Renewal and Reform -Questions

Reading an article in the Church Times on the topic of Renewal and Reform has left me with questions. To recap what the initiative known as R and R refers to, (for the benefit of non-British readers) it is a scheme which has been put in place by the Church of England to promote growth in the dioceses. The initiative, because it may stem heavy losses in Anglican church attendance, has attracted quite large sums of money from the Church Commissioners. In some places the money has been used to facilitate church planting. Church planting is a controversial activity and it involves a large active ‘successful’ church sending out a number of its own group to form the nucleus of a new congregation elsewhere, sometimes in another part of the country. Sometimes this new congregation is set up within an existing ecclesiastical parish. On other occasions a parish church, thought to be on its last legs, is effectively taken over by a new influx of people coming in from outside the area.

The new congregations, the church plants, are often placed in areas that might struggle to attract viable numbers of people to support the buildings. The individuals sent to start these new churches tend to be made up of largely young people. The demographic of 18 to 30-year-olds also seems be the group most attracted to these new congregations. As might be expected, the worship styles offered at these new church plants will have lively music and they will also take care of the community needs of their young clientele. I have no personal knowledge of any of these church plants except I heard some comments made about a congregation imported into Norwich city from HTB (Holy Trinity Brompton) in London. This new plant alienated some of the existing congregations by the way that it hoovered up many of the young people who had been attending other churches in the city. This particular plant was, in short, being accused of poaching existing Christians rather than being a place for evangelism of the hitherto unchurched residents of Norwich.

Most church plants seem culturally to belong to charismatic wing of the Church of England. But the question that occurs to me whenever I look at one of these congregations, even from afar, is whether they are catering for any age group apart from the young. The age profile of most of these congregations seems to be the same, 18 -30. It was always said about a large successful charismatic congregation in Edinburgh, popular with students, that the average age was about 27/28. During the 7 ½ years that I was in the city, this average age never varied. I remember having a conversation with someone about this never changing average age issue. What happens to those who are 35 and over? The answer seemed to be that because the culture of the church no longer suited the older group, they moved on elsewhere. As far as I know no one has done any research on this question of what happens to people who spend 10 years or so as part of a lively charismatic congregation. What are their reflections on that experience? What do they take with them from that exposure if they move on into another sort of congregation, assuming they still want to remain part of the church? I would suspect that many people who have passed through the lively, growing and dynamic congregations of places like HTB have quite different spiritual and social needs when they settle down with families. Do some of them look back at the charismatic stage as being part of the experience of youth, like being a student? I would love to know the answer to these questions. I suspect that were the answers available, they might not be quite as helpful to the future of the Church in England as many of our leaders think. It is easy for a bishop to see a lively congregation and feel that because of the levels of enthusiasm being expressed there that this is the future. They see a lively institution but not the actual individuals within it. What works for a cohort of what is known of emerging adults may not in fact be any realistic solution for the totality of the church-going population of Britain. That is the possible weakness of a perspective that wants to plough considerable sums of money into promoting manifestations of church life that are not congenial to all.

Speaking for myself I have found that my spiritual needs have varied over the years. While my young self would have tolerated noise and spiritual excitement of the kind peddled by charismatic churches, the same cannot be said for my older (hopefully wiser) self. Perhaps I speak for many of my age group when I say that noise and loud music in worship is now a complete barrier to any encounter with the spiritual. I am far more likely to be stirred into spiritual receptivity by silence, possibly enhanced by some visual component. I recently read the blog comments that I made a year ago at Christmas. I then pointed out that Christmas is a festival which makes extensive use of pictures and visual symbols. We have presented to us pictures of an ancient story -cribs, angelic choirs and journeying wise men. All these pictures draw us into the mystery of Christmas. In the contemplation of the visual symbols of Christmas, we do not have ‘correct’ interpretations. We find the divine realities implicit in these images touching each of us in their own way. I find, in fact, the heart of Christmas in the words of the carol – how silently how silently, the wondrous gift is given. The nature of the Christmas gift does not have a precise identical content for everyone. Rather it is a gift that needs to be unwrapped by each of us and its substance will vary as we are varied. God is offering to come into our lives. He is, by coming into our world, offering to come into our hearts. How we receive God in the form of Jesus is our lifetime Christian project. We will need at each stage of our life a slightly different key to unlock that presence. Our churches need to provide help to all its members to be open to the reality of God at every stage of their lives, from childhood to extreme old age. Let us never be tempted to cater only for a single age group, but attempt to see Christian life as a changing and evolving whole.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “Renewal and Reform -Questions

  1. This is a great post. I get so impatient with people who are aiming only at one age group. God loves old bats, too! Mind you, the phrase “Church planting” is also used for just setting up new “ordinary” churches. 50 years ago, my in-laws planted a church that met in the school and is now in a church building with a saint’s name and a vicar!

