THE authors of Fuzzy Church describe their book as an account of qualitative field research in churches in the north of England in places of relative deprivation where “something is happening.” They believe that this research enables them to make broad observations on what might be distinctive about northern culture and a “gospel for the north”. It all rather begs the question.
If this were rigorous, academic research, we would expect first of all to have some clarity about the criteria for identifying churches where “something is happening.” There are no such criteria, though the authors are at pains to say that they do not necessarily mean growing churches.
Churches were selected by asking an unidentified group of “key people” and senior Anglican and Methodist church leaders to suggest churches where “something is happening.” We are not told how they identified these key people whose subjective judgements determined the field of research.
Forty-nine churches, mainly Anglican, were selected in various locations and of varying ecclesiological types in different places across the whole of the north. Eighteen responded to a questionnaire, seven were visited, and focus groups were held in five.
I would not describe such fleeting contacts as “field research”; and the whole enterprise is a thin base from which to generalise about either churches or culture in the north. Even the definition of the north is unclear. One of the churches visited is in Derbyshire, which is generally considered to be in the Midlands.
The authors tell us that the churches where “something is happening” are illustrative of “God’s mission in the North”. They give us glimpses into what God is doing. What they have in common is “fuzziness” — hence the book’s title. They have fuzzy boundaries — who is “in” and who is “out” of the congregation. They have fuzzy goals — clear directions of travel, but no fixed point of arrival. And they have fuzzy worship — a mixing of many elements drawn from diverse sources.
The book tends to reinforce the view that “it’s grim up north” — something that the elected mayors in Manchester and Leeds might take issue with. The impact of coronavirus is making everyone look afresh at the future of work and where we are located.
They also write about the “inexorable decline and even death of mainstream churches”, but do not see this as something to regret. The collapse of traditional churches provides “compost” for future growth — though how that works is not explained.
Where I agree with the authors is in recognising that numerical growth cannot be the only measure of “success” for churches. The chill winds of secularism are blowing strongly across all of Europe, not just the north of England, and the vocation of Christians is to stay faithful in the face of them. For Anglicans, this is about remaining rooted in the life of the parish, contributing to the building up of community — which is what the churches in this book are doing. Whether the current strategies of the national Church are helping them to do that or diverting their time and attention is a moot point.
The Revd Dr Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.
Fuzzy Church: Gospel and culture in the north of England
Nigel Rooms and Elli Wort
Sacristy Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30