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Church growth is happening now

by
06 December 2013

Don't be dismayed by doomsayers: there is hope in some areas, says David Goodhew

Flourishing: the congregation at St Ann's, Tottenham, in London

Flourishing: the congregation at St Ann's, Tottenham, in London

WHEN David Sheppard took over as Bishop of Woolwich from John A. T. Robinson in 1969, his predecessor had bad news. "Bishop Robinson said he did not think there would be any visible Church in the inner-city in ten years' time!"

The actual trajectory of the Church (Anglican and non-Anglican) in London has been very different - one of marked growth in recent decades. That trajectory is a salutary warning to ecclesiastical doomsaying.

I have much for which to thank the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. He sponsored me for ordination almost 25 years ago. I suspect he will be evaluated more positively as a church leader by history than he has been by his critics. But his comment in the Daily Mail last week that the Church of England was "one generation away from extinction" (Press, 22 November) is like Bishop Robinson's prophecy from the 1960s. It is incorrect.

Some parts of the Christian Church and some regions of Britain are seeing severe decline. But Lord Carey and the Daily Mail (and other papers that picked up the story) ignore the other parts of the Church and other regions that are stable or growing (Features, 7 September 2012).

THE most striking example is London. Dr Peter Brierley's London Church Census will be published in detail in the next few weeks. But the findings that have already been released are startling. The usual Sunday attendance of London's churches (counting all denominations) has already grown significantly in the past 20 years.

In recent years, it has risen sharply. Church attendance in Greater London grew by 16 per cent between 2005 and 2012, from 620,000 to 720,000. This represents nine per cent of the capital's population, as of 2012. The number of places of worship in London has grown by 17 per cent, from 4100 to 4800, in the same period.

The research reports that growth is most marked among churches rooted in black, Asian, and other minority-ethnic communities. Black people are far more likely to attend services than white people (19 per cent against eight per cent). In inner London, 48 per cent of worshippers are black.

The London Church Census is backed up by work from Dr Andrew Rogers, who has found 240 new black-majority churches in a single London borough, Southwark (News, 28 June). This is remarkable in itself. But it is worth noting that Dr Rogers has not even looked at the activity of the many churches that are not classified as black-majority.

THINGS are less positive outside London. But it would be a mistake to see London as another planet. There is significant church growth going on across a broad swath of Britain. There are three key avenues of growth.

First, "new" and Pentecostal churches are growing - more than 500,000 people now attend Sunday worship at such churches, by the most recent figures for England.

Second, churches rooted in minority-ethnic communities are growing, and, while concentrated in the biggest cities, they are beginning to move into other parts of the UK. For example, the Redeemed Christian Church of God arrived in the UK in the 1980s; it now has more than 400 congregations.

Third, churches are growing most vigorously along "trade routes" - arteries of communication, employment, and migration. Thus, there is significant church growth in London, York, and Edinburgh. It is harder work off such routes, in, say, Halifax, Grimsby, and Kilmarnock.

Most of this growth is happening outside the Anglican Church. But even the Church of England is not immune from such developments. The diocese of London has seen marked growth. In the past 20 years, its electoral-roll figures have risen by more than 70 per cent.

Yes, of course, not everywhere is like London. But London is not a peripheral entity that can be ignored. Research on Fresh Expressions and church plants by a team led by Canon George Lings, from the Church Army's Wilson Carlisle Centre in Sheffield, has shown much activity across England. Further work due out shortly by Canon Lings looks set to accentuate that picture. A sizeable minority of Anglican churches are growing.

DOES all this mean that everything is fine? Of course not. It does, however, mean that we should not echo Private Frazer in Dad's Army, by crying "We're all doomed!" And we must block our ears to newspaper editors on a slow news day, seeking a headline to curdle Middle England's blood.

There is more than this. We live out of the narratives told to us and which we tell ourselves. If you tell a child that he or she is no good, he or she will start believing it. Many in the media and Academe have long parroted that Christianity in Britain is "doomed". Many - including not a few church leaders - have internalised this narrative.

Yet the narrative of secularisation has its flaws. It was conceived and works best in Northern and Western Europe. In many other parts of the globe, the Church is stable or growing. In Britain, it works best among the white community, and in areas furthest from the capital. It works best with what are called (with decreasing accuracy) the "mainline" denominations. Other Churches (such as Pentecostal, Orthodox, and "new" ones) do not fit the narrative.

The Church in inner London did not die out after the 1960s. Since then, it has survived, and is now growing fast. Bishop Robinson saw ecclesial change in south London, but mistook it for collapse. He could not have been expected to foresee the extent of the globalisation of the London community, which is driving much of this growth. But, even in the 1960s, there were signs of resurrection in the Church.

Christianity is a faith centred on death and resurrection. It is not hard to see the death going on in parts of British Christianity. But there is resurrection happening, too. We should live out of the narrative of resurrection, not that of newspaper headlines. We should do so because we trust in the resurrection of Jesus. But we should do so also because the empirical evidence points that way.

The Revd Dr David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, St John's College, Durham.

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