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Church growth: Bishop Broadbent rounds on the critics of Reform and Renewal

21 April 2015


Leading the 'unbiddable beast': Bishop Broadbent addresses the General Synod in February

Leading the 'unbiddable beast': Bishop Broadbent addresses the General Synod in February

A ROBUST defence of the Archbishops' programme Reform and Renewal was delivered at a gathering of Evangelicals last week, addressing critics who have questioned everything from its theology to its methodology.

Organised by the Evangelical group Fulcrum, the event, which asked whether the Church of England was "drinking in the last-chance saloon", was addressed by the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, and the Revd Dr Ian Paul, associate minister of St Nicholas, Nottingham, and Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham

The audience heard an unapologetic defence of the drive to tackle numerical decline, and a frank dismissal of some of the programme's most vocal critics.

"A lot of the pushback that we got was about the fact that Bishops suddenly started giving leadership." said Bishop Broadbent. "And people said, 'Oh you can't do that, you haven't got the Synod behind you; you haven't got this that and the other' - because we have this democratic understanding of the Church which is synodically governed and episcopally led, which is a phrase that we trot off without every really working out what that means.

"When someone starts actually giving leadership that gets questioned. Now I am unashamed. I think we have to give leadership because that's what our episcopae entails."

Synod was "very out of date", he said. "It's based on a 1980s or 1970s representative democracy thing, which really doesn't work."

Several strands of criticism were addressed, including that put forward by the Revd Dr Hart, Rector of Plemstall and Guilden Sutton, last week (News, 17 April). Dr Hart's paper, From Delusion to Reality looks critically at From Anecdote to Evidence, the 2014 report that examines evidence for which factors cause churches to grow ( News, 17 January 2014). The Reform and Renewal programme was based on this report. His paper questions self-reported growth figures and a confusion between cause and effect in the list of characteristics associated with growth.

Whether the research basis was reliable was "obviously an important  question to ask", Bishop Broadbent said. "But actually those characteristics are things that come back time and again in both English and German and American research on church growth, and which can be reiterated."

Dr Hart had admitted that the Church was in decline, Bishop Broadbent said, but "he doesn't therefore say what you do about the decline, merely that he thinks the analysis might be wrong."

Dr Paul, who has a degree in mathematics, said that Dr Hart had suggested that "statistically, there is not clear evidence that changing all the levers that we can change is going to reverse the decline in the way we need to do it.

"Well we haven't got any other levers, so let's pull the ones we have."

There were, Dr Paul said, "limits to statistical research. God can't be measured. Actually, human life is sufficiently complex that it can't be measured in that kind of tied-down way, either. And my refection . . . is there is lots of anecdotal evidence. I don't think I've ever been in a ministry situation where it hasn't been possible, relatively straightforwardly, to identify stuff that people are doing and the impact that's having on whether people are coming to church on a Sunday."

He was asked specifically about Dr Hart's contention that the research had not shown causation of growth but correlation, and whether it was possible to prove causation.

"From a mathematical point of view, statistical analysis will never demonstrate causation," he said. "When you are only measuring two things you are not looking for causation. Your research technique isn't able to do that. If you are statistically measuring two things you have to do a different kind of analysis to see the link between them."

He then reiterated the strength of anecdotal evidence.

"What do you want to happen? You want people to gather together. You want to form a sense of community. You want to have a sense that people encounter God. You want them to grow in understanding. You want that they will learn something which feeds them, heals them, and equips them to go out to be faithful disciples in the world. Isn't that what you want?

"Well, my experience is whenever I have been in a context where we've been able to do that, people have come."

As a "Healthy Churches" consultant in Salisbury, he had seen that it was possible to "change some simple stuff that actually would have an effect. I think it's amazing how quickly you can make a difference."

Both speakers were highly critical of those who had questioned the importance of discipleship (News, 30 January). They must be "reading a different New Testament from the one I'm reading", said Bishop Broadbent.

