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Bums on Pews (Comment is Free – The Guardian)

It’s a common jibe that Holy Trinity Brompton, the big London evangelical church, is an upper-middle-class dating agency. The reason it stands out as one – and of course it does, like any social network full of people in their 20s and 30s – is that almost all the other Anglican congregations in London are the last places you’d go for a straight date of any class. Their congregations are either past breeding age, or off the market for other reasons.

So what makes HTB different? It’s certainly not theology. For one thing, most congregations aren’t in the least bit interested in it, which is why so many priests feel the need to lecture them all the time. Nor is it a lack of interest or energy on the part of the clergy. I am constantly astonished by the way in which the Church of England contains such a large number of clever, learned and dedicated people giving their lives to an institution that is none of those things.

To name three people in unglamorous jobs to whom I have talked in the past six months, Jane Freeman, canon at St Andrew’s Church in Wickford, Essex; Jessica Martin, priest in charge of Hinxton, Duxford and Ickleton; and Sheila Bamber, canon provost at Sunderland Minster – if their congregations aren’t growing, it’s not because of personal failings. And I believe the Church of England has some promising male clergy, too.

One theory that makes people laugh (the first stage towards becoming conventional wisdom) is that the church should simply sell off all the churches built between 1500 and 1900: if it’s not really old and beautiful, and can’t be easily heated, the building should become someone else’s problem.

But that was not necessary in the case of HTB, which has grown from some reasonably ugly Victorian buildings. So perhaps those churches to which their congregations are most attached should stay as they are and the problem lies elsewhere.

One answer seems to be that there is no one to replace the dedication and selfless labour that older women used to supply that kept the church going. Abby Day, an anthropologist in Canterbury, is doing a survey now on the last such generation of women, and they are all in their 70s. After that, the younger ones just didn’t have the time, or the sense of duty.

So the problem seems to be a shortage of young or even middle-aged people. The really interesting question is whether this is just an obvious symptom. Perhaps the real problem is the presence of the old.

When I talk to Anglican clergy about the frustrations of their work, the answer that comes back in a dozen forms is that the greatest difficulty is not with the outside world. It’s with their own congregations. I gave a talk on the apparent death of Christian England in the glorious medieval church at Evesham, and when I said that it was impossible to go back to the 50s or 60s, someone angry in the audience wanted to know why time travel wouldn’t work. That was what he thought the church should do, and must do if it was to get back to health.

Such an attitude is of course self-selecting. If the congregation is run by people who feel like that and who also pay, however inadequately, for the upkeep of the building, the vicar’s opinions are of little account. And no one who would like a church comfortable for the under-50s will ever feel at home.

In that case, the biggest threat to the future of the Church of England is in fact the congregations who now seem to hold all its remaining life.

What’s the relevance to HTB? Firstly, that its growth only started when the older sections of the congregation were packed off to a service of their own. Secondly that it was an urban church, with an available kernel of cultural Christians who wanted something less boring than they had grown up with – and who were, in the way of the upper-middle-classes, usually immigrants to London. Finally, church planting encourages and in fact demands from the young church planters the kind of lay commitment only otherwise shown by the generation of elderly women now dying out.

So the secret of getting new bums on pews may not be as simple as abolishing the pews themselves. It may be that you need to get rid of the old ones now in residence. Unfortunately, that’s only a start on the problem. It wouldn’t help to go that far and then get stuck.

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