With over 85 million estimated members spread across 165 countries, Anglicanism is widely considered to be the third largest Christian communion in the world. According to at least one metric, the Communion has doubled in size over the course of the last 50 years. There is a familiar story to be told here: growth in the global South, decline in the secular West. After all, most Anglicans today are not Westerners, and there have never been fewer self-identified Anglicans in UK countries than in the present moment.
Indeed, Anglicanism seems to have taken on the role of archetype for this story. Between the lines of popular traditionalist laments and secular liberal exultations is the same sense of inevitability. The respective spirits of progressive culture and traditional Christianity are like-poled magnets: they repel. This is the moral of the familiar story, as headlines continue relentlessly to highlight divisive issues such as homosexuality, trans rights and women’s ordination.
Diocese of London's first female bishop, Rt. Rev. Sarah Mullally.
image: Diocese of Exeter
An unfamiliar story?
Quibbles about data accuracy aside, this common explanation has its fuzzy edges. Remarkably, the Diocese of London, of all places, seems to be one such fuzzy edge. At least one striking fact that is little known outside of Anglican circles confirms the point. Between the early 1990s and 2010, a period of precipitous decline in UK churches overall, adult membership in the London Diocese rose by a staggering 70 percent. Nor is there any visible fatigue in more recent years for the unicorn-like community. In fact, an effort initiated in 2013 entitled “Capital Vision 2020” aims at nothing less than establishment of 100 new worshipping communities in the diocese by the year 2020.
The question for Anglicans and other mainline Protestant denominations is obvious. What is going on in London? Is the diocese a test case in what some sociologists identify as the growth factor that is “contrarian conservatism” in otherwise liberal mainline churches? Or is London different?
It is difficult to say. On the one hand, it is true that London has been relatively resistant to reform, notably on the issue of the ordination of women. Just weeks ago, however, the diocese named its first female bishop in Rt Rev Sarah Mullally. Even if the Right Reverend herself recently said she was “delighted, if a little bit surprised” at her appointment, nevertheless she also reported that “the church is confident, growing, and a part of so many communities in and around the city.”
The hard work: London’s 2020 vision
If anything, a closer look at London’s Capital Vision 2020 reveals a spirit whose activity has little time for stagnant divisions. Along with an impressive existing infrastructure of community-oriented institutions led by clergy, one of the more interesting ideas kicked off in 2013 is its new “ambassador” program. Inspired by the apostle Paul’s exhortation (2 Cor. 5:20), ambassadors in the Diocese of London are laypeople who are commissioned publicly and formally to exercise a life of intentional service to Christ in their respective lives of work, family and leisure (among other things).
According to Debbie Clinton, a project manager for the ambassador initiative, the idea arose out of a sense of need for laypeople “to be more confident in living and speaking the gospel.” London ambassadors are bankers, care workers, digital artists, bouncers and full-time mothers – currently over 14,000 strong and growing. The goal is to commission 100,000 by 2020, an ambitious but obtainable goal given current growth patterns.
Another important aspect of the London strategy is the proliferation of “Church Growth Learning Communites.” This program organizes small, parish-specific groups of clergy and laypeople aimed at carving out spaces for self-reflection on all topics relevant to the future of the church’s witness to local communities. Committees are encouraged and expected to identify new opportunities for service and witness in parish communities “from the bottom up” – with voices directly informed by local experiences and challenges.
There is considerable financial commitment from the Church of England on this front, including most notably £4.8 million from a recent strategic development grant awarded in December. The money supports initiatives growing out of the learning communities, as well as the expertise and training to make them sustainable. Ultimately, such learning communities are the institutional “firepower” which lends support to the more individually based ambassador program.
Finally, clergy are also an integral part of the vision, as the diocese aims to increase ordinations by 50 percent over the next three years. £3.89 million has already been earmarked for the training of curates (“entry level” priests) at local theological colleges. Along with traditional subjects such as church history and systematic theology, candidates for ordination receive a rigorous, differentiated training in church leadership. In the standard curriculum for London Diocese ordinands at St. Mellitus College, for example, courses include “Developing Ministry and Mission in Context” and “Mission and Apologetics in Contemporary Culture.” According to the president of St. Mellitus, Rt Reverend Graham Tomlin, the vision is “50/50” – students spend half their time in the classroom and the other half in parish life.
Some traditional voices lament the loss of a more properly “academic” curriculum. The influential Anglican theologian John Milbank, for example, suggests that the true essence of
London’s growth is not with the “low church,” evangelical wing of Anglicanism but rather its rediscovery of its rich past. “One hopes that the Church of England by now realizes that it is growing most in London, the most modern part of England, through traditional parish and liturgical structures.”
Ultimately, it is difficult to account for the London phenomenon along such lines. Put simply, there is no “magic bullet” explaining growth and decline in Christian communities. In fact, arguably the most distinctive feature of Anglicanism has always been its desire to synthesize the evangelical fervor of the Reformation with the historic loveliness of catholic identity and worship.
Perhaps the church’s recent dynamism in London is best described by Rt Reverent Tomlin, who recently said that London’s mission originates from the worldwide church’s mission: “not with a decision by the church, but with the very being of God, who is missionary love, going out from himself in the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit.”
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