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Love, Sweat and Tears: Church planting in East London by Tim Thorlby

April 14, 2016

LSATCall me old-fashioned, but we have a parish system in the Church of England – it boats about it.

But it has become trendy to set up churches in someone else’s parish or to take over an existing church.

The evangelicals are taking over with the blessing of the hierarchy. It’s been hailed a success, ten years after the first team from Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), moved into the East End.

This report from the Centre for Theology and Community said that five church plants since 2005 into existing churches in Tower Hamlets have boosted Sunday attendance from 72 to nearly 750, and the diocese of London’s coffers by more than £300,000.

The report chronicles the story of St Paul’s, Shadwell — where the 12-strong congregation was joined by a group of 100 from HTB in 2005 — and four subsequent church plants that have grown out of St Paul’s. I note that ‘communion’ is shunted away in an early slot.

The five parishes now have a combined attendance of almost 750. In 2004, they were paying 34 per cent of their Common Fund costs, but now cover 95 per cent. The report estimates that this has saved the diocese of London, which has backed the church-planting process throughout, about £300,000.

I warmed top this report when I discovered that. Angus Ritchie and Fr. Peter McGery, two good affirming Catholics, were involved.

“The narrative we are so often told by the media — and by some within the Church — is that our congregations are in terminal de­cline. Church planting is one of the ways in which, across the diocese, we’re telling a different story — that churches can have a new lease of life and flourish at the heart of Lon­don’s diverse communities.”

HTB gave a one-off grant to St Paul’s at the start, but, since then, the church plants have been self-sufficient financially. The report also suggests that little of the growth of these churches has been at the expense of neighbouring parishes.

A survey taken in October last year suggested that, although 80 per cent of the members moved to the churches from others, very few came from congregations near by in Tower Hamlets. One in five of the church members was either new to faith or returning to the Church after several years away. Further­more, 68 per cent of the regular adult attenders at the five churches currently volunteer in some way, many with existing charities.

The report describes the project as a success: “Hundreds of largely middle-class Christians who were living in east London but attending large churches in central London now regularly attend churches in east London. The Church in east London is better off. East London is better off.”

All four of the church plants that have come out of St Paul’s have involved mixing mostly middle- class and young Evangelicals with an existing congregation, often with a more Anglo-Catholic tradition.

Despite some inevitable frictions, the report concludes that it has been a positive process: a focus on reaching out to the local com­munity, uniting the two groups.

All  Hallows, Bow, is perhaps the only C of E church to pause for a cigarette break halfway through their service, the report suggests. St Luke’s, Millwall is eucharistically cented and holds a monthly “event for those in their twenties on the fringes of faith. (I note that it is gay-friendly but dpoesn’t do ther Eucharist very often)

Parish parties, including those offering halal food for Muslim neighbours, are a regular at All Hallows’. St Peter’s, Bethnal Green, also centred on the eucharist, has experimented with pop-up cafés and other initiatives to reach the East End’s “hipster” communities.

The experiment in Tower Hamlets has been so successful that the first Rector at St Paul’s, the Rt Revd Ric Thorpe, is now the Bishop of Islington, and is charged with leading the revival of church planting across the diocese of London and the wider Church (News, 6 March 2015).

He said: “There is much to learn and use [in this report] so that other churches can catch the vision to send plants and to invite plants, so that the wider Church can be revitalised and grow.”

Quotations:

FIVE CHURCHES, FIVE STORIES

St Paul’s, Shadwell was on the verge of closure in 2005 when new leadership and a large group of 100 new members was ‘sent’ by Holy Trinity, Brompton to give the church a new lease of life. After ten years, the church now has a regular Sunday attendance of over 250 and has enabled fresh starts in four more churches.

