WHILE “the Revd Darren Betts” was a work of satire, the smoothie-wielding Evangelical priest in Rev. was informed by a familiar view of church-planting.
The view that a plant from the “HTB” network centred on Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), will “sweep up all of the young beautiful people, but it won’t actually care any more about elderly people or poor people” is familiar to the Vicar of St John the Baptist, Hoxton, with Christ Church, east London, the Revd Graham Hunter, who encountered hostility and suspicion when he arrived in 2010, from St Mary Magdalene, Holloway. When a plant into an Anglo-Catholic church was announced last year, one priest mourned online: “Another great Catholic parish bites the dust!”
As the network expands — the 33 listed on the church’s website is not exhaustive — questions continue to be asked about the source of their celebrated numerical growth, and the diversity of their congregations. The language of empire-building and hostile takeovers is not infrequently used.
HTB plants have been subject to a degree of scrutiny over the years. A 2002 paper from the Sheffield Centre for Church Planting and Evangelism, Dynasty or Diversity? The HTB family of churches, concluded that most of the planting — then confined to London — was “following population movement among Christians”. Those attending were people who would have liked to have attended Holy Trinity, Brompton, but lived outside central London.
Demanding that people attend their existing parish church “lacks credibility”, the report argued. “When people have found a church that works for them, it is more natural that they should associate with a movement that brings this kind of church nearer to them, than try to join a different local church lacking this draw.”
A more recent report, Love, Sweat and Tears, by the Centre for Theology and Community, studied five churches in East London, which belong to the HTB network, planted between 2005 and 2015. It found that typical Sunday attendance across the five had grown from 72 to 750, and that one in five in the congregation was either returning to church after several years or had been unchurched.
The remaining four-fifths had been previously attending another church, but “very few” had transferred from other churches in east London. “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 researchers concluded. The five churches had also moved from paying 34 per cent of their Common Fund costs to 95 per cent, leaving the diocese £300,000 better off each year.
Finally, a report prepared last year by the C of E’s Strategy and Development Unit found that, across five city-centre plants from HTB, numbers had grown from 130 people to 2600, of which 19 per cent of had returned to church and 15 per cent were entirely new to church. The largest percentage — 38 per cent — had transferred from a local church.
THE Vicar of Holy Trinity, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, is adamant that “we do not want people to come from other churches.” He describes such transfer as “shooting ourselves in the foot, because that’s undermining other churches”.
The regular plant-related enquiries he receives from bishops are passed directly to Mark Elsdon-Dew, communications director at HTB, who now heads up much of the work. Asked what has been learned over the years, Mr Elsdon-Dew says that he now makes a point of preparing bishops for the fact that “there will be opposition.”
”We only go where we are invited,” he emphasises, “and we only work with bishops. It’s absolutely central to the whole vision that this is a diocesan initiative in which we are trying to help. There is absolutely no question that it’s us moving in, in any way at all.”
His formula entails bringing together three elements: a bishop, a priest, and a building. The latter should ideally be “a large city-centre church building, which is a little bit iconic in the town or city, and geographically near the student accommodation”. Students are key to growth, hence the decision to launch in September or October, when freshers arrive in a city. (The strategy is notably very different for the “grandchildren” of the HTB network, which include small churches on estates.)
Decades on from the first HTB plant in the 1980s, the network now incorporates several generations and a degree of diversity.
"Church planting is not like a franchise," observes Mr Gumbel. "It’s not McDonalds, it’s a family, and each church plant has two parents [HTB and the church receiving the plant]. "It will have characteristics from both parents, but they are not the same as their parents, they are a child. . . Hopefully the congregation is proud of both parents. . . Variety is good. God’s church is made up of an infinite variety."
One frequently remarked element is the dearth of women in charge of plants. Mr Gumbel is acutely aware of this: the subsequent discussion took up much of our interview time.
”I am passionate about this, and I am doing everything I know to change things; but it does take time,” he says. He is “constantly on the lookout and encouraging women to get ordained who I think could do it [lead a plant], and encouraging St Mellitus to send us people who they think could do it. They could come from anywhere, but they’ve got to be able to run a city-centre church-plant.”
Asked other questions about diversity, he says that the most recent survey at HTB indicated that a third of the congregation at the two biggest morning services were Chinese/Malaysian, and a quarter African. A gay couple would be welcomed “absolutely, with open arms”.
The Rt Revd Ric Thorpe is the Bishop of Islington, a post created to support church-planting in London and across the country. He was a curate at Holy Trinity for nine years, before planting at St Paul’s, Shadwell.
He reports a shift in perceptions of church-planting: “People are beginning to say, actually, this is not one wing of the church beginning to empire-build. They are recognising we all need to do it.”
