Catholic church planting, take 2

‘Church planting was originally a catholic thing!’

‘All churches are church plants. And all priests should be planting churches.’

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 16.44.19
(You would not believe how few pictures of female priests there are on the internet.)

We cannot indulge in talk about the Glory Days of C19 Anglo-Catholic church planting in the East End unless we are willing to resume that same confident, evangelistic, entrepreneurial spirit. That was basically the thrust of the recent ‘Catholic church planting’ day held at All Saints Margaret Street, London, which had been organised by Anglican Catholic Future.  This is the second of two such discussion days that ACF has held, somewhat beyond the organisation’s original remit (which was to ‘do something about catholic vocations’).  Both days have had moments of being thoroughly encouraging, practically minded, and generous. Some of the highlights of yesterday’s discussion, in rather disorganised bullet points:

* Emphasis on generosity in practice as well as in ecclesiology. Catholics may well believe that ‘the mass makes the church’, but when it comes to planting, a trajectory towards the fulness of the sacramental life is what we are aiming for, rather than refusing to start something new because that fulness isn’t present, or present in precisely our own style. If we truly believe that being church means this fulness occurs, we will have faith that new plants, or new expressions of church, will start showing signs of this fulness: asking for baptisms or for communion, people feeling led toward ordination, individuals feeling they should make confessions, etc.  Sacraments, after all, are not ‘the outward sign of an inward grace’; those outward signs point to the sacraments, which are when Jesus shows up.

* What constitutes ‘church’ in our plants might not be precisely our cup of tea (aesthetically speaking), but if it brings people to Jesus, then what are we waiting for? There is simply no time for preciousness amongst people interested in seeing people deepen their faith in Christ. It is a Jesuit insight that we all ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, and perhaps the same should be said for Catholic (and indeed evangelical) church plants as well: if either our dry-ice-and-drum-kits OR our incense-and-NEH are getting in the way, chuck ’em. And listen for how God might more fruitfully be worshipped in that community.

* The recent church growth report offers 10 ‘models’ of planting: everything from re-invigorating an 8am BCP service to going whole-hog ‘we give you a massive budget, a new-old building and three years off your parish share’ planting.  That’s a lot of breadth, and there are many, many new ‘plants’ in churches of all sorts across the C of E that need to be celebrated. Let’s do the celebrating and the story-telling.

* A reminder that statistically speaking, churches tend to grow (numerically) the most during the 7th to 10th years of an incumbency. This shows something important about priestly presence, stability, and trust to be central to growth/planting – something that can never be instant, and something that can keep church planting from being a contemporary form of cultural imperialism/gentrification.

'You're not using that right.' 'Oh yeah? That's what she said.'
‘You’re not using that right.’
‘That’s what she said.’

* Preserving what’s unique about Catholic Anglican understandings of church can be very important indeed. Speaking as a foreigner to ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ in more ways than one, and yet as one who has grown to love it, I can say that if there were nothing unique about these ways of being a Christian, I would have not begun exploring! If Anglican Catholicism did not offer other ways of understanding the atonement besides penal substitution, if it did not celebrate those holy women and men who have gone before us, if it did not insist that ritual is good and yet never ossified, if it did not engage my body and my senses, if it did not make affirming space for my sexuality, if it did not know how to laugh, if it did not deeply value prayer and silence, if it did not claim an ecclesiology very different to the ‘ark of salvation’…I would not have bothered with it.   All this is to say: confidence in our theology as well as in our practice must be the corner of any planting and any renewal.

* The decline in organised Christianity as a whole, and the C of E in particular, in the last several decades has in fact given lay and ordained Christians a tabula rasa when it comes to sharing the good news. Fewer and fewer people in England today have ‘Jesus Baggage’; fewer and fewer will have ever been into a church; fewer and fewer will have massive church-y expectations.  Tabula rasa – good or bad or a bit of both?

* There was a lot of talk about sluggish or resistant PCCs or congregations. How do people ‘catch a vision’? We discussed the fact that most of the time, only 10-20% of people need to really get completely on board with the vision of planting or revivifying a congregation; the rest just need to agree not to be blatantly obstructive! This seemed to be a manageable percentage. It was also brought up that the official ‘job description’ for a PCC member is ‘to cooperate with the all concerns of the minister: pastoral, social, evangelistic and ecumenical’. All of those things, not just one, and to cooperate. It was brought up that church councils need to be growing together as a faith community within the church in order for this vision to spread.

* The open table.  Fewer and fewer people these days will have had any contact with Christianity before they (maybe) walk in our doors, or meet us in our ‘cafe church’, or come along to our prayer/liturgy as part of a political demonstration, or bring their kids to be baptised. It is crucial that we really practice table fellowship, opening up to all whom Christ is calling. The church’s (relatively recent) fuss about confirmation and first communion is shown to be increasingly pointless, and – some people in the cold back room at All Saints Margaret Street even said – inimical to the gospel.

There were many more things, but those were the points worth taking away. As you can tell I found the day full of good, challenging discussion.


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