Saturday, October 03, 2015

London: Lessons for the Church of England

A couple of days ago Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, delivered a lecture on the remarkable turnaround in the Diocese of London. For the last 20 years, London has been just about the only place in the CofE which has been growing, whilst all but 1 of the other 42 Dioceses have been shrinking, some at an alarming rate.

In terms of England, London is an exceptional place, but there are other Dioceses (Southwark, Chelmsford) which also cover parts of the capital, and there are particular things that London Diocese has done that others could learn from. Some will be more controversial than others.

Here's a few of them, with some quotes from the lecture.

The mission of the church is to all sectors of society, not just the most vulnerable: We can regret this now, but at the time it seemed to be inevitable and even meritorious that the Church should retreat from what could be regarded as imperial over-reach to associate itself with the voiceless in the back streets. Sympathy with vulnerable local communities also led the church into sustained opposition to major new developments, notably Canary Wharf where no attempt was made to establish a Christian presence in what was effectively a new town with a working population which now exceeds that of Leicester.

Scrap the boards: there was an energy-sapping superstructure of boards and committees for Mission, Unity, Ministry, Social Responsibility and the like, all of which had been established during the period of decline with the professed aim of widening participation in decision-making and stimulating action. The result, of course, was the very opposite as I discovered as Chairman of the Board of Ministry. Over-worked members of the Diocesan staff found themselves discussing the same issues over and over again in slightly different forums. There were ideas in plenty and not a few “initiatives” but little energy left over for implementation..........No one has ever said to me “if only we had a Board of Mission we would have done some mission”. Instead a black hole of energy was closed and, as a result, effort directed to supporting those individuals and places which signalled life and possessed the missionary gene.....We significantly reduced the number of Diocesan advisers in the belief that financial resources were better deployed in local mission initiatives.
If a Diocese doesn't have a focus and a vision, everyone will do their own thing, and internal divisions will increase: a sense of drift and consequent fragmentation as people identified with their own parish or Area over against the “Diocese”..... introduction of Mission Action Planning focussed attention on growth rather than on the various divisive issues.

Back the missionaries, even if they aren't your type: The local hierarchy was unwilling to see HTB as much more than a conventional parish in the Area, and in particular was keen to restrict the numbers of curates that the Church could employ, even though there was finance available to enlarge the staff. The restrictions were fuelled by a liberal distaste for charismatic evangelicalism and a conviction that the supply of curates should be evenly spread throughout the Diocese, irrespective of the capacity to pay

parish clergy need to be held to account: in one parish which sociologically offered good prospects for the Church of England, an elderly single- handed parson was replaced by the standard bearer for one of the extreme churchmanship factions. The new man was given two able curates financed by the London Diocesan Fund, and within two years the electoral roll which had stood at 110 had been reduced to 75. It apparently occurred to no one that this was a scandalous situation. What right had any outsider to criticise parochial policies?

Technique is no substitute for holiness: The one thing that cannot be delegated is one’s own prayer and study of the scriptures. An MBA in ecclesiastical administration is no substitute for the development of a beginner’s mind and acquiring the teachability with which the Spirit can work.

Find new purposes for old buildings: Chartres gives several examples of redundant churches which were given a new focus - e.g. as a centre for reconciliation. Not every building has to be used to house a congregation, but neither do they all have to be sold off. 

Abolish the 'tax on growth' system of collecting funds from parishes to finance the work of the church: We reduced the mysteries of the old formula by inviting each parish to pay for its ministry costs .... Well-financed parishes were encouraged to pay over the odds to support Christian ministry in areas of need. The effect was to abolish the fine on growth and release money to be spent close to where it was raised. It proved to be possible to support the work of the church in less affluent areas although, as so often, parishes which had been subsidised proved willing and able to rise to the challenge of greater self-sufficiency. 

Reform Diocesan structures so that people are accountable for their actions, and pursue a shared vision: Unity in the Diocesan team and in the structure of the Diocese has been an important ingredient in being able to pursue consistent policies addressed to growth. 

The current way of ever more thinly spread clergy is not sustainable: The healthier financial situation enabled the diocese to avoid the widespread formula of reducing clergy numbers by multiplying the number of churches for which an individual cleric is responsible. This may be an effective cost-cutting strategy but it is not an effective mission strategy and is calculated only to maintain congregations rather than growing them.

The parish system is good, but it's not enough: It is obvious that, while there is huge virtue in the parish church ideal, the parochial system in the Church of England, with its excess of law, is open to being manipulated by small groups who wish to frustrate unwelcome mission initiatives. In an urban setting, while flexible agreements about areas of pastoral care for each parish church are clearly desirable, mission to networks that are not principally defined geographically argues for an unfreezing of rigid parochial boundaries that have long since ceased to correspond to sociological realities. 

criticise well, or don't criticise at all: Publically expressed and constructive criticism should always be welcome, but subversives, “weevils of the commonwealth”, those who damage morale by cynicism and gossip have to be weeded out.

Invest in church planting: ....our pledge of establishing 100 new worshipping communities in London by 2020 ...My prayer is that it will be possible to learn from our experience -- and especially our mistakes -- so that other places will be able to surpass our successes.
Recognise where to engage: The need for greater clarity and a confident response to the incessant propaganda directed against so called “faith schools” has been recognised in the Diocese, and is one of the themes of Capital Vision 2020 which has risen to the top of the agenda in the current year.  
Prayer and vision are fundamental: The Christian community will continue to thrive as long as it is vision-led and not problem-led. Prayer of the persevering kind that marks the 24/7 prayer movement really does open the door to God’s future while the Holy Spirit never leaves himself without witnesses.

sorry about the uneven formatting! Good old Blogger....

Update: Cranmer has also done a presee of the lecture, with chunky quotes from it. Imitation is the sincerest form.... ;-)


  1. Great synopsis David and applicable on both sides of the pond!

  2. Lots to learn for sure.