LSAT 2St Peter’s, Bethnal Green is now a ‘cross-tradition’ church incorporating both Anglo-Catholic and evangelical streams. The church entered into a partnership with St Paul’s, Shadwell in 2010 when a new Vicar and a small group of people from St Paul’s and elsewhere joined the church. The church has grown in the last five years and has a strong focus on ‘social transformation’ within its mission.

All Hallows, Bow has a lively, creative congregation which serves its local community through church, community centre and parties. In 2010, new clergy and a small group of people joined the very small existing congregation to give the church a fresh start. The church has been growing every year since.

The Parish of Christ Church, Isle of Dogs (which centres on the Parish Mass and says the Angelus) has a large resident population and two churches – Christ Church and St Luke’s. The Vicar and PCC invited St Paul’s, Shadwell to send a new minister and new congregation members to join the very small congregation of St Luke’s within their parish. The fresh start at St Luke’s began in 2013 and the congregation has grown from 15 in 2013 to 70 in 2015. The church meets in a community centre and works with Christ Church to serve the parish. In 2014, a new evening service was established at Christ Church, Spitalfields, the result of a partnership with St Paul’s, Shadwell and Holy Trinity, Brompton. The evening service is led by two new curates, each of whom led a group of people from their previous churches to join Christ Church. After a year the evening service has a regular attendance of over 120 people.

Hundreds of largely middle-class Christians who were living in east London but attending large churches in central London now regularly attend churches in east London. The benefits of this shift are fourfold:

It brings people, skills and resources to the parishes involved, allowing the renewal of the church buildings and communities and restoring the sustainability of these churches

It brings benefits to the local communities in terms of missional outreach (people coming to faith) and service (practical social benefits)

It brings benefits to the Christians now engaged in new kinds of service and ministry in east London amongst hugely diverse communities

It strengthens the parish system (‘a church in every community’) both directly and indirectly, by restoring some parishes and freeing up Diocesan resources to support other parishes in need

LSAT 3 Answers to criticisms:

1 THE CHURCH PLANT WAS UNDERTAKEN AGAINST THE WISHES OF THE ORIGINAL CONGREGATION

In two of the parishes, the incumbent himself took took the initiative to invite a partnership – Christ Church, Spitalfields and Christ Church, Isle of Dogs – and oversaw the partnership. In the other three parishes – St Paul’s, St Peter’s and All Hallows – the PCC was centrally involved in the discussions about whether a church plant would take place and gave consent. The church planting has enabled these churches to remain open.

2 WHEN THE CHURCH PLANT HAPPENED, THE ORIGINAL CONGREGATION LEFT

In all of the churches, nearly all of the original congregation members not only stayed but many are still members today. Most are very positive and supportive of the changes made.

3 THE NEW PEOPLE MARCHED IN AND CHANGED EVERYTHING

In all of the churches there was a strong degree of continuity in the traditions and Sunday services being offered. For example at St Peter’s and St Paul’s, their more traditional Sunday morning services are still running today and have increased congregations. It was clear from all of the stories that there was considerable discussion and consultation on all changes made, and that many of the changes were brought in over time, in stages.

4 ALL OF THE LEADERS AND NEW CONGREGATION MEMBERS ARE FROM HOLY TRINITY, BROMPTON

Of the five churches in this study, only three of their leaders were previously members of HTB – Ric at St Paul’s (who has now left), Adam at St Peter’s and Phil at Christ Church, Spitalfields. The other three clergy (Darren, Ed and Cris) came from other churches.A large proportion the newly expanded congregation at St Paul’s in 2005 were previously members of HTB, although 80 per cent were already residents of east London so not new to the area. Ten years later, only a minority of the congregation are former members of HTB. Of the four subsequent church plants, only one – Christ Church, Spitalfields – drew some of its new congregation members directly from HTB.

