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We are neglecting mid-sized churches, Nye admits

22 July 2019

Panel discusses the ‘middle third’ which can be overlooked


The panel, from left to right, Bishop Baines, the Revd Charlotte Cook, Canon Andy Salmon, Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed

The panel, from left to right, Bishop Baines, the Revd Charlotte Cook, Canon Andy Salmon, Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed

MID-SIZED churches — defined as worshipping communities of between 20 and 60 — have been overlooked by the national church institutions, the secretary-general of the General Synod, William Nye, said this month.

Speaking before a panel convened earlier this month to discuss the beauty and the challenges associated with this “middle third”, Mr Nye described how, “without meaning to, a lot of the time, we, the national church institutions, just default to thinking about bigger churches, because a lot of people’s picture of the norm of the church is a vicar and about 100 people on a Sunday morning.

“We have overlooked this middle third. Lots of staff at Church House, lots of bishops, come up through bigger churches, worship in bigger churches; bishops have led bigger churches.”

There was a need to think more about how national programmes might work in churches of this size, he said. Some programmes did not connect “terribly well”, such as planting and the creation of resource churches. Others, such as digital campaigns, did. “We are trying to get away from the idea that we are interested only in planting and replicating churches of 300 people.”

There was nothing about being a mid-sized church that was “inherently bad or inherently good”, he said. It depended on context. Some were “fantastic”; some “could do a whole lot better”.

Asked whether resource churches were a threat to mid-sized churches, he acknowledged that some people were “ambivalent about the success of resource churches. . . I can understand why that is. I hope people can get over it, and just be joyful that something new is happening. . . The thing is to try to have a good conversation . . .

“And I hope that the churches that are feeling ‘We haven’t got a lot of money from a big grant’ will, none the less, see that the national Church is trying to do things to help, too.”

Arithmetic done by staff at Church House suggests that, if each of the 5000 mid-sized churches gained an extra five people, the Church of England’s decline would be reversed. About 200,000 people worship in these churches, which serve a population of 16 million.

Last year, the diocese of Manchester was granted £1 million from the Church Commissioners to invest in the Antioch network, to plant smaller churches in deprived areas (News, 14 December 2018).

This month’s panel, convened at a fringe event at the General Synod in York, included incumbents and worshippers at mid-sized churches. The National Minority Ethnic Vocations Officer, Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed, described choosing to worship with her young family at Holy Innocents’, South Norwood, in south London: “It wasn’t just this roller-coaster of doing stuff, but a place where I could just be.”

A large church building with a smaller congregation and plenty of space was a good environment for people with serious mental-health problems, she suggested, before noting that, “If you think that the only churches that are celebrated are the large churches doing 101 different things, you can’t help but feel that what we are, what we do, doesn’t really matter.”

Canon Andy Salmon, the Vicar of Sacred Trinity, Salford, described how the congregation had grown from 12 to 60 in recent years, while the parish had grown in size from 123 to 6000. “Sometimes, it is easier to be creative if you are really small — if anything you try would be a positive,” he said. Though there had been “quite a bit of resistance to change”.

A significant theme on the panel was the church as a family. Sacred Trinity was “a bit of a bonkers family”, Canon Salmon said. “There is a huge turnover, as we are in a city centre, but we do know each other and support each other.”

HOLY TRINITY, SALFORDThe Easter day congregation at Holy Trinity, Salford

The Revd Charlotte Cook is an Assistant Curate of Walton and Trimley, in Suffolk: two parishes where congregations range in size from 30 to 80. She suggested that ambition for growth needed to be carefully considered: “Sometimes, mid-sized churches can be a bit over-stretched, as they are trying to be really big. . . If it is more of resting season or consolidating, that is great also.”

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, also sounded a cautionary note about growth. Sometimes, people prayed for it and then “struggled” when it came because of the loss of intimacy. “If one person joins our church, it’s not that they have joined, it’s that we together are now a different church. I had to get people to see that what they actually wanted was the church to be bigger, but the same.”

Talk of “family” was complex, he suggested. “How do you enable a church to grow without stressing intimacy in such a way that it excludes? Language matters. One of the dodgy things about being a bishop is that you are never in your own church, [you are] always visiting. I listen to notices that tell me within a couple of words that I am not ‘in’.”

He also revealed that, when Bishop of Croydon, he had almost shut Holy Innocents’. But he had asked a curate, the Revd Nicola Coleman, to serve. At her first Sunday service, a churchwarden had filled the front two pews with stuffed monkeys (“they thought it would make the church look a bit fuller”).

When he visited a year later, she had worried that nobody would be there; but 150 turned up. “She asked me to say something, and I couldn’t, because I cried.”

It was important not to compare parish churches with “big, eclectic” ones, he said. “If it’s a parish church, it’s communal: people go because they live there. . . If you are the other type, people come in because of the show on offer, but their purchase on life and mission is very different.”

Parish churches needed to be aware that large churches were often drawing from areas the size of dozens of Anglican parishes. Realising this had enabled one estate church to see that “to get 60 people on a Sunday was miraculous”; it had caused the churchwardens to “walk a bit taller”.

Practical advice was on offer. Having a good noticeboard was important, Canon Salmon said. “Church buildings are scary things: people are not used to them, they don’t know what is inside. Make sure your website has pictures of people doing things inside your building.” One Chinese woman had started attending the church because the picture outside had reassured her that other Chinese people would be present.

In a Q&A session, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, observed that most mid-sized churches had been “declining for a long time; so the prevailing atmosphere is one of nostalgia. Pictures of huge choirs back in the 1930s, and a great sense of loss and grief.

“They are trapped in the past. How do we turn it into an atmosphere of joy, as it is joyful communities who grow?”

Miss Cook recommended that clergy hold such people by the hand and say, “I would love to hear your stories of the past,” but also ask “Are there flickers of a vision? What would you love to see?” Some things which might seem to be central to the DNA of a church might simply have been passed down and were now “an echo or a memory”, a “shadow”.

Canon Salmon spoke of the value of teasing out “what were good things from the past”. At his church, they had discovered, in the archive, magic-lantern slides from the 1920s showing hymn words: “We were ahead of the game!”

Clergy could “impose our limitations on people in the parish,” Bishop Baines warned. As a parish priest in a UPA, he had been advised that nobody in the area would attend a discipleship course, but this had proved to be incorrect. “Tease the imagination, awaken the curiosity of people, go with the grain of where their interests are,” he said. “People do surprising things that we are constantly told they won’t do.”

It was also the case, he said, that, “if your church grows to the point where it looks fairly full, people won’t come. You have to have a mechanism for creating space.”

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