BY 2050, London could be an international beacon of Christianity, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, said last week, in a lecture on church growth.
In the third Lambeth Lecture, on evangelism, on Thursday of last week, chronicling the diocese’s journey from 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 that 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 . . . that the story of God could have only one end: relegation to the leisure sector", he said.
Buildings 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."
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.
His remarks revealed 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. He paid tribute, however, to the "wonderfully faithful priests and lay people" who kept the Church alive during this period.
If the hierarchy was partly to blame for decline, parish priests did not escape censure. 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 Bishop Chartres said that, after 20 years, he felt he had "only just begun", he looked back on his efforts to bring the diocese back from the brink. They included a "bonfire of the boards", changes to the Common Fund, and "building a ‘can-do’ atmosphere".
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, 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 the secession of large churches, such as HTB, from the Church. History had shown that those movements that began with such "fizz" became "rigid within a couple of generations".
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".
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