Last week the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, the Right Rev’d Josiah Idowu-Fearon, was quoted in the Church Times as saying that Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course were ‘shining lights’ in the Church of England. The Secretary-General was, no doubt, seeking to reassure other provinces that the Church of England is serious about mission and evangelism. Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course were held up not only as ‘shining lights’ but, as models of success.
Idowu-Fearon is of course correct. Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha have both been ‘successful’ in bringing people ‘to Christ.’ However, just because they have been doesn’t mean that they will continue to be for, as they say in the investment management industry, ‘past performance is no guarantee of future performance.’ That being said I would want to endorse the ‘success’ of this church and its famous course; irrespective of whether you like its ecclesiology and theology it has been ‘successful.’
Other forms of church have also been ‘successful.’ Cathedral worship has also grown. Maybe they have both grown (Holy Trinity Brompton and similar churches alongside cathedrals) because what they offer is a highly intentional ecclesiology. They know their character and their character is expressed through their worship. If this is true it maybe a source of hope for other churches. I suspect that intentionality in ecclesiology is a key characteristic of numerical growth.
My problem with the notion with Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course being singled out as the primary, or even sole, examples of success is that is two-fold: First, it seems to conform to a cultural narrative which prizes, endorses, and celebrates the large and the powerful whereby size becomes the arbiter of success. Secondly, it feels a little like looking only at the tip of the iceberg. Below the tip of the iceberg can be found many ordinary suburban, market town, and rural churches that are highly effective in mission. My suspicion is that these churches possess two distinct characteristics: an intentional ecclesiology and pastoral sensitivity.
I am not claiming that small is always beautiful. I know that many small churches struggle and, that providing ministry into our smallest communities isn’t straightforward. I hope that I am neither naive nor romantic. However, I am claiming that many of our suburban, market town, and rural churches are ‘shining lights.’ The tragedy is that we simply don’t hear enough about them and their success as ordinary parish churches. Their light is kept well and truly under the proverbial bushell.
A deeper tragedy also exists for it is these churches that are most frequently starved of resources. I recently conduced a highly qualitative survey among clergy in my diocese with responsibility for churches with an average Sunday attendance of between thirty-five and one hundred and twenty. These churches are asked to contribute per head of worshiper between £475 and £950 to parish share. The very large, essentially gathered, HTBesque churches, in large towns, by contrast, are asked for a vastly reduced offering (between £290 and £350 per head of worshiper on my rough and ready calculations.) This gives rise to two questions: who is subsidizing who and, much more importantly, do the formulas used for the collection, allocation, and distribution of resources actively mitigate against the ability of small-medium to medium-sized churches to grow? I think they do!
As the rector of a multi-parish benefice which comprises a small market town (circa 5.5k pop with average Sunday attendance in the region of 110-120), a village and, a hamlet I am unable to fund ministries. In an ideal world I would like to be able to fund a youth worker, or an old persons worker, or other forms of ministry, just like the ‘shining lights,’ but I can’t. I can’t for the simple reason that there is nothing left after the payment of parish share. My strong belief is that many of our structures and formulas act as a squeeze on the middle, the consequence of which is to act as a break on mission.
Many ordinary churches are shining stars, they really are. The tragedy is that because they operate below the surface of the metaphorical iceberg their success isn’t recognized and, their efforts aren’t resourced.