Change (and growth?) for the Church of England

Image 5There is a fascinating new article Resurrection? published in The Economist, taking a look at decline, growth and change in the Church of England. It is interesting for a number of reasons:

  • It looks carefully at the actual numbers which tell us about decline, growth and change in the Church
  • It takes seriously a range of different perspectives of what is going on, including sociologists like Linda Woodhead, researchers like David Goodhew and Nick Spencer, and church leaders from a range of positions from Pete Hughes of KXC church in London to Alan Wilson, suffragan Bishop of Buckingham.
  • It touches not just on the questions of numerical change, but the changing church scene in England overall, and the way the C of E is changing in relation to contemporary culture.

The article starts off by noting the impact of immigrant Christianity as well as the changing face of parts of the C of E:

TO SEE the future of Christianity in Britain, go on a Sunday morning to an old Welsh Congregational chapel off the Pentonville Road in Islington. The building has been bought by a Pentecostal Ethiopian church; the congregation raises its hands in a show of unEnglish ecstasy to praise God in Amharic. A few hours later, something unexpected happens. A congregation of mainly white members of the Church of England start their service. This group, known as King’s Cross Church, or KXC, has grown from a handful in 2010 to 500 now.

It then looks honestly at the figures demonstrating the decline in both attendance at and influence of the C of E—though also spots the signs of hope and change.

Hints of revival in parts of the Church of England point to broader changes. Traditionally, the established church has had an obligation to serve everyone who lives in a parish. Its churches have been the centrepiece for local and national events. But many Anglican churches that are growing, as in King’s Cross, are “network” churches. They meet in pubs and offices outside the parish system. Most are evangelical, emphasising a personal faith based on conversion rather than a cultural affiliation to a denomination. … Nick Spencer of Theos, a religious think tank, says the Church of England is switching from a broad-based organisation, characterised by affiliation more than commitment, to a smaller grouping of more committed worshippers.

In other words, current activity which is leading to growth often represents a significant change in the traditional ethos of the C of E, both in terms of its theological outlook, its pattern of organisation and its relation to surrounding culture. This isn’t going to answer all the questions for all parts of the church; as is often noted, the ‘network’ pattern only really works in urban areas where people are free to choose church affiliation. It doesn’t look like a model which has yet had much impact in the rural context. But given the high proportion of the population who live in urban areas, these changes are enough to have had an impact in areas like London, and make significant contribution to London becoming one of the top three growing dioceses (see diagram).

As I have explored a number of times previously in discussing issues of church growth, it is these changes which focus attention on the very different perspectives and priorities in different parts of the Church at the moment. The article soon turns to focus on these.

“English society and the Church of England have gradually drifted apart in terms of values,” says Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University. “This was true over issues like remarriage and the ordination of women, and it’s true of same-sex marriage.” Evangelicals say the church is right not to be swayed by changing social mores. They emphasise being counter-cultural and point out that many churches which are growing run against the liberal flow. “What is dying in England is not Christianity but nominal Anglicanism,” says David Goodhew of Durham University, author of “Church Growth in Britain”. The share of evangelicals in the Church of England rose from 26% to 34% between 1989 and 2005, says Peter Brierley, a church demographer, and could now be nearly 50%.

There is no space in such a comprehensive overview to explore questions like ‘What does it mean to be evangelical?’ which might be the next question to ask for those on the inside—not least because this article is seeking to inform outsiders as much as anything.

The writer of the piece (which is, like I think many Economist articles, unattributed) notes that the evangelical tradition is not the only one experiencing growth—cathedral attendance, which grew 35% in the ten years to 2012, is the most striking example. It is also sobering for anyone concerning with church growth or mission—or even the effectiveness of the Church’s ministry—to note the differences between the growing and shrinking dioceses. From 8% growth to 25% decline is a wide variation, and it cannot all be accounted for by differences in demographics—so the question is whether there are differences in leadership and strategy. (Interesting to note that things appear to have changed in Blackburn at around the time a new bishop was appointed.)

On the other side, the writer notes the unusual number of evangelicals in senior positions in the church, including 4 out of the 5 most senior bishoprics, and the influence of HTB in London and beyond.

They are conservative on issues like gay marriage, prompting accusations by liberals of bigotry. To be fair, there is not much sign of bigotry at King’s Cross Church’s weekly drop-in for prostitutes, nor its programme to keep kids on rough housing estates away from gangs. Many evangelicals want to restore the tradition of conservative social engagement set by William Wilberforce. They sigh at their characterisation as hateful homophobes. “Everyone thinks they know what the church is against,” says Pete Hughes, the church’s youthful pastor. “We want to be known for the things we are for: proclaiming the love of God and showing it in our actions.”