There is much to learn from other traditions, he says, and reels off numerous examples of planting outside the HTB network. He had learnt a lot, he said, from Anglo-Catholic initiatives in the 19th century.
“They were intentional; they recognised the urgency; they went out of their way to raise money from the rest of the country to reach a very under-churched East End at the time.”
He suggests that those who use negative language about church planting may not recognise that "the generosity is the DNA: you give away your best people." St Paul's, Shadwell, has planted several churches in recent years, providing both people and money.
The Church has always started new churches, he points out. "We have always had a mission call on every church to start new churches, in new places, reaching new people, in new ways. It would be arrogant to say we don’t need to do that anymore."
Others are more critical, including some who declined to go on record.
In the light of competing views, we look at various church-plants around the country.
A STRAND that emerges from some of the stories of HTB plants, is failures of communication. It has not always been clear to others, for example, that the plant arriving in their area has come at the invitation of their bishop. Bishop Thorpe is clear that he has no jurisdiction outside London and “won’t come unless there is a warm invitation from the bishop.”
He is in favour of his diocesan colleagues’ “seizing that authority to do what they are called to do”, and wants others to “understand that if you submit to a bishop’s authority, and you encourage the bishops and pray for them, that will lead to a fruitful missional relationship”.
But while emphasising authority (”good leaders know that sometimes they will have to make unpopular decisions”), he says that one of the lessons he has learned is the value of emotional intelligence, of planters who come “with a posture of humility and service”.
He adds: "When it’s not happening, we challenge that, and I am quite strong on that. If I hear about people undermining other leaders I will say 'that’s not on, we don’t do that.' We build up other leaders; we honour other traditions."
Planters themselves are candid about the suspicion, anxiety, and, on occasion, outright hostility that they have encountered.
While enjoying the support of his bishop, Mr Hunter, experienced a “bruising” first year as acting Priest-in-Charge, culminating in a decision by the PCC to appoint someone else to the incumbency. After the priest of their choice turned the post down, the acting Area Bishop, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, told St John’s it was Mr Hunter or nobody. They agreed.
Although never a member or priest at HTB, Mr Hunter is conscious of the perception of an “expansionist agenda” at the church. “In some of the tougher and more struggling parishes in the East End, there is a sense that, the minute you come in and have an agenda to grow, it’s a kind of an implicit rejection of what is currently there.”
He is unapologetic about the fact that, given the rate of numerical decline in the C of E, he believes that a “normal” congregation should be 500. It's a desire rooted in his own experience of conversion: growing up in a Marxist, Atheist household as an "insecure and anxious child", he experienced, at 14, "peace, joy, forgiveness", and wants others to experience "what we know happens when they encounter God".
He readily admits that some of his early decisions weren’t “consensual or collaborative”, and that he made enemies along the way, some of whom left. “I wasn’t trying to be unkind to anybody. I just thought we can’t go on like this. . . It isn’t tenable. We were going to run out of money. It was going to die.”
He believes that the original congregation wanted its church to grow. “But the culture actually was totally anathema to that. It was just getting in the way.” One of the practices he ended was asking newcomers to stand for applause.
The changes he introduced were designed to make newcomers feel welcome, he says, but also reflect the expectation of growth.
He echoes other planters in listing practical changes that encourage growth: “Make sure it’s warm, make sure it’s light, make sure the toilets are clean, make sure you are serving good coffee.” Another early change was the introduction of a weekly eucharist (his Masters thesis explored charismatic Eucharistic worship in the C of E).
The parish is one of the most deprived in the diocese and community organising has been a central part of the church’s mission, generating discussion about issues ranging from energy pre-payment metres to damp housing. It also led to a campaign to end payday-loan advertising in Hackney, led in part by a member of the congregation with personal experience of debt. There are plans to build affordable housing on church land.
Today, St John’s now welcomes 250 people across services — growth has come from "totally unchurched or open dechurched people" — and he counts his most fervent opponent on the PCC as a friend.
IN 2008, St Paul’s, Brixton, had an average Sunday attendance of 28 when the Revd Ben Goodyear was invited to consider a graft, from the Ascension, Balham Hill. Although the PCC approved the graft, in reality they had little choice, given that the church was threatened with closure by the diocese. They “weren’t enthusiastic”, he recalls. “There was a lot of caution, suspicion. I think that they didn’t feel valued, didn’t feel empowered by the diocese.”
One challenge has been integrating two cultures: a young white planting team, and a predominantly elderly black congregation.
“I think, if someone was going to be critical of me for how I started off, maybe I didn’t involve a bigger diversity of people at the start in different roles.” He learned that personally inviting black members of the congregation to join the worship team was much more effective than issuing a general request.
