Scott Anderson on the possibilities for renewal and growth
It took several centuries (in what historians used to call the Dark Ages) to convert Britain to Christianity, but it has taken less than forty years for the country to forsake it. For a thousand years, Christianity penetrated deeply into the lives of the people, enduring Reformation, Enlightenment and industrial revolution by adapting to each new social and cultural context that arose. Then really quite suddenly in 1963, something very profound ruptured the character of the nation and its people, sending organised Christianity on a downward spiral to the margins of social significance. In unprecedented numbers, the British people since the 1960s have stopped going to church, have allowed their church membership to lapse, have stopped marrying in church and have neglected to baptise their children.
The Death of Christian Britain – Callum Brown
During 2003 I was fortunate enough to have a two month sabbatical. I set myself the question, ‘How do Anglo-Catholic parishes decline and grow? In the course of those two months I spent six weekends in five parishes and one religious house; I wrote a diary; I read and re-read books and articles on evangelism and church growth from different Christian traditions; I reflected on my own experience as a priest in five parishes over nearly thirty years.
A Background of Decline
Catholics sometimes feel depressed: on the one hand we face the cynicism and growing hostility of a secular society (pretending to be a place where every faith is respected) and on the other the confident spin of some Christians that revival is always just round the corner.
Between 1990 and 2000 Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Methodists all declined; Pentecostals remained the same and Baptists grew slightly (Jackson, Hope for the Church, p14).
If the present rate of decline in Sunday attendance in the CofE continues at the same rate, then by 2030 there will be 500,000 adults and just 50,000 children in the whole country. If those numbers represented a body which was united, with a clear vision, agreed and strictly limited goals, and flexible resources (especially buildings and finance), we could re-convert England. But on present projections we shall be tiny, elderly congregations, desperate for money and struggling on in huge unmanageable buildings
But decline is patchy, and some congregations are showing remarkable growth in numbers and spiritual maturity. During the sabbatical I saw some congregations which were growing, some which were facing up the facts of change and working to grow instead of decline, and others which were declining. Some parishes which are declining do not know why. Some think it is inevitable and that nothing can be done. Some look enviously at growing neighbours, but do not know how to learn from them. If we can understand why, then we may be able to convert decline into growth. But to do that will involve a deep conversion of heart and many sacrifices. This conversion and sacrifice will affect the laity just as much as the clergy.
Plant and Parishes
The CofE has maintained a parish pattern in which the parish church serves the area in which it is set, regardless of whether people go to church or not. Catholics have understood this as expressing the doctrine of the Incarnation. We tell the story of the old French priest in his inner-city parish with his tiny congregation. ‘Why do you stay?’ asks the young man’. ‘To keep alive the rumour of God’ is the answer. Some believe now that continuing this sort of ministry is breaking us.
Many of us inhabit huge Victorian buildings, usually paid for in the past by wealthy benefactors. But the local community no longer (in urban parishes) sees that building as theirs. For the time being such ‘ownership by the community’ continues in the countryside, but not for much longer. The money which was once raised for the building now has to go for the clergy salaries (a hard lesson for most English Anglicans). At a time when our numbers are falling, we are called on to raise massively more money than we have in the past. That we have continued to do so is remarkable.
How does your garden grow?
Consider now how the Church grows. Until the 1960s the principal way was through biological growth. Christian parents brought their children for baptism, then Sunday School, Confirmation, Guilds and Youth Club; then they married (in church) and brought their children for baptism…
Even though numbers were slowly declining during the first half of the twentieth century, Anglo-Catholicism grew through transfer growth. This happens when Christians move from one parish or denomination to another. It is probable that the current claims of growth in Pentecostal Churches are the result of transfer from other denominations. Restoration growth is what Roman Catholics usually mean when they talk about evangelizations; it means recovering lapsed Roman Catholics.
Conversion growth occurs when an atheist or a Buddhist, say, hears the claims of Jesus Christ (evangelization), experiences a change of heart (conversion) is baptized (effective sign of conversion) and begins to live the Christian life (result of conversion).
Biological growth has slowed almost to a standstill in Britain. Yet we are still uncertain (and maybe unwilling) to work with new forms of growth which require new attitudes and new methods. Yet I discovered that when a parish does begin to find out how to grow, the laity become excited, thankful and enthusiastic. (Sometimes even the priest does, too, though some can’t quite believe that they are growing.) The gossip after Mass changes from moans about the heating to happy stories of achievement. People stop blaming each other, and tell of what together the congregation is doing. Money and buildings no longer dominate meetings and seem to be under control. God gets a look in, and we start to talk about his goodness, and his will for us. The question is, where and how are Anglo-Catholics most likely to grow, and are we resourcing the most likely growth areas, or clinging to the least likely?
If Anglo-Catholics would renew their movement, for mission and witness, then they must unite around a three-fold cord: the Eucharist, the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.