This is a really interesting observation, as it highlights the social involvement which is often the hallmark of growing evangelical churches, and which confounds a simplistic characterisation of evangelicals as socially conservative.

Perhaps the prize for the best quotation must to go this one from Alan Wilson:

“What about the people who would rather stick their head in a food mixer than become an evangelical?” asks Alan Wilson, the bishop of Buckingham, who openly supports gay marriage. He worries that the increasing number of people who affiliate only loosely or not at all with the Church of England will be alienated. Many do not hold liberal Christian beliefs, let alone evangelical ones.

I will leave it to the reader to decide the extent to which this comment is a reflection of the perspective of Alan himself (!). But it raises important issues about whether people come to faith by means of the culture of the church moving to the culture of society around it, or whether this new kind of church affiliation is served more effectively by the church remaining distinctive.

From where I sit, this article appears to describe accurately many of the changes in the Church. Alongside some sobering realities, it does points to reasons for hope. It suggests that the one thing we can be certain of is that the Church is changing, as is its relation with culture, and the encouraging change is mostly in one major direction.

You can read a certain number of pieces in The Economist for free, but you might need to register to read three articles a week—or you might be tempted to subscribe. Either which way, the full article is worth the effort.

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31 thoughts on “Change (and growth?) for the Church of England”

  1. Thank you Ian for bring this interesting article to our attention – it would have escaped me otherwise! – and for doing so in such a measured way.

    A slightly provocative thought which occurs to me: if many of the congregations that are growing (i.e. ‘network’ charismatic evangelical churches etc) are those where the Eucharist is rarely, if ever, celebrated, how far can we really say that “the Church” is growing? It strikes me that I know many people my age (twenties) who attend evening services at charismatic evangelical churches – services which are often never Eucharistic, and totally lacking in any form of liturgy. Clearly this is a radical departure from what ‘Church’ has looked like for most of its history: so are we happy to still call this ‘Church’ in the same sense? In what ways are these congregations really ‘distinctive’ or ‘counter-cultural’?

    As I said, a slightly provocative thought!

    • I know that you’re not stating Liturgy and Eucharist exclusively define what it means to be church, or member thereof (and that to a degree you’re playing devil’s advocate) but it does sound a little naive and not representative of all evangelical churches, or at least, those I’m familiar with to put that level of weight on them.

      In practice thought I think your assessment is right; that evangelical churches (if you can even define evangelical this broadly) tend to have the Eucharist less often. I grew up with monthly or bi-monthly communion services for instance. I am currently employed at a Baptist church, and our 4/5 communion services per month is far more than I am used to. But I would argue that from my perspective the way in which the Eucharist is understood and applied is what really matters, the frequency is irrelevant to anything.

      Liturgy is even more of an issue but relates closely to the above. All evangelical churches use liturgy in the some sense, and it tends to be fairly standardized across the individual denominations too, the difference is simply that it is not “formalized”. While this does have apparent limitations (the assumption and risk is that the bible and consequent teaching are weakened) I have not found this to be the case and that actually the flexibility it affords individual ministers is of greater value to the congregation.

      I suppose my point is not that I disagree, but that I don’t think “how” a church does anything is what defines it’s counter-culturalness. The bigger, more important, measure is what the church actually does!

      You can have the best liturgy you like, the most well attended and atmospheric Eucharist service you like, as often as you like, but if people aren’t impacted by the message of the bible, if they aren’t challenged to transform and they don’t proclaim the gospel in deed as well as word because these things are barriers to them, then what use are either?

      The church service exists for corporate worship/prayer, corporate learning/teaching for the select purpose of corporate MISSION. It is this factor that should define a churches impact on the world.

      • Sorry Ian that was a bit of a tangent, and not really related to the article above. I’ll rectify that now.

        With the exception of Andrew Wilson’s quote the whole article is neither surprising, nor unexpected in content to me, but it is perhaps unexpected in context, i.e part of a well-regarded and trustworthy news source, dealt with seemingly fairly by the anonymous writer.

        Just comparing this article with the one you reviewed a few weeks back about church growth, commissioned by people with a competing/opposed agenda, yet still trumpeted as being impartial.

  2. As Charles Darwin discovered, actually it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent but the ones most responsive to change. That’s why Network churches seem to be doing so well I think.

