PLANS to set up to 750 new congregations in the diocese of Oxford reflect the need to reach people untouched by traditional church “because they are physically, or culturally, just too far away”, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has said.
A population at least the size of Edinburgh is expected to move into the diocese over the next 15 years as a result of new housing developments.
Last week, the Revd Will Donaldson, appointed as the diocese’s new full-time Director of Congregations, said that, “over the last 30 years, there has been a significant fall in engagement with traditional church in many places across the diocese”. Usual Sunday attendance had fallen from 54,600 in 1939 to 41,113 in 2016.
“I believe passionately in inherited church and traditional parish ministry,” he said. “We are thinking about a mixed ecclesial economy: we want to see traditional parish church being done as well as it possibly can, with all its great richness and blessings, but also foster new congregations, Fresh Expressions of church, and, where appropriate, asked for, and sensitively planted, church-plants and -grafts.”
The Church was “like a bird with two wings”, he suggested. “We have relied very heavily on parish ministry, and inherited ways of doing church in the locality where the parish is based, but we now realise . . . that society is much more complex and complicated and mobile and networked than ever before, and so geography is not the only way people can relate to church.”
Having 750 new congregations was a “really ambitious aim”, he agreed. But they could include “a dozen people meeting in a front room”. It meant each of the diocese’s 750 congregations starting another.
Fresh Expressions were “reaching the nation in a way that we haven’t been doing for the last 50 to 100 years,” he said. They were “best done when they are emerging out of normal parish life”. He gave the example of an 80-strong café church in Ealing, west London, which grew out of a soup kitchen.
Thought also needed to be given to reaching children and young people, he said, including the possibility of ecumenical partnerships.
Any definition of church “does involve catechesis, which is training in discipleship in preparation for baptism and confirmation”, he said, when asked about the part played by the sacraments. The process for starting a new congregation progressed from “listening to the community” through to creating a sense of belonging, exploring discipleship, and then introducing the sacraments.
In its plan to reach market towns, the diocese of Ely noted that Sunday attendance stood at three per cent in Cambridge, and as low as 0.5 per cent in surrounding towns in the Fens. Mr Donaldson said that a similar landscape could be found in Oxford. “If you went to some churches on a Sunday morning, you would think there isn’t a problem, they are packed to the rafters. But they are totally unrepresentative of the wider diocese.”
Mr Donaldson is Area Dean of Oxford, a part-time college chaplain at St Edmund’s Hall, and Champion for Seniors at St Aldate’s, Oxford. He spent 25 years in parish ministry before becoming the Director of Christian leadership at Wycliffe Hall. He also previously worked as a Director of Ordinands in the London diocese.
Asked about small congregations who doubted their ability to start a new one, he said that his message would be: “Value what you have. In some of these small rural areas there are wonderful stories of new people coming, so please don’t feel this is a vote of no confidence in the way you have traditionally done church.
“But, with you, we also feel it’s really important that the local community hears about the love of God in Christ, and so, shall we think together about ways in which we can do this that are outside of our normal patterns of ministry?”
Developing resource churches was part of the strategy he said. One option for such churches would be “receiving support from a stronger, livelier parish that would love to help share in your mission and ministry, but would not want to take over”.