Christians celebrated the Sunday Eucharist before the formation of the New Testament; they risked reputation, property and even life to celebrate it; we must celebrate it because it is how the world will know that Jesus Christ is risen and death is conquered. No wonder every atheist revolution has attempted to ‘abolish’ Sunday. In each growing church that I visited the Eucharist was clearly special, and I observed this in the sense of anticipation, as the congregation gathered. In the grandest and most formal of all the Sunday Masses I saw, there was total, prayerful silence for a full five minutes before 11 o’clock. In two modern buildings the gentle singing of choruses stilled us with the sense of the real presence of God coming among us.
Anglo-Catholics must become immersed in the Scriptures. This begins with the Sunday Eucharist. In one church the scriptures were superbly read, and the whole congregation engaged with the preacher, clearly listening and enjoying the homily. At Mass in a university town I found that a group met for an hour after Mass to apply the meaning of the Sunday readings for the coming week. In a smart suburban parish and in an inner city, black majority congregation, the laity prayed the psalms from the Divine Office with the clergy.
The third strand of renewal lies in prayer for the Holy Spirit. Catholics believe in the Holy Spirit: we believe that the Spirit transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus; that the Holy Spirit enables lay people to work miracles and bishops to teach the truth. Some of the most impressive Catholic laity I have met (all deeply orthodox) had been touched by renewal and they spoke of their relationship with Jesus Christ and their longing to share the faith with power and grace.
A to Z for the PCC
This three-fold cord of renewal – which is distinctive to Catholics in its emphasis on the Eucharist, but draws on the insights of the Evangelicals with the Scriptures and the Charismatics in the work of the Holy Spirit – is perhaps the most important key to Catholic growth. This three-fold renewal will be worked out in ten signs of growth. These signs provide a programme for parish renewal and a check list for the Church Council and Annual Meeting.
Countering Decline Mentality
There are many issues which Catholics will need to face as they confront decline (and the decline mentality) and work for growth in their congregations. Many of our congregations are small (40–80 people) and in urban, working class areas – areas of low achievement, where life is fragile. The pattern of clergy, lay leadership team, and congregation, which we read about in the growth books may not work for us. One priest suggested another model which may be closer to our experience. In this model the priest may be the only professional, and he is assisted by the ‘encouragers’ (who encourage him, and encourage their fellow laity to help, but do not themselves feel able to take more than limited initiatives) Then come the ‘willing helpers’ who do all they can, if they are led throughout the process. Both groups minister to the ‘customers’, who are the people who come often or occasionally to Mass, but who receive what the Church has to give them, with little input from them.
In this way of ministering the leadership of the priest is, rightly or wrongly, key to every level. He is in close relationship with everyone, which is why our churches probably cannot grow beyond 100 people. My guess is that spectacular growth in numbers is far more likely in areas where the congregation is articulate and professional – middle class – whether it be Catholic or Evangelical. Most models for growth are much harder to work in UPA parishes.
One of our bishops asked me this question and then answered it: ‘How does a church grow from 120 to 250? The answer is not a curate, but rather a change in structure and ministry.’ If we are to grow in spite of falling numbers of priests, then we need Catholic Lay Ministry Teams which are appropriate and effective for UPA Newcastle, rural Devon, and upwardly mobile Islington. One model does not fit all.
More and more I am convinced that the renewal and empowering of the Catholic laity is the key to our future. A young Muslim convert referred to one of his friends thus: ‘He’s not a hot Muslim.’ Hot Muslims are proud of being Muslim. They wear the headscarf, keep Ramadan and daily prayer times. What are hot Anglo-Catholics like? I found a handful of them in every growing parish – effective, believing, devout, motivated laity. What is the alternative life-style that makes us proud to be Anglo-Catholic? It has nothing to do with the minutiae of ceremonial, but everything to do with the Catholic approach to sex, relationships, marriage and the family, celebrating the Sunday Eucharist, how you make your money (and spend it), reading the Bible and adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and going to confession. What is this Catholic way of life for the twenty-first century?
A Post-Tractarian Future
Modern life is very busy. It often crowds out the really important things with a whole host of things which it insists we must take notice of. That happens in church, too. That’s why we need places like Walsingham where we can find time and space to be with God. It has to be extreme. As a priest said some years ago, ‘We want it to scream at people because it’s saying something extraordinary, that God took flesh.’ Walsingham defies all the attempts to banish God from England.
We must come to terms with the end of the Tractarian Revival, the Oxford Movement and Ritualism. We are ‘post’ all of them. We are no more Tractarians than we are Non-Jurors. We must find a fresh identity and a new way of living the Catholic Faith today.
Scott Anderson is the Vicar of St Andrew and St Francis of Assisi, Willesden Green, in the Diocese of London.
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Home Page