Tag Archives: Affirming Liberalism

Are the Only Growing Churches Evangelical?

Last weekend was the second Affirming Liberalism Day Conference in a rather wet Oxford. As with the first conference I went along both as an interested participant, and also with a technical hat on to record the two sessions.

I uploaded both sessions to the website earlier in the week, and thanks to Dave Walker we got some promotion for them on the Church Times Blog, and I’ve even managed to get them set up in the iTunes Podcast directory!

What is interesting is that on the day, most people I spoke to seemed to prefer the first session – Why the Scientific World View Confirms Liberal Christian Faith, whereas the session that has generated more interest (and hits) online, and has generated discussion, is the second session – Why Liberal Churches are Growing, indeed it was the title of that talk which Dave Walker used to caption his posting.

Not surprisingly, the talk, which was provocatively named given the prevailing wisdom on the subject has produced an inevitable response in the comments on the Church Times Blog:

Liberal churches aren’t growing, they’re dying a slow painful death.

It’s the evangelical churches remaining faithful to the Bible preaching the Gospel of repentance and the coming judgement and hell which are growing.

Certainly the idea that it is only the conservative Evangelical Churches that are growing is a favourite line with the mainstream media. Indeed just this last week we had an interesting example doing the rounds, and highlighted by Church Mouse,  Chris Moyles talking about seeing a service from Kingsgate Community Church.

If you listen to what is said, traditional Churches are equated with being boring and irrelevant and out of date, whereas what is going on at Kingsgate Community Church is much more attractive with modern music and presentation.

The key thing to note though is that nowhere is theology mentioned – certainly the assumption is not made that Kingsgate is growing because it is “remaining faithful to the Bible preaching the Gospel of repentance and the coming judgement and hell”.

If you listen to the whole of the Martyn Percy lecture part way through he looks at evidence of what was important to Churches in the past, and his conclusion is that much as today, the primary interest of the average Church member is the state of the building, and whether they will get a priest. Whilst there are people for whom theology is important, it is way down the list behind the environment, the services (generally whether they go on too long), and the kind of welcome, as this article from Christianity Today highlights:

A Christian author, Rob Parsons has said to The Times newspaper, “It is not big doctrinal issues. Typical arguments take place over types of buildings, styles of worship, youth work. If not that, then they argue over the flower rota.”

If you look at a church like St James’ it is precisely the kind of church the comment on the Church Times Blog believes is “dying a slow and painful death” – but we’re not. In fact we are one of the fastest growing Churches in our Deanery, outstripping the growth of the nearby Conservative Evangelical church. Our electoral roll numbers over the past few years have on two occasions shown a 15% growth, and we regularly fill our building to capacity twice on a Sunday. As I have mentioned on this blog previously, at Christmas we now have to run one service four times on Christmas Eve to accommodate everybody who wants to come. When you look at our family roll, whilst there are now more people coming in from outside the parish, most people aren’t coming very far, generally only from the next door villages.

When you turn up at our Church, you won’t find a worship band, no glitzy presentation (our sound system is well and truly on our last legs), and you certainly won’t find anybody preaching about the coming judgement and hell. Having said that, when you look at some of the members of our congregation, you will find Christians who are from that tradition. Equally you will also find people who have come from strong anglo-catholic backgrounds and all points in between. What we have at St James’ is almost a representation of the classic definition of the Church of England in that we have evangelicals and anglo-catholics held together in a broad liberal Church that accommodates both.

So is St James’ an exception, growing despite the underlying theology? The Martyn Percy argument is that it isn’t. So in that case, what are we, and the other growing Churches doing?

I can only speak for St James’. Firstly we are not overtly trying to recruit people. We make sure our events are well publicised, and we deliver a newsletter to everybody in the parish twice a year, but we aren’t doing anything that could be described as evangelistic events, events that are specifically targeted to bring people in. Essentially we tell people what we’re doing, and invite them along, but we’re not preaching at people – what we do can easily be ignored.

Most people who join the congregation come to us either at random, having moved into the area, or via occasional offices such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, or through one of our associated organisations such as our babies and toddlers group, or the church school. We also have picked up people on personal recommendations – existing members bringing along friends or family.

By virtue of our small building, we can’t offer a one size fits all type service, so although our main Parish Communion is pretty middle of the road, we also have a very traditional BCP Matins that is well attended twice monthly, and on alternate weeks an informal service of the word targeted at young families. Whatever the service we try to ensure that everybody gets a warm welcome from the sidespeople, and to guide new attendees through the service. Most major services are also followed by traditional coffee and biscuits in the Parish Centre.