Today, the average attendance is around 65, with a wider church family of 120. He estimates that about 60 per cent are black and 40 per cent white. Part of the growth has come from “the transition from being a Sunday church to an everyday church”. This has included running small groups, Alpha, and a whole range of outreach projects run in partnership with other local churches, including debt counselling through Christians Against Poverty; Street Pastors; and a foodbank.
Looking back, he would have co-opted members of the graft team onto the PCC at an earlier stage — "it would have helped bridge that gap, and enabled us to have conversations that we later then did have after about four or five years" — and he advises those at the beginning of the planting journey to "affirm the receiving congregation and make sure they are feeling valued". One of the ways in which he did this was to interview some members at the front, about their acts of evangelism prior to the graft team's arrival. The church website include a section on "recent history" — something not visible on several of the HTB network's websites —which speaks of "people faithfully sowing and reaping".
He readily admits that the graft has been “way harder” than he had expected. But one of his most cherished memories is the installation of a stained-glass window in 2014, designed to reflect Brixton and the congregation, and inscribed with their prayers and Bible verses.
PLANTING in an empty building comes with its own challenges. When he arrived at St Swithun’s, Bournemouth, from Holy Trinity, Brompton, in 2014, the Revd Dr Tim Matthews was faced with no furniture or carpets, and had a team of 11.
Today, about 500 attend the church, and he attributes this to several factors including the Alpha course, marriage courses, and investing in "developing young leaders". He also cites a willingness to take risks, something he feels that the Church can be averse to.
Within two months, the church had opened seven nights a week as a homeless shelter, which he looks back on as “total chaos, a kamikaze move”, but believes gave “credibility to our gospel message, and served the town that we’d come to preach to”. Other outreach ministries include addiction recovery: “We’ve seen more miracles occur there than anywhere else,” he says. “But it’s very painful and difficult, too — we’ve lost several to overdoses in the last few years, and that cuts deep.”
Dr Matthews is sensitive to the charge of sucking in churchgoers from nearby, but has spoken of “rebounding some of them back”. On the other hand, he observes: “Church leaders don’t own people. Normal Christian people often hear better and clearer from the Holy Spirit for themselves than us leaders do. They want to go where there’s life.”
None the less: “I’ve always tried to maintain a very high bar on existing Christians joining. We say here that we’re a battleship not a cruise ship — we don’t take passengers — so if you’re on board, you’re on the crew, and there’s a job here for you to do.”
Last year, the diocese announced that St Swithun’s would “revitalise” St Clement’s, Bournemouth. The former priest-in-charge, the Revd John Pares, paints a positive picture of this process. He recalls the Bishop of Southampton, Dr Jonathan Frost, holding a “really good discussion” with the congregation (of around 30). “He was very gracious, and spent time with them and praised their loyalty and determination.” While they were anxious, Mr Pares says that they also “realised they weren’t able to do all that was possible, and so welcomed the influx of new blood”. To his knowledge, nobody has left St Clement’s.
Today, Dr Matthews reports that around 60 to 100 people attend St Clement’s, including many who were previously unchurched.
“Part of the project is to not just continue an Anglo-Catholic expression of worship at St Clement’s, but to enhance it,” he says. “We’ve continued the midweek eucharist and seen that congregation grow; and we’ve introduced a eucharist every Sunday in a side chapel following the main contemporary, non-eucharistic morning service.”
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, welcomes “grafts to revitalise parishes” but warns that “traditions are like the roots of a tree, not a veneer of its wood”.
“It’s quite easy to think that the only difference between ways of being Anglican come in liturgical dress or choreography,” he observes. “But if a tradition is a deep one, it’s going to affect your whole perception of the faith, and of the world and what human beings are.”
Dr Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, the diocese home to the first HTB network plant outside London, has spoke of the importance of "equipping those who offer to partner with a parish; it is about providing skills and theological intelligence to understand a tradition that might be unfamiliar" (News, 3 March).
St Peter’s, Bethnal Green, was established in 1841, one of several churches planted by Bishop Blomfield. Today it is described as a “cross-tradition” church, incorporating both Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical traditions.
In 2010, the Revd Adam Atkinson became Priest-in-Charge, after a series of conversations with the PCC. He recalls their absolute determination to resist closure (the congregation numbered 30) and desire to “see children in the church again”.
The goal, he said, was “honouring the past, navigating change in the present, and building the future”.
Determined to honour the history of the church and its tradition, but also conscious of his own Evangelical background, he worked alongside the Revd Dr Angus Ritchie (who was honorary curate from 2012 to 2015), "so that we were able to not just play at that but to inhabit that tradition fully".
The two traditions can be enjoyed together, he argues.
