A NEW "bishop for church-plants" has been proposed by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres. The aim is to support the burgeoning movement as it spreads across the country.
The plan, which involves reviving the see of Islington, vacant since 1923, will be given final consideration by the Dioceses Commission later this month.
In a report presented to the London diocesan Bishop's Council last Wednesday, Bishop Chartres argues that there is an "urgent" need for church-planters to be given "knowledgeable support and mentoring in the early years". The Bishop of Islington's ministry would be "inherently episcopal but not territorial; thoroughly collegial but with an independent sphere of responsibility".
He or she would "open up new possibilities; provide reinforcement for the oversight which already exists for pioneer ministries; and disseminate the learning gained from new ventures".
This was not about "Byronic young Evangelical pastors establishing smoothie bars uninvited," Bishop Chartres said on Monday.
Those planting churches are "tender shoots", he said. "They really do need mentoring, oversight, and really close involvement of a sort which it is very unrealistic to expect area bishops to concentrate on."
Another aspect of the Bishop of Islington's work would be to disseminate lessons learnt in London to those outside the capital. The principle was "to aim high, give it away, look for allies, and keep humble", Bishop Chartres said.
He emphasised that, while receiving "direct pastoral care" from the Bishop of Islington, planters were "totally loyal to their local situation and bishops". The report says that existing plants have "always issued from invitations, and there is no intention to intrude uninvited into anyone else's jurisdiction". It cites an appeal to "come over and help us" from the Bishop of West Malaysia, the Rt Revd Moon Hing. There is, it says, "no intention that the Bishop of Islington will aspire to treat 'the world as his parish'".
A recent conference on city centre resources churches had attracted an "astonishing response" from bishops around the country, Bishop Chartres said. In addition to plants in London, Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), has planted in Chichester, Norwich, Lincoln, and Bournemouth, and a "resource church" is now planned for Birmingham. There are "active dialogues, and in some cases advanced plans" for more in Manchester, Liverpool, Gloucester, Oxford, Exeter, and Guildford.
A School of Church Planting and Church Growth is being established in association with St Mellitus, which already runs a seven-week church-planting course.
HTB had "a very great deal of experience and missionary fruitfulness", Bishop Chartres said on Monday. "It's not part of my job to contradict the Holy Spirit that has actually blessed many of these enterprises and made them fruitful."
He was, however, "determined to preserve biodiversity, and make sure everyone has a spoon in the soup". He was "constantly pointing out to Catholic parishes in London that church-planting in the 19th century was all the rage, very common, and largely Anglo-Catholic in inspiration. . . This is certainly not intended to be confined to just one part of the Church; in fact, it would be a failure if it were to be."
As an alternative to church-planting, he cited the work of the Revd John Wood at St Anne's, Tottenham, whose approach to growth was "not by sending a team in but by painstaking work at the grass roots".
The report notes that the strategy pursued by HTB "has not been without its critics".
Bishop Chartres said: "I am very keen on debate. We want to learn. We are not anxiously preserving our franchise. We are not afraid of really looking at the evidence in a very scientific and forensic way."
One answer to critics, he said, was that there was "very little transfer-growth" to church-plants. Before receiving a church-plant, the congregation of St Paul's, Shadwell, had been small, with morale at a "very low ebb", he said. "It has not lost any of its existing supporters, but, of course, it has developed the kind of church life which people who went nowhere, or went out of the area, find very attractive."
The see of Islington has only had one Bishop: the Rt Revd Charles Turner, from 1898 until 1923. When he died, it fell until abeyance. The plan to revive it will not fall as a charge on the Common Fund, and could be funded in partnership with the Church Commissioners and the existing block grant for episcopal ministry.
Bishop Chartres's plan states that the Archbishop of Canterbury has "warmly welcomed" the proposal.
Among the bishops impressed by HTB's strategy is the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, who described on Tuesday how a big new plant would "bring light to the city".
The diocese is currently raising £2 million to establish St Luke's, Gas Street, a "resource church", in a warehouse in the city centre. Due to open in September, it will be led by the Revd Tim Hughes, currently Curate of St Paul's, Onslow Square, and a church musician. "We know that this kind of leadership and this kind of church is very attractive to young people," Bishop Urquhart said. "The disciples made in this church are people who do not settle down into a comfortable way of life. They are called in a very short period of time to go out to other parishes into areas which are very hard to reach. It's a giving-away church."
The Vicar of St Luke's, Oseney Crescent, planted from HTB in 2011, welcomed the idea of a Bishop of Islington.
"Planting a new worshipping community has been one the most exciting, enjoyable and challenging adventures of my life," he said on Tuesday. "Those within existing structures have done a huge amount to help me muddle my way in the journey, but to know that there would be someone dedicated to the unique challenges faced by a church plant is incredibly encouraging.
"With new church plants springing up all across the UK there is a great need for church planters to be effectively trained throughout the journey. A lot of time and effort is spent on training our church leaders before they lead but I know I would have hugely benefitted from someone to provide ongoing support, challenge and input as the church grew and developed."
Question of the week: Do you agree with a bishop for church-plants?