5 THE CHURCHES MAY HAVE GROWN BUT IT DOESN’T REALLY COUNT BECAUSE THEY ARE JUST CHRISTIANS MOVING FROM OTHER CHURCHES

Some 80 per cent of the regular membership of the five churches are currently people who have transferred from other churches, but 20 per cent are either new to the faith or returning to church after several years. That is equivalent of over 100 people on a typical Sunday morning attending church who were not previously attending church. It is likely that many of these are people who would not be attending church if it were not for these particular churches. They therefore provide added value by being located where they are and doing what they do. As the church plants and partnerships mature over time, one might expect this proportion to grow.

6 THE CHURCH PLANTS HAVE GROWN AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHER LOCAL CHURCHES WHO HAVE LOST OUT

The evidence from both the Snapshot Survey and also the interviews makes it clear that very few people have transferred from existing local churches to the church plants and that the impact of ‘displacing’ new incomers to the area from other churches is limited.

7 THE CHURCHES HAVE UNFAIR ADVANTAGES AS THEY ARE GRANTED FAVOURS OVER OTHER LOCAL PARISHES

The evidence tends to suggest the opposite is true. All of the church plants were asked to pay their Common Fund in full from the beginning of the initiatives and the data show that between them they now pay 95 per cent of their costs, compared to 33 per cent before the church planting. Most parishes would not consider this a ‘favour.’ In terms of receiving permissions for changes to buildings, etc., the same rules apply to all parishes.

8 THE CHURCH PLANTS ALL RECEIVE BIG SUBSIDIES FROM HTB

HTB supported St Paul’s with a one-off grant when it was established in 2005. Since then St Paul’s has paid its own way, largely through congregational giving. HTB does not provide any ongoing financial support.St Paul’s in turn has provided one-off start-up support, of varying amounts, to the subsequent church plants but does not provide ongoing support. Each parish aims to achieve financial sustainability and pay its own way.

9 THE CHURCH PLANTS DON’T REFLECT THEIR LOCAL COMMUNITY AND HAVE LITTLE CONTACT WITH THEM

All of the five parishes in this study are located in some of the most deprived and diverse communities in the UK, including the largest resident Muslim population in the country.The churches are mainly ‘hybrid’ in nature, with a significant number of locally resident members and some from further afield. The current membership does tend to be more ethnically white and wealthier than their immediate community but they are also very diverse in age, ethnicity and household income. This is a challenge shared by many Church of England parishes. ll of the churches actively and energetically engage with their local communities in providing practical support – either through the church’s own new initiatives or through church members volunteering within existing projects like Tower Hamlets Foodbank. The growth of these churches has delivered a boost to local social action work through the injection of new people, skills, time and money.

MANAGING CHANGE – “Honour the past, navigate the present and build for the future.”

Generally speaking, it is easy to overestimate how much can be achieved in the first year and underestimate how much can be achieved in the first five years. Perhaps don’t try to do too much in the first year. Building relationships takes time.

It is important to be open to change. Plans often need to be adapted and to evolve as circumstances change. It is important to keep listening and learning and respond to your context.

In any church there are likely to be aspects of church behaviour and tradition which are healthy and should be kept, some which are unhealthy and should be lost and some which do not really matter either way. The judgement required of a church leader is working out which is which. Where there are important changes that should be made, there is then a decision as to whether it needs to be changed immediately or whether it can be done in stages.

Much of the resistance to change in churches is not theological but cultural. Decisions about chairs instead of pews, or guitars instead of organs, or particular kinds of art are usually not matters of high principle in themselves but matters of personal preference. They can become significant when the decision says something about the church’s priorities or even about relationships, power or control in the church. Also, different groups of people may have surprisingly different implicit values which are not immediately obvious on the surface; misunderstandings are common in these situations as the ‘real’ underlying tension may not have actually been identified.

Managing change can be difficult and stressful, and even feel rather lonely. It can sometimes require strong leadership and a willingness to establish new patterns of behaviour.

Leadership requires a good degree of emotional intelligence and also spiritual discernment to help navigate the many relationships with the congregation as well as with neighbouring churches and their leaders.

The report is online here.

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