The Truth Shall Make You Odd

The myth of the Evangelical takeover

In this week’s edition of the Church Times, Angela Tilby published an article lamenting what is, in her view, an Evangelical takeover of the Church of England. She argues that it is no more apparent than in the Thy Kingdom Come initiative, spearheaded by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

But is the whole Church of England really the victim of some Evangelical coup? As someone who is Anglo-Catholic to the core of his being, I’m here to tell you to remain calm – it is not and I have a message for those who think it is: stop being a victim.

Back in November, I took a group of GCSE Religious Studies students to London, so that they could experience different kinds of worship, as required by the new course. It was a fairly obvious decision to pay a visit to Holy Trinity Brompton, the birthplace of the Alpha movement and one of the most vibrant and active churches in the Church of England.

When I called to ask if we might visit, they were delighted; when we arrived, the greeters on the door couldn’t have made us more welcome; when we found our seats (they’d reserved a whole corner just for us) the professional AV system was playing music and scrolling through the countless number of events to connect with in the coming week. The atmosphere was buzzing with anticipation and my students were hooked. If I’m honest, so was I.

The worship was predictable in its content (then again, so is a Common Worship Eucharist): worship songs, readings, sermon, Communion and prayer ministry. But oh my, did they sing the songs with passion and listen to the sermon with ears pinned back and receive Communion with reverence and ask for prayer with confidence.

Now, I know what some of you may be thinking: this is quick-fix faith, a religious shot in the arm, which requires ever-increasing doses to keep the feeling alive. The more authentic, slow-burn approach of the Church of England’s “middle of the road” is what will turn hearts and minds for the long term. Maybe. Maybe not. But we can’t hide from the fact that their churches are full. Perhaps it’s time we asked ourselves why that is and if there is anything we can learn from it.

There are all sorts of complex reasons why churches grow and shrink (sociological, spiritual, financial…) but I have been struck by two things that are present in churches that are growing: confidence and competence.

When I visited HTB I was struck by how confident they were: they believed what they said to the very core of their being and more than that, they weren’t afraid to say it. There was something both deeply moving and incredibly infectious about that. Let’s not forget that those who walk through the doors of our churches are, in one way or another, searching for that “something” which has, hitherto, eluded them and we know that “something” to be the living God. But if we don’t have the confidence to make God known, then we don’t stand a chance.

What I mean by competence is the quality of the offering. Recent research shows that Cathedral and “greater church” congregations are growing. One of the factors having the greatest impact is the calibre of worship: if you go to a Cathedral, you know it’s going to be Corgi-registered! The best worship I have experienced has always been thought through carefully, presented beautifully and executed professionally. If only the same could be said of the general offering of the Church of England.

On my holidays last summer, I attended services at two churches – I walked out of one and would have done the same at the other if I had been nearer the door. The clergy fumbled through the liturgy, forgot hymns, couldn’t remember if their mic was on or off and preached sermons that left me wondering which part of all this news is good.

The truth is that the Evangelical churches have confidence in their message and are competent in the delivery. This is why their churches and initiatives like Thy Kingdom Come are flourishing – it’s got little, if anything to do with churchmanship.

So, regardless of what flavour of Church of England you are, say whatever it is you want to say with confidence – pitch the vision and pitch it like you mean it. Whatever you do, do it with competence – process with dignity, elevate the blessed sacrament with profundity, choose your hymns sensitively, produce your booklets beautifully, project your images tastefully and, if necessary, do less, but do it better.

But please can we dispense with the myth of the Evangelical take over? It makes us look like victims and that is not going to attract anyone.