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Same old ideas in the 19th and 21st centuries

by
09 October 2015

Current strategies for church growth are locked into Victorian institutional patterns, argues William Whyte

“THE three great banes which hold back more effective use of church buildings as an instrument of mission and growth are the following: blocked gutters, bats, and the Victorian Society,” Canon Timothy Allen obseverved at the Synod this summer (General Synod, 17 July).

I cannot speak for the bats, nor the gutters; but, as a historian of 19th-century Britain, I think it is worth looking again at the Victorians. Not just — indeed, not chiefly — to defend them, but to see how their experience can tell us something about the Church’s mission and growth today.

Canon Allen’s point is a simple one. The Victorian Society, he seems to be arguing, has stood in the way of progress by insisting on the preservation of 19th-century buildings and fittings. And, of course, in a sense he is right.

As the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, has written, in the past decade or so there has been extraordinarily widespread and radical restructuring of church buildings (Churches for Communities, Oxfordshire Historic Church Trust, 2014). Thousands have been reordered, and, in the process, the furniture and fittings the Victorians installed are being moved, or removed, throughout the country.

As a preservation group, the Victorian Society naturally campaigns against this, while the Church, and Canon Allen, seek to fulfil a mission and inspire growth by updating architecture.

The irony is, however, that this profound reordering of churches looks remarkably like the massive building and restoration programme undertaken by the Victorians themselves. They, too, hated the architecture and design of their predecessors. They, too, built and rebuilt because they believed that only modern churches with modern facilities would attract a congregation.

Such was their faith in architecture that, by the 1860s, a new Anglican church was consecrated every four or five days. Still more churches were restored, which meant rebuilding, stripping out the old, and installing the new. And all because the Victorians — just like us — thought that this architectural activity would lead to a rise in the number of churchgoers.

 

THIS is not the only way in which our current obsessions strangely mirror those of the Victorians. It was not just buildings that they wanted more of; it was also priests. In 1837, the year that Queen Victoria acceded to the throne, the Additional Curates Society was founded; it was designed to send ever more men to work as clergy.

The bishops, too, were desperate to increase the number of those ordained and serving in parishes — and they quickly achieved their goal. In the diocese of Ripon alone, the number of incumbents rose by more than 50 per cent, and the number of curates by more than 300 per cent, in just three decades after 1836.

It is not so hard to see an analogy between this extremely costly recruitment and the Church of England’s plans, in the Reform and Renewal programme, to raise the number of clergy in training by 50 per cent (News, 23 January).

In both cases, there was a belief that changing churches and ordaining more priests would yield results — no matter how much it cost. The Victorians were terrified that the Church of England was in decline, and that Christianity itself was under threat. Only attractive churches and active ministers would save it. That, too, sounds familiar.

 

IT IS worth asking whether the Victorians were right: whether all this expenditure on buildings and people actually yielded results. The answer is, I think it is fair to say, somewhat mixed.

True enough, the resources poured into the Victorian Church of England had their effects. People did attend the thousands of new and renewed churches. On the whole, the additional clergy worked hard, and served their people well. The great Anglo-Catholic citadels in the East End of London, Portsmouth, and elsewhere, genuinely reached out to the poor.

By the turn of the 20th century, there were indeed more members of the Church of England than there ever had been. The vicar had become a familiar feature in every community, and the church spire a recognisable part of the landscape even in areas that had previously lacked a place of worship or any resident clergy.

None the less, it was not enough. The Church grew, but it did not always grow in the right places, or at a fast enough pace. Its new buildings and its enthusiastic ministers were very successful at attracting the middle class; but, in general, their efforts with a wider public were less impressive.

In his survey Life and Labour of the People in London, published in 1902, the pioneering social researcher Charles Booth described the Church’s attempts to lure the working class as “dismally unsuccessful”. The succeeding years would show the truth of his claims. We are the heirs to that failure.

 

ALL of this makes our current enthusiasm to build, and to recruit more priests, somewhat surprising. The lesson of the Victorians is that buildings and clergy are not nearly enough. Even had they supplied twice as many churches and clergy, it would not have served the Church’s mission, or contributed much to its growth.

In part, this is because organised religion is inevitably challenged by a modern pluralist society. More importantly, it is because a Church that focuses on buildings and clergy is missing the point.

It is easy for clergy to overemphasise their own importance. It is easy for them to focus over-much on their buildings, too. Above all, it is easy for those charged with running an institution to look for institutional solutions to the perceived problems of that institution. It is what the Victorians did, and it is what we risk doing now.

We need, however, to be bolder; to think — and pray — harder. We need to ask lay people, and especially those outside the Church, what we should do. They might be less interested in the institution than in what it claims to do; less interested in worship than in service. This can be done without clergy, and without changing church buildings. We might be surprised by their answers — and by their enthusiasm for the Victorians and bats; though not, I suspect, for blocked gutters.

 

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Professor of Social and Architectural History at the University of Oxford.

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