Can Anglo-Catholic Churches Grow?

First published on Ian Paul’s blog, here, on December 5th, 2017

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.

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