    The point that Alan Wilson makes is a very significant one. Not everyone wants to be an evangelical. That’s not because they disagree with all of the theology, but because the evangelical culture is very difficult. It so easily comes across as judgemental, self righteous and therefore ‘holier than thou’. Added to which its style of worship is simply alien to so many because it does not allow people to just ‘be’. By nature it’s involving – and whilst that works for some, it makes the flesh of others creep. Most people in England just don’t want to be involved in Church. That does not mean they don’t believe the Gospel.

    • I wonder if most people in Britain even know what the Gospel is? There seems to be widespread ignorance of Bible stories that were once well known,

      even to the extent of not knowing the reason for celebrating Christmas (16% of people in one poll).

      I grew up in England in complete ignorance of the Gospel till I was 27 (when I borrowed ‘Mere Christianity’ from a friend), and that was years ago.

      When I started looking into whether Christianity was true, I didn’t encounter a judgemental, self-righteous and holier-than-thou culture in the evangelical church I started going to. (St Paul’s and St George’s Scottish Episcopalian Church, Edinburgh – very similar to evangelical C of E churches I have since belonged to.) I found friendliness and welcome. Although the worship was something of a surprise to me, as the church was large I was quite able to stand st the back and join in as much or as little as I wanted. I didn’t sing anything I couldn’t sincerely affirm.

      I found the Gospel message and the sense of community in evangelical churches attractive: I think other British people might too, if they knew about them.

    • ‘Most people in England just don’t want to be involved in Church. That does not mean they don’t believe the Gospel.’

      What on earth does that mean? They do believe that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’, that they need to ‘repent and believe’, that Christ ‘died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and rose on the third day’? They believe all this, and that the Spirit has been poured out, as predicted by Joel, that ‘This Jesus will return just as he departed’—but they don’t want to meet with other people who believe this to learn and grow and ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching’?

      Or was there another ‘gospel’ you were thinking of that they *do* believe in…?!

      • “Most people in England just don’t want to be involved in Church. That does not mean they don’t believe the Gospel.’

        What on earth does that mean?”

        Ahh Ian I’m sorry you are finding it confusing. Let’s break it down shall we? The first part says:

        “Most people in England just don’t want to be involved in Church.” Which bit of that don’t you understand the meaning of?

        • I think he finds surprising your suggestion that most people in England believe the gospel.

          He’s not the only one – explain yourself please, Andrew.

          • I didn’t actually say that though did I?. I said

            “most people in England just don’t want to be involved in Church. That does not mean they don’t believe the Gospel.”

            It simply means they some people who do believe the Gospel don’t actually like going to church – especially evangelical churches, as I explained in my original post. Or do you dispute that?

    • Andrew, Happy New Year! I appreciate what you are saying… but that also is a generalisation of evangelical culture. One could say that about all Christian subcultures, including the more liberal ones, which can at times be extremely alienating too; especially to those who find it hard to share the same views. I remember Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s book called The Church Hesitant, which was an interesting and sometimes funny assessment of the Church of England. If I remember rightly she would say that your statement “Most people in England just don’t want to be involved in Church…” Just doesn’t go far enough. Most people in England aren’t even thinking about it… it doesn’t even enter their train of thought. For me the evangelical culture was extremely welcoming and accepting and allowed me the space to explore faith from a secular background. It also expressed passion and energy about faith matters, and did this in a contemporary fashion… although I would have to say the Jesus Christ Superstar also played a significant part… and, for a young person at the time, it was the evangelical energy and welcome that made me sit up and take note.

      • David: happy New Year to you as well!
        I agree – it is a generalisation, but then most things are. If you want me to be specific, Emmanuel Church in Northwood, where I attended for a year from 1981 – 1982 pretty much made me stop going to church because I found it such an alien culture. I was a theology graduate and a chance conversation with someone persuaded me to try the parish next door – liberal catholic as it happened. Both had electoral rolls of over 500 at the time, both were well staffed and both had excellent ways of ‘socialising’ newcomers. One encouraged a vocation, the other didn’t even notice it and actually prevented me engaging with the church at all for several months.
        I readily acknowledge that for my story there will be an equal and opposite one. But nontheless for that 23 year old, one church was there to welcome and the other wasn’t. Where do you think I ended up?

  3. I think that Andrew Godsall may be referring to people’s perceptions of the church rather than the gospel itself. I do believe the Gospel and I consider myself on the evangelical wing, but i have to say there are some churches which really put me off that I would not want to be involved in and many of these are of the charismatic/evangelical varietyl

    One thing I have found in modern charismatic/evangelical churches which I recoil against is an increasing tendency to worship the worship rather than the creator. Many so-called worship bands are just that, and seem to be to be all about musical performance rather than worship. A bit like a spiritual ‘Got Talent’ show.

