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Good vicar = growing church?

10 January 2014

Standard patterns of growth need to be more nuanced, argues Adrian Newman

Growing: part of the congregation at St Michael’s, Camden Town

APPEARING on Radio 4's Today programme on New Year's Eve, the Archbishop of Canterbury yet again got people talking positively about the Church of England. One comment stood out, endorsed by the Chief Executive of Barclays (who was guest-editing the programme), as common ground about good leadership: "Where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches."

You could almost sense the heads around the country nodding sagely in agreement over their morning coffee. Successful organisations are undoubtedly indebted to good leadership. So the ecclesiastical equivalent becomes an apparently simple equation: good vicar = growing church.

While the logic seems straightforward enough, there is a deeper discussion to be had. To start with, good vicars are necessary, but not sufficient alone, for churches to grow. Here in this wonderful part of East London, I have the privilege of working alongside some of the best clerics I have ever come across - yet, while some of their churches are growing, some are not. This is a pattern you will find repeated in areas of urban deprivation across the country.

I find that the "standard" growth formula of expanding suburban churches rarely works in deprived parishes, where confident and able lay leadership is scarce, upward mobility robs churches of asset bases, and the dysfunctionality of everyday living means that congregations contain a disproportionate number of needy individuals. There are numerous well-researched inhibitors to growth in the inner city - even in the most vibrant churches, and even with the best clergy.

THEN there is the growth agenda itself. On a national level, the Church's first aim for this quinquennium is "to take forward the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church of England - including the growth of its capacity to serve the whole community of this country".

In London, we have taken this to the heart of Capital Vision 2020 (CV2020), our blueprint for the next six years. It includes some markers for growth, such as creating or renewing 100 worshipping communities, and increasing the number of ordinands by 50 per cent.

CV2020's wider focus on confidence, compassion, and creativity is, however, about advancing the mission of the Church in London in other, non-numerical ways, such as deepening our engagement with poverty and inequality, strengthening our work in education, and addressing the worlds of sport and the creative arts.

All of this sets the context of what we mean when we talk about a growing Church: it is only partially about the numbers. Growth cannot be an end in itself. Like the Church, it must serve a higher calling.

That higher calling is what takes us into the socio-political dimensions of human life, to foodbanks and foster-homes, schools and night shelters, credit unions and creative industries. This is about being a Church - and a priest - for the parish, the nation, the world; and it may not lead to numerical growth at all.

Sometimes, the Church may have to lose itself to find itself; to disappear in order to be true to its calling. This idea, based on the theological and Christological notion of kenosis (or self-emptying), suggests that we are called as a Church to give ourselves away. It is a counter-intuitive calling for the Church, not necessarily to grow and be strong, but to be faithful.

IF IT is true that growth happens more easily within suburban contexts, then it is also the case that it follows the natural grain of culture and homogeneity. In other words, like attracts like.

Yet, in an increasingly fragmented and tribal world, perhaps God is calling his Church to create and become communities of difference. If we are to be icons of hope, perhaps diversity is the key, a kaleidoscopic community struggling with harmony.

Growing this type of Churchis, however, hard and counter-intuitive. Networked, homogenous communities (which make up a large proportion of Fresh Expressions) can allow people to opt out of locational responsibilities.

Therefore approaches to mission that focus on network communities can be highly effective, but seriously deficient. Also, an emphasis on growth will be misguided if it adopts only models of homogeneity, because what we grow might not be a fully authentic expression of a Christian Church for a divided world. Ultimately, that simple equation - good vicar = growing church - needs to be nuanced if it is to have real value for us in facing the challenges ahead.

HOW, then, might we frame the discussion about growth and good vicars from this point? I believe that the growth agenda is vital for a flourishing Church, and a flourishing Church is vital for a healthy society. But it cannot, and must not, be growth at all or any cost.

Good growth will have these marks:

  • It will hold a priority for the poor (empowering, not paternalistic).
  • It will have a tendency to heterogeneity (communities of difference, not similarity).
  • It will emphasise the radical (free, but not cheap, grace).
  • It will affirm the indigenous (local, not dislocated).
  • It will be wired for longevity (deep roots, not shallow ones).

If our recent experiences in Stepney are anything to go by, this sort of growth is possible - far from easy, but possible. It may emerge on a smaller scale than we might like, but it has authenticity and integrity when it does so. What is more, it might just help us know what it means to be a good vicar as well.

The Rt Revd Adrian Newman is the Bishop of Stepney, in London.

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