Bishop of London tells story of Diocese's revival

01 October 2015

LAMBETH PALACE

BY 2050, London could be an international beacon of Christianity, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, said this week, in a lecture on church growth that buried its enemies before praising its heroes.

In the third “Lambeth Lecture” on evangelism, on Wednesday evening, chronicling the diocese’s journey from numerical decline, financial deficit, and an “atmosphere of depression” to new life, he suggested that it was now at “a dividing of the ways”.

“If we are vision-led, not problem-led, I think there is every hope that, by 2050, London will be a place where people will come from all over the world to learn about the way of Jesus Christ.”

London has bucked the national trend of numerical decline under Bishop Chartres’s leadership. Numbers recorded on churches’ electoral rolls are growing, on average, by about 2.5 per cent each year.

In identifying “propitious conditions” for growth, he gave an account of the “dire” situation in the 1980s, when the national decline was “mirrored and exaggerated” in London. The hierarchy — episcopal and diocesan — were taken to task in a portrait which suggested that, besides socio-economic factors, mistaken policies and dysfunctional structures had contributed to the Church’s decline.

Flaws in the Commissioners’ record were highlighted, including a new scheme for distributing funds, which meant that London was “effectively disendowed”, contributing to an “atmosphere of depression”.

Some of the diocesan team had “internalised the all-but-universal view of the new establishment in the media, that the story of God could have only one end: relegation to the leisure sector”, he said.

Buildings — a major theme of his story — had been regarded as a burden, and sold off. “Their decrepitude continues to be powerful propaganda for the idea that we are ‘at the sagging end and chapter’s close’ of the Church of England story in London.”

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He gave examples of several buildings that he had saved from closure, against overwhelming opposition and at the risk of being regarded as an “impractical dreamer”. They include Holy Trinity, Sloane Street; and St Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate.

There was a subtle critique, too, of the Church’s identification with the vulnerable: “At the time, it seemed to be inevitable, and even meritorious, that the Church should retreat from what could be regarded as imperial overreach to associate itself with the voiceless in the back streets.” This had led to opposition to large developments, such as Canary Wharf, which were left without a Christian presence.

His remarks revealed destructive internal division: area bishops refusing to co-operate; “intense factional strife” over the ordination of women; and a multiplicity of boards, which formed an “energy-sapping superstructure” in which the same ideas were discussed “over and over again”.

He paid tribute, however, to the “wonderfully faithful priests and lay people” who kept the Church alive during this period, “persevering in worship and zealously doing good works”.

If the hierarchy was partly to blame for decline, parish priests did not escape censure in his review. He spoke of parishes “where nothing much seemed to be happening”, that were protected by law and unaccountable. In one “scandalous situation”, a priest — “a standard-bearer for one of the extreme churchmanship factions” — had overseen decline of almost a third in two years, despite the help of two curates.

Although there was “huge virtue” in the parochial system, it was “open to being manipulated by small groups who wish to frustrate unwelcome mission initiatives”, he argued. And there were strong words for “nay-sayers”: “Publicly expressed and constructive criticism should always be welcome, but subversives, ‘weevils of the commonwealth’, those who damage morale by cynicism and gossip, have to be weeded out.

“Bishops need a reliable intelligence system, and the resolve to deal with serial nay-sayers.”

Although Bishop Chartres concluded that, after 20 years, he felt he had “only just begun”, the lecture had the ring of valedictory remarks, as he looked back on his efforts to bring the diocese back from the brink, much of which entailed overturning the past

They included a “bonfire of the boards”, changes to the Common Fund, and “building a ‘can-do’ atmosphere”. “Somnolent parishes” had been “challenged”.

Another theme was support for “those individuals and places which signalled life and possessed the missionary gene”.            

Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), was one such place, he said. It had been held back by the hierarchy, partly due to “a liberal distaste for Charismatic Evangelicalism”. It had been one of the victims of the Common Fund system: a “tax on growth”, whereby churches in decline were increasingly “heavily subsidised” by those that were growing.

In a question-and-answer session after his lecture, Bishop Chartres cautioned against large churches, such as HTB, seceding from the Church. History had shown, he warned, that those movements that began with such “fizz” became “rigid within a couple of generations”.

Representing every tradition in appointments was important, but not easy, he said. “In particular, finding conservative Evangelicals who are capable and willing enough to work constructively across the whole gamut of church life”.

In many areas, he suggested, London was entering a “post-denominational phase”. The work of the organisation London Citizens, supported by the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, was “in the finest traditions of Christian work in the East End”.

He recalled landmark developments, including the development of St Mellitus College, and the growth of church-planting, emanating not just from HTB but from places such as St Anne’s, Tottenham. The diocese’s current plan, Capital Vision 2020, envisions the establishment of 100 new worshipping communities in the next five years.

The challenges ahead were “obvious”, Bishop Chartres concluded. “The face of leadership of the Church still does not even mirror the face of the Church in the pews, let alone the life around us.” Faith schools were coming under the fire of “incessant propaganda”. But he was confident of “energy and wisdom enough to navigate the white water ahead”.     

There was a reminder, too, that the Holy Spirit was “the author of growth”, and not “mere mould grown on the rock of economics”.

Read Bishop Chartres' comments in full here

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