    I recall recently a wedding we had in our church where a lot of worship chorus etc were sung in the charismatic/evangelical fashion. Afterwards, I asked one of the visiting friends of the Bride and Groom (who was not a christian) whether they liked the service . She replied ‘You all do have a jolly old sing-song don’t you!’

    I think that people might be more inclined to be involved in church if they knew they would encounter God and experience what C.S. Lewis called a sense of the ‘numinous’ when they went there. This might be one reason why Cathedral attendance is growing as their internal ambience and liturgies tend to promote this.

    Certainly I have found this to be so.

  4. This is a bit of a naughty comment, but I do think it is actually a little bit true

    Maybe cathedrals are growing with all the people made unwelcome in the conservative evangelical churches?

  5. I think it is interesting that there is evangelical growth and cathedral attendance. If people are given the opportunity to really encounter God whether through the word, worship or the Transcendence of choral song and the ambience of a cathedral, they do encounter Him. A girlfriend of my son asked if she could accompany us to our church one day. I knew she was totally unchurched and gladly took her along to our local church, which was full of young families and older people. We had a small worship band and began to sing one of Matt Redman’s songs – half way through she leaned over and said with a look of wonder on her face “I didn’t know it was real”. Many church services are “unreal”. i have also been involved with “Open the Book” in schools and have been amazed at how much the children enjoy being involved in the bible stories and how they look forward to the visits. I did a round up one week of the stories covered in the term and the children enthusiastically gave me the answers about the characters in the stories.

  6. I think the biggest factor on which churches are growing and/or shrinking is actually change in culture. Even twenty years ago a Church of England parish church would be at the heart of the community and the community would be a geographical location. Now many people have had to move for work, with potentially a partner working a long way away etc. There is less commitment to a geographical community and more commitment to social structures. People will travel to their social grouping rather than worship in their community.

    I would hazard a guess that for most of the churches that are growing most of their attendees do not live in the parish.

  7. One slight twist, from the theological perspective. It seems to Mouse, that there is a tendency when writing about church growth to generalise that many of the growing churches are ‘evangelical’, when they would more accurately be described as ‘charismatic’. Whilst many would be comfortable using both those terms, there is an implication with ‘evangelical’ of conservatism – the Economist makes this assumption in the article. In actual fact, many of the growing churches (increasingly HTB, for example) would not be recognisably conservative in many ways. It seems a big mistake to suggest that conservative churches are broadly growing whilst liberal ones are not – in fact, it is anglo-catholic churches which are struggling and carismatic ones which are growing (usual caveats apply – on average, overall, not in every instance, etc).

    • Excellent point, Mouse!

      As I’ve said on here before, if conservative theology were the key to growth, you’d see crowds beating down the door of the Plymouth Brethren and the Wee Frees.

      Instead, growth just happens to coincide with churches that offer lively, informal worship, and social support. Growth is also seen in cathedrals that lay on top-notch religious theater, of a kind that few parish churches can manage. (And when they do, as with beacon Anglo-Catholic churches, they also see growth.)

      Conclusion: style and support, not theology, are crucial.

        • What have I pre-judged, Ian?

          I’m responding to the available data, including the recorded growth in English cathedrals. As for the size of the Wee Frees, well, are you disputing that they’re a relatively small church? If not, we can stipulate to that.

          That most growing churches can be characterized as charismatic evangelical is based on David Voas’ research into church growth.

          I have, I freely admit, drawn conclusions from this, conclusions that may well be wrong, whether due to wishful thinking or something else: but in what sense are the interpretations nonsensical or prejudiced?

    • I think that is true, except that”

      . the charismatic renewal has flattened out, or narrowed down (depending on which metaphor you want to use) so that the vast majority of charismatic churches are fairly or very conservative. More than one national movement is, for example, opposed to women’s leadership.

      . I don’t really know what you mean by saying HTB is ‘not conservative’. As I highlight above, social action is on the agenda, so that it difference from an earlier generation, but I think you will find the approach to the Bible, preaching and discipleship and the theology of the leaders as ‘conservative’ as ever.

      And again, could I urge you not to post anonymously. Adding your real name in the post is easy. Thanks.

      • Really sorry about the inadvertent anon post, Ian: I always add my name and email, so not sure what happened there (I did post from a friend’s iPad, so that could be it — if so, won’t do so again).

        As for HTB, I agree that their theology’s biblically orthodox. The interesting thing isn’t so much what they believe, as where the emphasis is placed. Like Willow Creek in Chicago, Illinois, HTB don’t make a big deal of the hot-button issue of sexuality, and anecdotal reports indicate that same-sex couples are made welcome there.

