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Tower Hamlets story of 'renewal and resurrection'

08 April 2016


Boost: St Paul's, Shadwell

Boost: St Paul's, Shadwell

PLANTING new congregations in run-down and struggling parishes in east London has been hailed a success, ten years after the first team from Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), moved into the East End.

A report from the Centre for Theology and Community, Love, Sweat and Tears, has said that five church plants since 2005 into existing churches in Tower Hamlets have boosted Sunday attendance from 72 to nearly 750, and the diocese of London’s coffers by more £300,000.

The report chronicles the story of St Paul’s, Shadwell, whose 12-strong congregation absorbed a group of 100 from HTB in 2005, and four subsequent church plants that have grown out of St Paul’s.

The five parishes now have a combined attendance of almost 750. In 2004, they were paying 34 per cent of their Common Fund costs, but now cover 95 per cent. The report estimates that this has saved the diocese of London, which has backed the church-planting process throughout, about £300,000.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, said: “It is fitting that this report should be released at Easter, for it tells a story of renewal and resurrection.

“The narrative we are so often told by the media — and by some within the Church — is that our congregations are in terminal decline. Church planting is one of the ways in which, across the diocese, we’re telling a different story — that churches can have a new lease of life and flourish at the heart of London’s diverse communities.”

HTB gave a one-off grant to St Paul’s at the start, but, since then, it and the other four churches planted out of it have been self-sufficient financially. The report also suggests that little of the growth of these churches has been at the expense of neighbouring parishes.

A survey taken in October last year suggested that, although 80 per cent of the members moved to the churches from others, very few came from congregations near by in Tower Hamlets. One in five of the church members was either new to faith or returning to the Church after several years away.

Furthermore, 68 per cent of the regular adult attenders at the five churches currently volunteer in some way, many with existing charities.

This is an almost unqualified success, the report concludes. “Hundreds of largely middle-class Christians who were living in East London but attending large churches in Central London now regularly attend churches in East London.

“The Church in East London is better off. East London is better off.”

All four of the church plants that have come out of St Paul’s have involved mixing mostly middle-class and young Evangelicals with an existing local congregation, often with a more Anglo-Catholic tradition.

Despite some inevitable frictions, the report concludes that it has been a positive process: a focus on reaching out to the local community, uniting the two groups.

All Hallows’, Bow, is perhaps the only C of E church to pause for a cigarette break halfway through their service, the report suggests. St Luke’s, Millwall, holds a monthly “pub church” event at a local pub for those in their twenties on the fringes of faith.

Parish parties, including those offering halal food for Muslim neighbours, are a regular at All Hallows’. St Peter’s, Bethnal Green, has experimented with pop-up cafés, and other initiatives, to reach the East End’s burgeoning “hipster” communities.

The experiment in Tower Hamlets has been so successful that the first Rector at St Paul’s, the Rt Revd Ric Thorpe, is now the Bishop of Islington, and is charged with leading the revival of church planting across the diocese of London and the wider Church (News, 6 March 2015).

He said: “Church planting has been going on since the very beginning of the Church and there is as much need for it today as there has ever been.

“There is much to learn and use [in this report] so that other churches can catch the vision to send plants and to invite plants, so that the wider Church can be revitalised and grow.”

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