“Since the earliest days of the Church, the presence of God in the sacrament has been widely acknowledged, so let’s have that,” he says. “There is something there of great treasure and richness. There’s also something important about church unity, here. . . We are not looking for the lowest-common-denominator form of worship, but bringing together parts of church that have been atomised and separated out. . . They are not in conflict with one another."
He reflects: "Extroverts and introverts choose to worship differently. If we can offer a variety of ways to draw close to God, then we are going to be able to reach more people. . . What we find, particularly with Millennials, whose only experience of church is in film and literature, is that something of form and substance that is liturgical, sacramental, feels like something they have come across in their imagination. It is also a contrast, in a helpful way, to most of the rest of the ways they encounter culture.”
Today, the congregation stands at between 100 and 140 across three services, which include a sung eucharist.
NOT every service is maintained. Two years after the Revd Ian Dyble arrived at St Thomas’s, Norwich, in 2013, where the congregation numbered about 30, evensong was discontinued.
“If we can see growth in those areas, that’s wonderful,” says Mr Dyble, who arrived with a £50,000 “pump-priming” grant from HTB, but without a team. “If we are seeing engagement with the community through our services, then we will carry on doing that.” Choral evensong attracted between four and nine people, he says, and is on offer at other churches in the city.
Although some people left the church, he reports that many remain, including a churchwarden who had been part of the church for almost three decades. Today, attendance across all services and two sites stands at about 450. There are a Prayer Book eight-o’clock, and a traditional eucharist at 9.30 am.
Marketing has been important, Mr Dyble says. “We are very deliberate in presenting who we are and what we do to the highest standard we possibly can.” This has included a focus on its online presence. For three years in a row, St Thomas’s has received the Premier digital award for most engaging church website.
He acknowledges that “people do come from other churches — that will happen with any new church” — but argues that some people worship in their existing church “because it’s the option available rather than because it’s where they would ideally want to be”. Norwich lacked a church offering the type of music that HTB offers, he says. “I think there was a void which we came and filled.”
Canon Alan Strange, who was a Rural Dean in Norwich and Rector of Holy Trinity, Heigham, until 2016, reports that a number of people left his church immediately to go to St Thomas’s. He believes that this was, in one sense, “understandable”, given frustration at the pace of change; but he also notes that “there were people who did not look at us as a possible church because we could not hope to match the extraordinary power of HTB marketing.”
He suggests that there are questions to be asked about the financial impact of HTB plants, and whether dioceses’ desire to secure the money generated by a plant means that they will “enable the crossing of barriers that others have faced, and create permissions that others have been denied". He warns: “This could create the sensation of an unfairness that can be dispiriting to other churches, and deepens suspicion that ‘HTB plants can do anything while older churches simply have to fit into the structures.’”
NOT all of the HTB plants have entailed moving into church buildings. A new trend is to rent commercial property. Last September, Harbour Church in Portsmouth, a plant from St Peter’s, Brighton, was opened in a rented former department store, refurbished with the aid of a strategic development grant from the Church Commissioners. It was charged specifically with reaching those in the city with no previous experience of church, and those aged 15-29, including students.
The Archdeacon of Portsdown, the Ven. Dr Joanne Grenfell, supported the process. The diocese was “very conscious” that so few students or young people attended the city’s Anglican churches. “We needed some help to approach this differently.” Although other work is under way to help churches reach these age groups, she believes that “sometimes you need something more intentional, that says to people ‘This is absolutely for you.’ The children are not an afterthought: it’s all geared up to them.”
The Revd Alex Wood, who serves under a Bishop’s Mission Order at the church, and arrived with a team of 15, reports that about 250 people now attend on a Sunday, across two services. He estimates that about 30 per cent moved from other churches, but had been attending “very infrequently”.
“We are just doing something we would like to go to,” he says. “Everything we do is all based around that we don’t fill the church with people who are already in other churches.”
Other churches had been “incredibly kind”, he said, both those from other traditions and those from a similar wing of the Church.
Back at Holy Trinity, Brompton, Mr Gumbel is receiving regular enquiries from diocesan bishops. Another arrived the day before the Church Times interview. With institutional support, including that of diocesan bishops keen to see numerical growth, and strategic development grants available from the Church Commissioners, expansion of the network shows no signs of stopping.
In a farewell interview, the recently retired Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, spoke of HTB’s having “stirred a lot of other people to emulation” and forecast a “great ferment of church extension” (News, 24 February). In May, the Centre for Theology and Community will report on developments in the Anglo-Catholic wing, building on Bishop Blomfield’s legacy.
The prospect delights Bishop Thorpe: “If they did it the same way today, it would make people’s fears about Evangelicals doing it pale into insignificance.”