He was "not ashamed of numerical growth as a measure", he said, although he always spoke of growth in a much broader sense.

Those who had criticised the Resourcing Ministerial Education report (News, 27 March) had "a fair amount of vested interest in opposing some of the changes", Bishop Broadbent suggested. They "misrepresent the commitment to leadership as an undermining of ministry that is prayerful and dedicated and spiritual and priestly".

Here Dr Paul, disagreed, arguing that the report's recommendations could spell "disaster" for residential training.

The Reform and Renewal reports were "a mixed bag", he said. A number were "unhelpful and heading in the wrong direction", including the Green report, which "did appropriate, in an uncritical way, management speak".

But he defended the commitment to numerical growth, and was highly critical of a recent article by Giles Fraser that suggested that a Church that successfully proclaims the Christian message was "likely to be empty and not full", and that the worst churches "judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers".

"In the end, we count people because people count," Dr Paul said. "And the idea that Jesus wouldn't want people to hear the good news and encounter God and have their lives changed, seems to me rather bizarre."

Both speakers were critical of the response to the programme vocalised by Professor Linda Woodhead (News, 23 January).

"She's a good sociologist," said Bishop Broadbent. "But Linda's approach seems to be to say 'Actually, if you ask people questions about what they want the Church to be, you will find that they come up with different answers from discipleship and change and therefore we ought to take account of that.'

"She's not wrong about that. The popular imagination doesn't want the Church of England necessarily to be making disciples and calling people followers of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately I don't think we can avoid that."

He went on: "What underlies this, is there is actually a response to a desire to  change the Church in terms of renewal which says we should carry on being understated Anglicans because that's what we do best. And the worry about it is it is actually drifting into being unstated Anglicans where we don't actually talk about our faith at all. We just key in with society and its norms and the generous ways in which society gets on with itself. . .

"My argument with Linda Woodhead is not that she's not asking good questions about what makes for a good society and what the Church can contribute to that, but that she's not asking the questions about what it means to be Church and explicitly calling people to discipleship in Jesus Christ because she doesn't like that question."

There was agreement from both speakers with the motion suggested by Fulcrum. To illustrate his talk, Dr Paul used an image of the Cambridge boat team sinking in 1978. The answer, he suggested, was not to "row harder" but to allow God to fill the sails: "If we work hard so we create the conditions by which God can do his work then growth will come."

Bishop Broadbent spoke of the "prophetic impatience" of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had "made a fair amount of protesting noise that we actually weren't dealing with reality".

He also warned: "Unfortunately, there are bishops around the place who think: 'Well actually, we've just got to cater for this ongoing decline in our Church.' And I worry about that."

Dr Paul said that he had been "staggered" by how quickly attendance fell in one diocese after a Bishop who had overseen growth was moved to another diocese, and another with "a very different style, different priorities, different background experience" took over.

There was sympathy from both speakers for those on the ground charged with implementing the Archbishops' programme.

"If you are in a struggling context where you have a lack of resources, where you haven't seen growth, where you work really hard, and are baffled as to why things aren't happening, to have a bishop come along and say 'Now we all need to be growing', probably isn't what you need," said Dr Paul. "You need some encouragement, some support, some critical friends, a whole load of other stuff."

"I don't think we should diss those parts of the Church that are struggling," said Bishop Broadbent, who confessed to being "allergic" to Rev (the television series had "depicted what I know to be heroic workers in the East End of London as though the people who were doing it were a bunch of complete fools".)

He went on: "Talking success should not be done at the expense of affirming the heroic stuff that is being done when people are finding it difficult and then also lifting people's horizons.

"We want to help clergy who are struggling to understand that there is good news, and that God is not going to let them down."

Although the Church of England was a "belligerent and unbiddable beast, and there are all kinds of people who will not want us to go in the route we are going," he had been been "cheered to the echo" by the Winchester diocesan synod, when presenting the Archbishops' programme.

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