Growing churches and flying buttresses

September 5th, 2016
by Chris

It would seem that the church in England has stopped declining, from this article. Others question whether this is a pause before Church of England attendance (at the least) falls off a cliff – there are a lot of regular attenders in most congregations who are over 70, often over 80, and they will not be there in 20 years, whereas most Anglican congregations have far fewer people under 30.

However, the growth talked about in the article is generally in the sub-30 year old group, and is most commonly the result of congregations either planted by Holy Trinity Church Brompton or which fit pretty well into the HTB mould. The primary vehicle of evangelism for them is the Alpha course, about which I’ve written quite a few posts (it isn’t used solely by Anglicans, several other denominations use it as well).

What we are seeing, in other words, is the replacement of the Anglican Church as it has been with a set of clones of HTB, and the main evangelical technology being the Alpha course (although most HTB style churches also do street evangelism and the non-talking type of evangelism which I favour, caring for the poor, sick, homeless and marginalised).

A little under five years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go along to a set of talks and discussions about aspects of faith and various features of the modern world (such as science) being held at St. Michael le Belfrey, York. This was an early foray into trying to connect with people again after several years of being “incurvatus in se” as a result of chronic, serious depression and chronic anxiety. I asked some pointed questions, and the organiser took me on one side after the last of that series of talks and asked if I’d like to attend an Alpha course.

Somewhat taken aback, I said I didn’t know – I had already attended one and a half Alpha courses some years earlier (I was invited to stop going to the second, ostensibly because I might become an “Alpha addict”, but more probably because I displayed no sign of stopping asking awkward questions, which was actually a mistake on their part because I was there as company for someone else who hadn’t done the course and who promptly stopped going…) and I said I would perhaps be a disruptive influence. The organiser said that was fine, Alpha welcomed discussion and my presence would allay his fears that no-one would ask any of the difficult questions. So I accepted – and then found that I was listed as a “helper”.

A week before the Alpha “Spirit weekend”, my depression lifted overnight – was this Godly intervention? My friends from the course certainly thought so. Was it because I’d been a member of a recovery community for six years? My friends there certainly thought so. Was it because my antidepressants had just changed? Possible, I suppose, but the effects shouldn’t have been seen for at least a week or two, and the effect was instant, at least within 8 hours. This enabled me to do what I’d been thinking about for some weeks, and actually attend a service at the church – and I carried on doing that until earlier this year, when a combination of circumstances made me wish for something closer to home.

St. Mikes fitted a lot of my wishes for a church. It was welcoming of everyone (even people like me with seriously nonstandard theologies), it did quite a bit of social gospel work and it had a cell group structure into which I slotted myself. I do massively better in groups of 5 to 10 than I do in larger gatherings, and I really like studying scripture and sharing interpretations of it and reactions to it.

Over the next three years I helped with another 7 Alpha courses, assuming that by “helped” you include not only the grunt work but casting some doubt in discussion on most of the apologetics used. However, the people running the Alphas changed, and with them went a positive wish to engage alternative perspectives. The previous Alpha coordinators went off to seminary (which may be a good sign for the future of the clergy!) and my home group disintegrated, with several members going off to other churches. It seemed that the season when it was right for me to be there had passed…

What I learn from the article I link to is that increasingly, Anglican churches are going to fit the mould of St. Mikes and its like. This is something about which I am a little ambivalent.

The plus side is that they are very welcoming to the “seeker” and the new member, at least initially, and in at least some cases are prepared to accept people with divergent theologies as long term members of their communities. They stand some chance, through Alpha, of markedly increasing the number of self-identifying Christians, and could at least conceivably provide congregations with the size and diversity to cope with a variety of styles of worship and, just possibly, even a variety of styles of theology – it would not need much tweaking of their structures to achieve the last of these, but might need a lot of tweaking of their attitude to theology. They also have enough young people to make social gospel endeavours practical (which by and large they are not for ageing congregations in expensive-to-maintain structures), and they definitely have the will to do that.

However, they have not at least so far, so far as I can see, implemented the changes which would be needed to accommodate variant theologies, and they are producing significant numbers of people who think that “The Gospel” is basically just Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I can recall the confusion caused in one young and enthusiastic ┬áchurch worker when I said I didn’t much like PSA, and he said “but that’s the Gospel…”, so I outlined another six or seven atonement theories to him and pointed out that none of them was actually part of any of the Anglican statements of faith.

The sponsorship by churches in the HTB mould of new seminaries such as St. Melitus (mentioned in the article) and St. Barnabas (my more local version) seems to me likely to produce generations of “ones size fits all” theologies in clergy, and it has definitely seemed to me that St. Mikes was moving in that direction.

And I have difficulty feeling at ease in such a congregation, as do a lot of people who would now describe themselves as “post evangelical”, “liberal” or “radical”. Unless they are open to the idea that people may have very differing theologies from the standard evangelical rubric, they will continue to make uneasy, alienate or exclude all of these strands of Christian thought, and by and large, however apparently welcoming of variant viewpoints they may be in Alpha discussions, at root they are not open to this; the way is extremely narrow which leads to salvation for them (Matt. 7:14) rather than the father’s house having many mansions (John 14:2) or Jesus having other flocks (John 10:16).

Looking to the future, then, what is going to become of those whose thoughts either start to move beyond the evangelical model or which cannot bring themselves anywhere close to it in the first place? Are there going to be no churches, or even no communities, where they can find a home, at least not within Anglicanism – and the same may well apply to Christianity more generally?

I suppose that to some extent, this post is a lament. For many years I used to say that in respect of the church, I was like a flying buttress – I supported it, but from outside. For a while with St. Mikes, I felt more inside than outside – and now I feel outside again.

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