        Sure, that comes under pastoral accommodation, but how far can accommodation go before it’s indistinguishable from an affirming position? (One poster on Thinking Anglicans reported that gay couples have attended HTB marriage prep. classes!)

    • What is ‘nonsense’ is not your experience, but the idea that your particular experience (or any of us individually) actually tells us anything. A liberal catholic finds an evangelical church unwelcoming and ends up in a liberal catholic church? Shock! Horror! What a surprise!

      What *would* constitute useful evidence is if you could tell us what has now happened to the USA of each of these two congregations. If the evangelical has declined (because so many other people experienced what you did) and the liberal catholic one has grown (ditto), then I am all ears.

      Can you find the stats please?

      • Ian let’s try to stick with James’ point shall we?
        My recent experience is of cathedrals, where growth is happening. Please show us the stats that indicate that Plmouth Brethren and the wee frees (James’ point here) are growing more than Cathedrals? Or pick a church like that one where Julian Mann is Vicar (Oughtibridge in Sheffield) or where Rod Thomas was in Plymouth. Both of those leaders take a very clear line on your favourite issue but I don’t think you will find their USA to be all that high…..But Cathedrals are growing.

        • I could stick with James’ point, but I am not sure why, as it something of a parody of my own.

          The stats appear to say that, in our present context, in general the ‘conservative’ churches are experiencing growth by contrast with the ‘liberal’. Alongside that, cathedrals have also show growth in attendance.

          But that doesn’t mean that the more conservative you are, the more you will grow. The stats don’t say that, and neither would I. I am amused that you pick Julian Mann, as he thinks I am an arch heretic because I am too liberal!

          And I am interested that they take a line on ‘my favourite issue’; I hadn’t realised that they were so interested in the numerical composition of Scripture as all that. How interesting.

          • Ian: please give us the stats for the wee frees and Plymouth Brethren chuches that are growing? That’s the point James was making and that I was saying chimed with my experience……
            As James says: Conclusion: style and support, not theology, are crucial

          • Gosh, Andrew, I don’t know how I can make this clearer. I don’t think they are, because I don’t think ‘the more conservative you are, the more you will grow’ is either true, or logical, or part of what I was observing.

            I have a dog here, and he has a bone. It is difficult to get him to drop it.

            On the other hand, you have made a point from your experience in Northwood. To substantiate that, could you provide the USAs now for the churches? They could provide some nice support for your argument…

          • I’m sure I could if I had a London Diocesan Directory Ian. I don’t. Plus I don’t think that statistics prove anything – they are just another bone that the dog seems to want to grab hold of. And as was observed several posts ago on this thread, style and support, not theology, are the crucial things. The style and support at both of the churches I mentioned in another context could both have changed dramatically in the 35 years since I was there.
            (And for the record, when I was 22 I had no idea what a liberal catholic was. I was certainly not one. The ‘schock, horror’ as you put it was that a well known evangelical church was not very welcoming).

  8. Building on Mouse’s insights, I wonder if the terms evangelical or liberal or charismatic adequately reflect the diversity of views found within each congregation. If, by ‘church’, you mean the espoused theology of the vicar or lead pastor, or the substance of teaching from the pulpit, or the style of service or worship, then yes it might be easy to label a church evangelical or Anglo-Catholic. But if, by ‘church’, you mean the congregation, the communicant members, those who play an active role in the life of the church, then these descriptions (I would argue) may be less meaningful. In many ‘evangelical’ or ‘charismatic’ churches in the UK today you are likely to find much greater diversity of thinking on the issues that are causing such angst among the Primates. It seems that Christians in most churches find a way to be in fellowship, study the Word together, take Eucharist as one body, worship together in the same pew (some with raised hands), share the Good News of Jesus…all the while holding differing views on Creation, Sabbath observance, the role of women, homosexuality, the gifts of the Spirit etc (what did I miss?)
    I would hope that the Primates can move beyond seeing this as a binary separation of the evangelicals from the liberals, conservatives from revisionists. I don’t think our congregations, home groups, prayer and bible study groups (certainly in the UK – please forgive my narrow world view/mission focus) would quite cope with a separation of the sheep from the goats, or the stronger from the weaker brother. Is it really so naive / unfaithful to keep doing our bit towards ‘unity’ so that ‘the world might know’ who Jesus is? Isn’t it Jesus who gets to do the separating?
    But I also realise I could be so wrong on this all, and it’s so much easier to prevaricate theologically in the pew, than preach Truth from the pulpit ….so will instead pray my socks off for wisdom and love for the Primates.


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