Last year I wrote an article for the ‘Catholic Herald’ in which I suggested that the insights of the Church Planting Movement might be useful for the newly established Ordinariate. In particular I imagined that an Ordinariate group of lay people with their Pastor might become part of a small Catholic congregation in order to strengthen it, and help to rebuild its life. Some of the reaction to this article included expressions of concern that this might lead to the Ordinariate groups being absorbed into the Diocesan structure in England and Wales while some people claimed that ‘Church Planting’ was unfamiliar to Catholics.
My intention in this post is to suggest a second model for the presence and mission of the Ordinariate, within the Catholic Church in England and Wales, but first I want to deal with the idea that Church Planting is foreign to Catholics. I believe this to be based on a misunderstanding. I gather that Church Planting in the C of E and Methodists has been subsumed under the heading ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’. This new title may well refer to the re-building of struggling congregations and to the establishment of new ones, but it has drawn the net much wider than this. In fact, for the more liberal minded it is based on a different ecclesiology, which aims to discover ‘Church’ beyond the boundaries of diocese and parish, sacraments and ordained ministry. Thus ‘Church’ for some people who ‘cannot be at a Sunday service’ may well be the Mother and Toddler Group on Thursday afternoon. So the Minister, coming in to say a little prayer at the end, may well believe that she has identified here in this group of say, ten adults and fifteen children, a ‘Fresh Expression of Church’: well, OK, but the temptation is to add twenty five to the weekly return of numbers to the National Church Statistics.
Catholic experience of growing new churches in the past
I am much more comfortable with the older, more robust notion of Church Planting. Its theology is rooted in the teaching of Scriptures and the Church:
God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’: that is, of Christ Jesus. Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals so that this revelation may reach the ends of the earth. CCC 74
It is from God’s love for all men that the Church is every age receives both the obligation and the vigour of her missionary dynamism. .. God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal salvation, the Church must be missionary. CCC 851
The expansion of the Catholic Church in England could not have been achieved without Church Planting. ‘In 1935 the Catholic population (of England and Wales) was estimated at a total of 2.5 million out of a total population of forty millions. In 1850 the number of Catholics had been about 68,000 out of a population of 18 million, and the number of priests was less than 800. By 1935 their number had increased to 4,500. In 1875 there were about a thousand Catholic churches, in 1935 their number was 2,400.’ (The Catholic Church in England and Wales 1500-2000 ed. Paul Kennedy)
The establishment of a Mass or Mission Centre from an established Catholic Parish might well be placed in the hands of a curate. The presence of a number of Catholic families in the new Mission Area would have been noted, but it was not for their convenience that Mass would be celebrated, but rather to ‘plant’ the Catholic Church in a new place. Here the Church is understood as the people gathering around priest and altar for the celebration of the Sunday Mass and the preaching of the Gospel. This might well happen in the back room of the pub, or in the school. It could be several years before a prefabricated shed could be built, many more years before the money was raised for a permanent church building. But the nucleus of people who began attending the Mission Mass in the pub grew! First, they contacted Catholics who had lapsed and who now returned to the Church; secondly, they brought their children to Mass and First Communion; thirdly, there was a steady stream of ‘converts’ – meaning truly those who were converted to Christ; and fourthly, those who had been members of other ecclesial communities who were received into full communion. Thus the Church grew in those four areas described by Church Growth theory: Recovery Growth, Biological Growth, Conversion Growth and Transfer Growth.
Anglican history and experience comes into the Ordinariate
Anglo-Catholics were also much involved in Mission Planting. St Stephen’s Upton Park, in East London, opened three Mission churches in the 19th century of which two subsequently became parishes in their own right. Holy Family, Failsworth, on the edge of Manchester, still has in its congregation, some of the original Church Planting Team. Forty years earlier these people had left the parish church led by a curate, begun worshipping in the pub, then in a garage – and had finally built a church and established a new parish.
I think that the Ordinariate has a place in Catholic Church Planting. The establishment of the South London Ordinariate Group at Most Precious Blood, Borough is a genuine Plant, and is producing growth already. But there are other models of Planting, and for help here I turn to the words of Father Ed Tomlinson, Pastor of the Tunbridge Wells Ordinariate Group, based at Pembury.
As many readers know Saint Anselm’s once served as a Mass centre attached to the nearby Paddock Wood but became an independent quasi-parish in Advent 2011 following the arrival of an Ordinariate group from nearby Tunbridge Wells. Since then we have worked hard to bring together two groups of Catholics, the long standing diocesans and newly arrived Ordinariate, into one happy family. Our mission statement reading “serving all Catholics in the village of Pembury and home to the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Tunbridge Wells Area”
Being a body breathing with two precious lungs, diocesan and Ordinariate, can bring blessing and challenge in equal measure. So, for example, running dual bank accounts is an absolute pain but a united people bring strength in number. Despite hurdles then the end result is proving positive: we thrive if we work together and focus on all that unites us.
Here, then, we have an Ordinariate Group established in a building which once served as a Mass (Mission) Centre for the Catholic Parish. It has an independent life, but draws some local Catholics who find it easier to attend Mass at St Anselm’s (or are comfortable with the life/worship which they find there) This is a genuine Church Plant, as it involves a new congregation ‘planted’ into a building which had closed for Catholic worship. Into the congregation of the Ordinariate have been drawn others, including, one imagines, those who had lapsed, and those who have come new to the Faith.
A Church Plant must be Mission centred
In the preparations for the establishment of St Anselm’s there would no doubt have been discussions about resources: how was the priest to be paid; were there enough people for a viable congregation; was the building going to be a burden and could it be maintained? But important though these things are, my guess is that the Bishop and the Ordinary were looking for a strong sense of mission on the part of the Group: quite bluntly, did they want just to maintain themselves and ‘the way we’ve always done things’ – or did they want to grow in faith and numbers. Could it be said of them as it was of the early Church that …
… day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2: 46f RSV Catholic edition
Decline and closure is not inevitable: it is a choice
In all new congregations it is mission – underpinned by worship and prayer – which sets the agenda and gives the group the energy to work for growth. It was precisely this lack of a missionary centred life which led to the decline of so many of our congregations in our latter years in the Church of England. In some places this may have been the fault of the congregation who had neither heart nor will to grow: ‘please put out the lights and lock the door after the last funeral.’ In other places there was life, but it was stifled by the need to maintain huge buildings and all the bureaucracy of parish life, with its councils and Synod reps and committees. Nor should we forget the ‘disapproval’ which sapped the life of many of our parishes because of our ‘failure’ to implement the liberal agenda.
No, decline and closure is not inevitable, but growth is not something to be left to the priest or diocese, certainly not to chance, nor even to the vague hope that God will do something about it even if we don’t. It requires the commitment of everybody in the parish. But just as there are many things which lead to growth, so equally there are many things which lead to decline. There are physical conditions, spiritual attitudes, and the dynamics and behaviour of the congregation. Indeed, they say that most new people will have decided within the first ten minutes whether they will come again to this particular congregation. Once a sense of obligation alone would have kept Catholics coming back; today, I’m not so sure.