By John Martin
The Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres remembers how he took a drive with his wife, Caroline, around the Stepney area after just being appointed bishop in that part of London.
The year was 1992. As his reconnoiter progressed, Chartres admits, he found himself feeling more and more despondent. The landscape seemed to be littered with church buildings in very prominent locations that were abandoned, including St. Paul’s Essex Road, St. Columba’s Mare Street, and Holy Trinity Mile End.
On September 30 Chartres delivered the third Lambeth Lecture on evangelism and church growth, chronicling the journey of the Diocese of London from serious numerical decline, financial stagnation, and an “atmosphere of depression” towards new life.
The serious decline of the Church of England in the 1980s, he said, was “mirrored and exaggerated” in London. Socioeconomic factors, mistaken policies, and dysfunctional structures made matters worse. He directed stinging criticism at the financial policies of the Church Commissioners of England of the time, when London was “effectively disendowed.”
In those days, he said, the leadership of the diocese had “internalized the all-but-universal view of the new establishment in the media, that the story of God could have only one end: relegation to the leisure sector.” One orthodoxy of the day was that church buildings were “a burden and should be sold off.”
Internal division further weakened the diocese: area bishops who refused to cooperate; “factional strife” regarding the ordination of women; and a plethora of boards, an “energy-sapping superstructure” in which the same ideas were discussed “over and over again.” He was thankful, however, for faithful priests and laypeople who kept the church alive in such an unpromising context. There were, moreover, parishes in which “nothing much seemed to be happening” but were protected by law because of tenure for priests.
Chartres paid tribute to his predecessor, the Rt. Rev. David Hope, who in a short tenure beginning in 1991 helped to change the atmosphere. “His introduction of Mission Action Planning focused attention on growth rather than on the various divisive issues. With his impeccable Catholic credentials he steadied the ship after the departure of his predecessor for the Roman Catholic Church, and navigated the turbulence following the Synod vote on the Ordination of Women.”
When he became Bishop of London, Chartres fought to reverse policies of church closure, sometimes against powerful opposition. “At the time, it seemed to be inevitable, and even meritorious, that the church should retreat from what could be regarded as imperial overreach to associate itself with the voiceless in the back streets.”
After two decades Chartres senses a turnaround has “only just begun.” Desire for simplifications included a “bonfire of the boards,” with changes to the Common Fund, and fostering of a “can-do atmosphere.”
One of the bishop’s achievements has been support for individuals and places that “signaled life and possessed the missionary gene.” One example is the parish of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), which had been hampered by “a liberal distaste for charismatic evangelicalism,” as Chartres put it.
“We had a toxic reputation,” Mark Elsdon-Dew, HTB’s director of communications, told me recently. HTB was hampered by a Common Fund that was a “tax on growth,” in which expanding congregations “heavily subsidized” those that were stagnant.
In partnership with Bishop Chartres, HTB helped found St. Mellitus College, establishing a pattern of training for ordinands and lay people that is free from sectional interests, which were long a root source of party division in the Church of England. With that partnership too has come energy for church planting, which has extended wider than HTB affiliates. The Diocese of London’s Capital Vision 2020 envisions 100 new worshipping communities in the next five years.
Chartres reminded his audience that growth springs from movements of the Holy Spirit, and from communities and individuals in whom there is life-giving sap. “Bishops can do very little alone. They can seek to remove obstacles, and to make wise appointments. Pronouncements can usefully change an atmosphere, but too many ‘diocesan initiatives’ can be a distraction.”
“If we are vision-led, not problem-led, I think there is every hope that, by 2050, London will be a place where people will come from all over the world to learn about the way of Jesus Christ.”