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
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
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
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
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
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
Good growth will have these marks:
- It will hold a priority for the poor (empowering, not
- It will have a tendency to heterogeneity (communities of
difference, not similarity).
- It will emphasise the radical (free, but not cheap,
- It will affirm the indigenous (local, not dislocated).
- It will be wired for longevity (deep roots, not shallow
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