THE news about church growth is patchy. Some Fresh Expressions
are doing really well; others have died; amalgamations of parishes
tendto lead to decline. Churches with younger clergy gain numbers,
and so do those where clergy have served for a length of time. But
it is tough if you are middle-aged and new to a multi-parish
The Church's current drive for growth seems obvious to those who
accept the stark paradox of either growth or extinction; but the
growth strategy does not seem to be underpinned by any conviction
other than that of keeping the institutional Church in
The promotion of growth as an end in itself pre-empts the
question why this matters. The answers given are characteristically
fuzzy: the Church is good for society; spirituality leads to a
meaningful life; communities need the cohesion that the Church
offers. All this is true, but it misses the point.
What matters more is whether the Christian faith is true. If it
is true, it is worth our deepest commitment, loyalty, and passion;
if not, however useful it may be, we might as well give up, and
pour its resources into social services.
Those who drive the growth agenda seem to fight shy of this
fundamental issue. There is almost no worthwhile Christian
apologetic on offer to wrestle with questions of truth. The
banalities of the Alpha course have replaced any serious engagement
with the culture we live in, except to imitate its endless quest
for new experiences in the erroneous belief that this has something
to do with spirituality. (Perhaps the new Pilgrim course will do
The problem is that, as the poet Michael Symmons Roberts says,
the words "spirit" and "spirituality" now mean little more than
heightened emotion. We worship our feelings, when we should be
purifying our desires.
Christian faith is more than emoting, and doing empathy, and
getting gently high on God and one another. It is conviction,
discipline, virtue, resilience. It needs clergy and lay apologists
who have intellectual grit, as well as personal warmth. It needs a
new evangelism, which is less at sea with the creeds, and less
anxiously defensive about scripture.
Above all, it needs some minds that are critical, divergent, and
angry with mediocrity in Church and society. We need to be reminded
that Jesus was not always nice. The quality of Christian conviction
in the end counts for more than being strategic and "intentional"
(whatever that might mean) about mission.
The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ
Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser
for the diocese of Oxford.