Church Commissioners spend £24m to ‘create 50,000 disciples’

Image: PIPS Parks Initiated Projects Swindon, Facebook

Comment by Andrew Brown

The Church of England is to spend £24m on projects that, it hopes, will produce 50,000 new churchgoers.

One priest whose diocese has benefited from the new funding said the cost for each new churchgoer was budgeted at £5,000 if all the targets for church growth were met.

The money comes from central funds at a time when churches and dioceses have been financially battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. In Essex, the diocese of Chelmsford, which last month announced it would cut 60 salaried priests out of 275, has been awarded £3m for a “resource church” in Newham, east London, along with three projects to help with social issues there, such as homelessness and drug abuse, and to set up a financial advice centre.

The thinking behind this strategy is that the church needs to respond to the threat of steadily declining and ageing congregations by finding new ways to reach younger people and those less middle-class. For evangelical supporters of these projects this represents a long-overdue change from the doomed and energy-sapping reinforcement of failure entailed in trying to support the current parish network. One model is supplied by a number of evangelical churches that have managed to grow at a time when most other parts of the church are shrinking.

Critics see much of the claimed success as illusory. They believe that most of the new congregation (or “disciples” as the C of E calls them) are simply taken from other churches and that evangelical zeal can put off as many people as it attracts.

Many of the planned projects are immune to this criticism. Some are deliberately aimed at the areas where the Church of England is weakest: among young people, council estates, and black, Asian, and minority ethnic groupings. In an earlier funding round, the Church Commissioners held up as an example a parish outside Swindon where the vicar, the Rev Linda Fletcher, had led to “a significant number of mostly single-parent mothers and their children coming to faith. Twenty-eight adults have been confirmed since 2013.” Perhaps more impressively, there is a service led by women from the estate and attended by 60 adults and children.

The latest grants suggest an emphasis on non-traditional ways of bringing people towards faith. The official definition of a “disciple” includes people who attend non-traditional services which need not be held in church buildings. Among the projects funded by the latest grants are several which involve support for music and the arts — in Manchester, which has received £5m, the Ascension Church in Hulme is to be revamped to make a venue for music and arts activities such as gospel choirs.

In Winchester, too, the money is being spent on social projects as well as arts and music. This looks a little like the efforts of the Anglo-Catholic movement 100 years ago, when ministry in the slums combined what would now be called social work with an emphasis on the aesthetic elements of worship.

What is not clear is how much effort has been put into measuring success and failure in the various projects. The use of central money from the Church Commissioners in this way is central to Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s plans to reverse the church’s long decline, which are grouped under the name of Renewal and Reform.

In conversations off the record, senior figures are clear that there is no single model that will work for every situation and that a great deal depends on the quality of leadership in all these projects. “Our fastest-declining churches are evangelical parishes that get a new vicar who is insensitive. One has lost 120 families in a year,” one bishop said.

The investments are also in part an attempt to get around the coming shortage of clergy, caused partly by age and partly by financial troubles of many parishes. It is not just the diocese of Chelmsford that is cutting the number of paid priests and trying to redeploy the ones it has most efficiently.

In Birmingham, where the evangelical London church Holy Trinity Brompton has one of its highest-profile church plants, the diocese last year announced that it would no longer try to ensure that there was a vicar for every parish. Instead, “every church will have at least one local minister, but that local minister may not be ordained, paid or full-time, though in many places having one minister who is all three will still be the norm”, according to the official statement of policy.

This emphasis on lay leadership may explain the use of the jargon “disciples” for the churchgoers that the new schemes are supposed to generate. In the most ambitious versions of the plan, each new disciple will themselves convert someone else, leading to a total of 100,000 disciples, all looking for new converts.