God has already begun to do.
The increase in church planting and the variety of new churches that we have seen in the last two decades since the Mission Shaped Church report means that across the Church of England lay people are already planting and leading churches and God is using them to reach new and younger people. Bringing this alongside the challenging missionary situation where 93% of people in England are not members of any church, we believe that the Spirit is showing us new ways that he wants to work in and through us. Myriad is offering a team and resources to be a catalyst, offer support and contribute to working out what this might look like in ways that honour the Anglican tradition and develops new patterns of ministry for our ever-changing context.
We don’t come with all the answers but we believe God is inviting us to discover them together. And to do this we believe that we will need to change the way we think and remove some of the restrictions that we have established in order to release what the Spirit is birthing.
IP: What do you see as the longer term future of small new church plants in terms of their leadership and provision? How will they relate to existing structures and parishes?
The only basis on which any Anglican church congregation can be led by a lay person is with authorisation from the bishop and with oversight by trained clergy. This is vital in order to ensure theological orthodoxy, have pastoral experience available and to meet the standards of safeguarding and governance that keep people safe. Therefore, this means that priests will be overseeing lay people who are planting new congregations, mentoring and guiding them and providing sacramental ministry. This relationship of empowering lay people in this way is life giving for the priest and lay person.
I was recently speaking to two of the lay people who have overseen church plants and whom I have overseen. We were reflecting how together we have seen God do so much through these churches and how life giving our relationship has been. Since announcing the Myriad vision a young woman living on an estate where many are suffering deprivation came to me and said ‘Do you think I could plant a church for my community?’ She has been prayer-walking the area and connecting with the people on the estate. She recognises none of them will easily connect with the parish church which is a mile away. And so she longs for a church to form so that the people she is witnessing to can begin to follow Jesus.
So the question is can she plant an Anglican church as a lay person? There is currently no established pattern for such ministry, little training and we only just beginning to work out how these churches are recognised within the structures of the Church of England. It is this vital work that Myriad will be investing in. In the Autumn we will be offering a new resource to help people explore the theology and practice of church planting, and also some training to support parish priests who are going to or want to oversee lay people as they go out in mission and lead new worshipping communities.
IP: What can we pray for, for you and for Myriad?
JMcG: Thank you for asking about prayer. Prayer is our priority at Myriad. We are in the process of appointing a prayer coordinator and our first work before we do anything else will be to begin to pray for the church and pray for the progress of its mission.
So rather than pray for Myriad I would encourage people to pray for the church, for our archbishops and bishops with the incredibly difficult work they have to do at this time in the life of the church. And pray for the clergy and parishes whom God will use to plant new congregations and reconnect people to himself. Pray for wisdom and guidance so that Myriad finds its place in God’s work and fulfils all that God is calling us to.
If people would like to know more or to register to receive prayer updates and news of new resources and developments please go to our website here.
IP: Thank you, John, for your time—and for your commitment to this exciting vision. We pray God will bless, equip and lead you in this new stage of your own ministry.