Signs of hope as church swells with new recruits

Times Newspapers Ltd

Ruth Gledhill
Published 23 minutes ago
‘Fresh expression’ is leading a Christian revival, says Ruth Gledhill
The Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in this week’s Radio Times, challenges the comic stereotype of the declining, hopeless church offered up by BBC2’s Rev. “The show amusingly depicts some of the challenges facing clergy up and down the country. But while it’s great entertainment, it doesn’t truly tell the whole story,” writes Justin Welby. “I have a friend who runs a growing church in Reading city centre, filled with young people with no church background; I have another friend who has had to plant two new churches because his congregation is bursting at the seams. As with all of life, the picture is complex, but I see plenty of struggle and plenty of grounds for celebration. Therefore, while Rev is great viewing, it doesn’t depress me quite as much as you might think!”
Bishops and archbishops can sometimes appear in deep denial about the Church of England’s seemingly perpetual decline over many decades. The latest Census figures show that numbers declaring themselves Christian fell from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011. Yet new research, some of the most thorough ever done on the Church of England, is starting to tell a different story. The Church, crucified by so many on the altar of modern secularism, is in danger of undergoing a bodily resurrection.
A new church named after one of the Church of England’s oldest martyrs tells the tale. Just outside the M25 between Oxford and London, a handful of people who started in a rented house in Beaconsfield found and acquired a derelict farm nearby. They repaired the barns. Named after Hugh Latimer, who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555 for his Protestant preaching, Latimer Minster fits a model common in Britain before the parish system.
The model comes from the earliest missionary communities in the British Isles, organised to teach and evangelise and often including farming, crafts and hospitality. It is “a form of outward-focused monasticism”, says Frog Orr-Ewing, the rector. Young ordinands in the Church of England are queuing up to serve there. Latimer’s is an example of how “fresh expressions” phenomena are calling a halt on the long-term decline in church attendance, and, in some places, actually setting it on an upward trend. In two years, numbers have grown to between 150 and 200 attending during the week and on Sunday are bursting out of the barn. Latimer’s ordered a big top, due to be delivered next month. Many are meeting weekly in smaller groups around Buckinghamshire in what are being termed small “pastorates”, functioning groups of Christians living in community who know each other well.
“The idea is to identify leaders of smaller groups who will form groups of confident believers, people who will not retreat into some little cosy Christian subculture but will engage with the real world. They then will also spawn other little groups,” explains Nancy Gifford, of the Oxford Centre for Apologetics. “ Latimer’s has everyone from builders, those seeking work, to sporting champions, venture capitalists, civil servants, teachers and workers for NGOs.”
As with Holy Trinity Brompton, the founding church of the phenomenal evangelical success story that is the Alpha Course, key ingredients of Latimer’s success seem to be prayer, food and, perhaps most important of all, a strong sense of community.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Right Rev Stephen Cottrell, who has one of the most diverse dioceses in the country, from the East End of London to rural Essex, has embraced these new forms of church. He says: “We are pretty confident we have stopped declining. We are suddenly starting to see a really significant impact on the overall figures.” In his diocese, about 2,000 people are in one of these new forms of church on a Sunday morning. His research shows that for every two existing churchgoers involved in starting one of these, eight new people have joined. Of these, three might be lapsed and returned, but five are new. “Churches are a lot more optimistic than they have been,” he adds.
In a project funded by the Church Commissioners, Canon George Lings of the Church Army has researched and analysed the “fresh expressions” phenomena. He chose ten dioceses and found 20 types of these new churches, the most common being messy Church, child-focused church and café church. Messy Church is a family-focused form of worship that is more or less what it says on the tin. There are a lot of children and they create a lot of mess. More than 500 fresh expression churches have been started since 1992 in the ten dioceses studied, nearly half in the last three years, and most are still going. “If these figures prove typical, then across the Church of England there could be about 2,000 genuine fresh expressions of Church,” says Dr Ling. “In seven out of the ten dioceses, what they add in numbers equates to reversing the decline in the average weekly attendance figures in those dioceses over the years 2006-2011.”
To reflect the changing nature of church attendance, the Church of England has introduced a new measure to its annual statistics: “worshipping community”. On average, one million people attended church each week in 2012, the average being 30 in rural parishes and 100 in urban areas. The past decade has seen almost no change. The first worshipping community figure, measuring those who turn up at least once a month, also came in at about one million. The number of people joining the Church in 2012, 38,000, exceeded those leaving. The churches most likely to be in decline are those with no children. Nearly half of all churches have fewer than five people aged under 16.
Dr Bev Botting, head of research and statistics at the Church of England, reports that half of the church’s 10,000 parishes are stable, one quarter are in decline and a quarter are growing. New research is being commissioned to find out what makes the difference, and why. “We know that there is a numerical link between the number of children and whether a church grows or not, but we have not proven yet whether one causes the other.”
It’s too early to say for sure, but as another Easter approaches, it seems as though God really might not be dead after all.

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