  2. Thank you Athena. I have done some ‘editing’ in the comments. What puzzles me is why no one discusses age related issues in church culture. Common Worship preserved the 1662 service, presumably for the elderly, but the culture of age is much bigger than that. I could give a list of the things that appeal to me as an older person. Some I have mentioned like silence. Others I could add like attention to reason, tolerance, openness and an intelligent not knowing all the answers. Although I am not a fan of ‘modern’ music in church, I am not terribly keen of many of the older hymns, especially when we sing all the verses. I am not suggesting there are easy answers to age-related church culture, but I do’t see much discussion of it either.

  3. Thanks for an interesting post. I have attended Charismatic versions of UK church since birth. More recently however, I find myself longing for something more reflective and less structured. I can find many reasons for this change – I am now 42, I have recently experienced deep pain and loss as a result of being bullied by a leader of a pentecostal church and I have been studying for a Masters in Counselling at a Christian college. These are all factors in my changing spiritual needs. I also think there is something about maturity and development. James Fowler’s thoughts about faith development have definitely resonated with me. Also Richard Rohr’s writing about the second half of life. As an older and potentially wiser person, I am more able to hold a faith of paradox and mystery and less attracted to the black and white thinking I’ve encountered in most charismatic environments. In my experience the charismatic world can also be determined in its denial of pain and suffering, something which has always niggled but now becomes more of a deal breaker.

    I wonder if the over 35’s eventually walk away from institutional church all together? I’m definitely less engaged than I used to be.

  4. Welcome to our blog Joy. I have been writing the blog for people with your sort of background but few of your cohort seem to find us. I am aware of large numbers of people that have been harmed by the church but most of them become invisible following their experiences. If they retained their visibility then the churches might have to wake up to the existence of bullying and abuse.

    I am interested in your reference to James Fowler. Somewhere back in my blogs I have discussed his ideas. One of my frustrations is that although my ideas about people growing beyond the charismatic phase at 35 or so, the research into people growing older with regard to their faith, is all American. It does not seem to pick up this idea at all. So it remains a theory based on hunches and, to my mind, observable common sense. Your path fits this ‘hunch’ pattern. I shall check out Richard Rohr but if you have any other authors who confirm your personal faith trajectory, I shall be interested to hear!

  5. Hello Joy, and Happy Christmas. I have heard of people who find charismatic worship too unstructured. And they find a home in something like the CofE, which is far from perfect, I might say. But they like the way the liturgy is thought out, and that the minister doesn’t just go off on their own! I hope you find a church that is right for you. It’s much easier being a Christian in company than alone.

  6. Hi, Stephen, and Happy Christmas. For the last three days, I’ve been trying to post comments and they have disappeared. It seems to have righted itself now. I tried to email you, and that didn’t work, either! Happy Christmas, to you and Frances.

  7. Thanks for the welcome Stephen and EnglishAthena.

    I agree Stephen, the majority of the literature is written from an American perspective and the UK experience appears yet to be charted. In my own small way I have tried to remain ‘visible’ but there are little rewards for doing so, which is perhaps why many simply disappear.

    I have also beneffited from Kathy Escobar’s book ‘Faith Shift’ (again American) which is not at all academic and a more accessible read. Carl Jung’s thoughts about the afternoon of life are also very interesting, although some may struggle with his theology!

    Personally, I have really appreciated Brian Thorne’s writings. He is an English person-centred therapist who is also Anglican. He comes under fire from both therapists and Christians for his views, but he has faithfully wrestled to remain committed to both ‘worlds’ – a journey I am now set to experience.

    I’m also exploring the impact of training to be a counsellor on the trainee’s faith for my MA research project. I think I will see a little of the faith development journey unfolding within my participants, but time will tell!

    Anyway, I should really now be engaging with family, so I may disappear for the festive period. I hope you all have a lovely few days.


  8. I appreciated the post, and welcome Joy indeed. Personally I long to find a church which aims to rescue people from hell (the gates of hell will not overcome it, Matt 16). A good aim for 2017.

  9. Margaret
    Hello Stephen, I have at last posted a comment.
    I am retired and have sat through so many dirges in church that I am so pleased that contemporary style music has arrived. Playing in a little church I have to report that all ages worship through a mix of modern and traditional music. I love the loud, powerful songs and enjoy quieter healing services or Taize evenings. Surely there must be a versatility in the C of E to provide different opportunities for worship.
    Thank you for the blog, as I have generally had good experiences in church, boredom has been my greatest issue. The HTB plant in Brighton is drawing crowds of young people from the universities. I attended a few times and there are older people there, those that can cope with the loud music! I was impressed and loved the music.

  10. Thank you for your contribution Margaret. As you saw I entitled my piece with the word ‘questions’. I believe that we do need to ask what people can put up with culturally in the church at the different stages of life. Some of us are musical and some not. The older unmusical person will probably shrink from a noise where they are overwhelmed with the rhythm of the beat. Whatever musical quality there may be, and there may be some, is not going to enhance the experience of worship for many people. It is not a right-wrong issue – it is about sensitivity to many different needs. At present the balance has tipped over to promoting a culture more favoured by the young. If the older people are alienated by what they are offered in church because of a cultural dominance of a particular style, then everyone is poorer. There is much to say but we will probably return to it at some point.

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