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Dissenting from the decline line

11 January 2013

John Inge looks at the attendance hot spots

Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the present
David Goodhew, editor
Ashgate Press £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT742 )

FOR years, the media have fed us a diet of stories and comment to the effect that the Church in this country is in terminal decline. This excellent book, by a team of leading international researchers, challenges this dominant narrative by providing firm evidence that the truth is much more complex: alongside decline in some areas, substantial church growth has taken place in Britain in recent decades.

After a very helpful introduction by the editor, David Goodhew, the first part of the book looks at in- stances of "mainstream churches" that have flouted the received wisdom of inexorable decline. John Wolffe and Bob Jackson describe the considerable growth of the Anglican diocese of London, the largest Anglican diocese in the country, where electoral rolls have grown by 70 per cent since 1990.

Alana Harris looks at Roman Catholicism in the East End of London; Ian Randall charts the significant growth in membership of Baptist churches in recent years; Lynda Barley records the fascinating rise in attendance at cathedrals; and Rebecca Catto looks at what has been termed "reverse mission" to this country from the Global South.

The second part of the book looks at growth in "New Churches". Perhaps the most striking part of this is the rise of black-majority churches, catalogued by Hugh Osgood, Richard Burgess, and Amy Duffuo.

These are Christians whom most statistics tend to miss, since such churches tend not to count and publish the number of people who attend them; but, as the editor points out in his introduction, there are now more than half a million Christians worshipping in them every Sunday, when 60 years ago there were virtually none.

George Lings gives us a helpful overview of church-planting and Fresh Expressions, now attended by tens of thousands.

Goodhew tells the story of York, where a congregation has been founded every year over the past three decades; while Colin Marsh looks at Birmingham, where such "new churches" are beginning to overtake "mainline" ones. In the third part of the book, Kenneth Roxburgh, Paul Chambers, and Claire Mitchell turn attention to church growth in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland respectively.

The fact is that the contemporary British Church is much more interesting than those who have tried to persuade us that Christianity is suffering death pangs would suggest. There is, as the editor reminds us, no cause for ecclesiastical triumphalism. As he goes on to point out, however, many contemporary British theologians, church leaders, and churches have "consciously or unconsciously internalised both the secularization thesis and its eschatology of decline, thereby creating an ecclesiology of fatalism".

This extremely helpful book should encourage them to see that decline is not the whole picture, and neither need it be. Though it leaves many questions unanswered, and shows the urgent need for such growth to be researched further, it holds out the prospect that, as the editor puts it, if "sociology and social history have stunted theology, they could liberate it, too".

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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