In my experience, the quality of the welcome, and the feeling of community is something that the growing Evangelical churches are accomplishing also, and also leaving the members feeling happy that they can invite friends. This is what we’re trying to do at St James’ as well. It seems to me that the churches that are growing are the churches that get this right, it’s not about theology, or the nitty-gritty of the message, it’s about the basics, basics that anybody can sort out. The whole church needs to learn how to evangelise in the modern world, and whilst some are successful, sadly large numbers of them are struggling to get it right.

A Day in Oxford

Under the Tower

This morning we were up rather early for a Saturday in order to catch a train at Wokingham station, heading off to Oxford for the inaugural Affirming Liberalism conference. Even taking into account the annoying sitting around on Reading station that any trip to Oxford involves, thanks to the chaotic situation traffic wise in the city, much as with London, it is still much easier and quicker to go by train.

The conference was being held in Trinity College, which is one of the smaller of the colleges and sits between the much more popular Balliol College on one side, and “Mr Blackwell’s shopâ€? – part of which is beneath one of the Trinity College quadrangles. The reason for the selection was that it had a nice little lecture theatre suitable for the expected sixty or so people. However since one hundred and forty people had booked, and we even had some people waiting outside to see if there were any people that didn’t turn up so they could get in, it proved to be a little small!

The initial idea, since there were now too many people for the lecture theatre was to have a video link-up between two adjacent lecture theatres. Unfortunately the technology failed on the day, so what happened in the end was that each speaker did their session twice, swapping between lecture theatres for the afternoon session.

We were in the main lecture theatre, so had Revd Dr Mark Chapman speaking about “Reclaiming Liberal Christianity� in the morning, and Revd Canon Professor Keith Ward speaking about “Why the Future Belongs to Liberal Religion� in the afternoon.

I have to say, that from my point of view, and especially on a Saturday morning, Mark Chapman’s session was pretty hard going. A lot of his session was talking about some of the history, in particular a lot of Victorian Church history, leading towards a look at where we are now. Thankfully he has written out his lecture, so it will be possible to work through what he has said in some detail once that has been published to the Affirming Liberalism site.

The afternoon session with Keith Ward was certainly more accessible from my point of view. Keith focused on seven points in his lecture – his proposition being that every single Christian should agree with some, or indeed all of them. Again, the content of the lecture will be published to the Affirming Liberalism site, so I won’t try and recap it all here.

In between the two sessions we had a service in the College Chapel, and a fantastic lunch – which served venison alongside a chicken and a fish dish. Interestingly, most people seemed to be going for the venison – I assume for a similar reason to me in that you don’t often see it on a menu!

Beth Finds the Shakespeare Department

We also took a walk next door during the lunch break, taking in “Mr Blackwell’s shopâ€?, where we took a look at the three miles of books downstairs, and also Beth had a real English Teacher moment when she discovered that the shop actually has a Shakespeare department!

The day seemed to be very well received amongst the attendees, with many looking forward to the next meeting. We had good support from across the Diocese and beyond (attendees from as far afield as Wales and Essex), and with the Bishop of Oxford himself putting in an appearance, and asking Professor Ward a difficult question or two. I’ve uploaded pictures taken during the day to Flickr, and will link to the transcripts of the sessions once these have been posted.

A Quiet Last Day? No Way…

Maybe it was optimistic to expect my last day before the Christmas Holiday to be quiet…

So far this morning:

  1. Last parcel from Amazon turns up having been damaged in transit – and probably no time to replace the damaged contents. Just waiting for Amazon to get back to me. Update: Just got an e-mail from Amazon – replacement items being despatched first class.
  2. After half a days worth of testing, we’ve found a trailing space in a bit of test data. Following a quick fix, as it is a fully validated system we have to go all the way back to the start of the tests and start again.
  3. Just had a call from one of my colleagues who should be on annual leave today. His team is doing an install in Cardiff and got to site to discover that they’d left the install CD that he’d put together for them at home.
  4. Had a moderation request from the Affirming Liberalism site – Peter Ould probably about as opposite in Anglican terms as you can get has linked to the site under the category “heresy” pairing it up with an unrelated video and a comment about growing liberal Churches seemingly implying that he doesn’t think there are any… Of course he’s most welcome to come along and visit St James – but he’d probably have trouble finding a seat, especially over the next couple of days.

Affirming Liberalism

I’ve just spent the evening sorting out a website for a new venture being organised by Rev Richard, our Priest-in-Charge at St James’. Called Affirming Liberalism, the intention is to support people on the liberal wing of the Church of England, primarily in the Oxford Diocese, but certainly not limited to it.

The network is due to launch with a day long conference, being held at Trinity College Oxford on February 9th. The two keynote speakers will be Revd Canon Prof Keith Ward and Revd Canon Prof Martyn Percy.

The site itself is a bit bare bones, just the basic statement of the principles and a posting about the conference – hopefully as things start to come together, more content will be uploaded.