TWO weeks before the members of the General Synod assemble in February, July, and this year, November, the Synod office releases the documents that will inform their debates. Just one look at the list encourages a high degree of respect for the members, who have only two weeks to absorb all this information. (Modesty, almost, prevents our mentioning the journalists who have to tackle the same task in a few hours or days.) Inevitably, elements of these various reports, accounts, and commentaries fail to be given the attention that they deserve. Thus, we are pleased to bring into the light once more a few sentences found in the report entitled cheerfully Revitalising Parishes for Mission. Clergy, it says, “even though they are doing ministry in a local context . . . are fundamentally impacted by the institution of which they are a part. Narratives of growth and success need to take account of parishes where, for good demographic reasons, significant numerical growth is unlikely, and where this can at times be experienced as implicitly critical.”
We are used to hearing this caveat. In the midst of a presentation on church growth, a report will mention, or a speaker will volunteer as an aside, that growth can be spiritual as well as numerical. They then go back immediately to their main narrative, which assumes, as does this latest report to the Synod, that numerical growth is none the less what is demanded of the Church — although, to be fair, the report adds: “Clergy of parishes which are already vital, and are also small and poor, need to be reminded that they are seen and valued, and that their parishes are inherently valuable in the economy of the Kingdom of God. Our theology must continue to cherish the small and the fragile: ‘a bruised reed he will not break.’” These are important sentiments, especially at this time, although we would have preferred to lose the assumption that something small is necessarily fragile. Until now, many congregations have just been small: small and healthy. The fragility comes when national expectations — framed by financial and staff shortages — decide that small is no longer beautiful.
The Christian faith carries with it the compulsion to spread the good news of Christ. The delight, comfort, and vitality that comes with a life lived in Christ is impossible not to share, even if many believers need encouragement from time to time to open up about their faith. But what cannot be presumed is the reception that such news will have on its hearers. How the gospel is received is entirely up to the Holy Spirit, and there is little in scripture to suggest that the Spirit measures success by church attendance and the paying of the parish share. Christ’s examples at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel — feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick and the prisoners — remind us that church growth is an unlooked-for consequence of discipleship, not its object.