Church attended by John Stott now offers yoga and mindfulness

Nov 19, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

St Paul’s Church in Cambridge is a large red brick building situated on Hills Road on the way to the train station if you’re travelling from the town centre. Its architecture is typical of a number of churches built in the second half of the 19th century as part of a renewed commitment from the Church of England to urban mission in the context of rapidly expanding populations at the time. Many of these buildings were home to an evangelical ministry: St James in Northampton, for example, began a rugby club before the first world war as an evangelistic outreach to boys and young men, the ancestor of today’s Northampton Saints rugby team, currently at the top of the English professional league.

Back in Cambridge, St Paul’s was the preferred church for evangelical students during the 1930’s and 40’s: a young John Stott attended there during his student days. The strong Reformed tradition continued with the ministry of Herbert Carson who left the Church of England over a crisis of conscience about baptism and other doctrinal issues in the 1960’s. Michael Farrer who had been a curate at St Ebbe’s and was a colleague of Alec Motyer on the staff of a theological college in Bristol, was vicar from 1978-1992, and I attended the church for three years during this time. By then it was definitely a ‘town’ rather than ‘gown’ congregation, less ‘puritan’ than in the days of Carson and Gwyn Thomas, but still bible-based and theologically orthodox. Stott preached at Farrer’s retirement service in 1992.

I passed the church while on a visit to Cambridge last week. Just a quick look at the main board on the wall showed how things have changed. “Weekly wellbeing workshops; Meditation, open yoga and mindfulness” are the headline services being offered. Had the church closed, and the building been taken over by a New Age group? No, it’s still very much a Church of England church, with Sunday Holy Communion, and a strapline “We are an inclusive & informal community who seek to make connections within ourselves, with other people & with God.” The website speaks of an aim “to live authentically as we seek to respond to the love of God, who has already reached out to us in Christ” which might be fine if there was evidence of grounding in the Scriptures rather than yoga and meditation.

The church where John Stott brought friends to hear the gospel and be converted, a flagship evangelical centre in the mid 20th century, where I myself in the 1980’s took some of my first faltering steps in ministry, is now offering a very different message and worldview, a syncretistic religion seemingly based on fragments of Christian ritual, Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychology.

What might be some lessons from this? Firstly, just as one local church can slide in a human lifetime from being a large strategic centre of evangelical ministry to a small, revisionist entity on the periphery, so the Church of England can move from providing witness to Christ at the centre of national life to an institution increasingly ignored even as it tries to adapt its core message to what it thinks society wants. Secondly, such a slide isn’t inevitable – there are many good C of E and other churches continuing to preach the gospel in Cambridge, and there are many examples of churches being turned around the other way, as evangelical vicars exercise faithful ministry over many years in churches which previously had no clear message or even hostility to the biblical gospel.

But thirdly, there are pressures on the Church of England which make it more likely that we will see more local churches decline as St Paul’s has done, and fewer being turned around. Most committed evangelical believers understandably gather in established and trusted centres known for bible teaching and lively, Spirit-directed worship, leaving diminishing numbers remaining (if possible) to influence the smaller churches; some leave the C of E for other less theologically diverse denominations; theological education undermines the faith-foundations of clergy.

Meanwhile the culture becomes more hostile to certain aspects of Christian truth such as the uniqueness of Christ and the nature of gender and marriage, and lay people are influenced by this; secularism crumbles, mental health problems increase and people turn to alternative spiritualities and self-help philosophies, and clergy who attempt to point to Jesus over against cultural trends are not supported by their leaders or their PCC’s.

The picture of a local church moving away from a fellowship centred around Christ and a message of repentance and faith, to one centred around its own ‘wellbeing and mindfulness’ is closely aligned with the image of General Synod member and prominent LGBT campaigner Jayne Ozanne presenting her book ‘Just Love’ to Pope Francis, and petitioning him to join in the campaign to ban so-called “conversion therapy” (ie taking away the right of clients to choose their own therapeutic goals in the area of sexual orientation, as contributors have discussed on this website ad nauseam).

It occurs to me that these new theologies represent an inversion of the core of Christian faith. The gospel invites us first to recognise the wrong thinking and rebellion against God in the depths of our psyche despite God’s loving creating and sustaining of each of us as individuals. The message of mindfulness and yoga is rather an attempt to justify, be at peace with and celebrate our interior world as the ultimate reality, rather than something which needs to change in response to the true Ultimate Reality.

Then, we ought to orient our lives away from self and towards God, praising him, then confessing “I have sinned against you…”. The message of Jayne Ozanne, furious that even the C of E does not yet officially endorse her desires, by contrast turns it around to self: “the church has sinned against me…” For her to address this message to the Pope is extraordinary. His apparently encouraging but in fact non-committal response, “pray for me as I pray for you”, shows his skilful diplomacy. Commentator Jules Gomes has pointed out that it could only have been Archbishop Justin Welby, who was with the Pope the day before leading an Anglican delegation, who could have organised the audience for Jayne Ozanne.

This facilitation of an anti-gospel message from the senior leadership of the denomination is perhaps the most serious reason why at the local level C of E churches will continue to drift away from recognisably biblical Christianity, and turning things around will prove increasingly difficult.

More on ‘Just Love’ by Jayne Ozanne (from after it’s publication in 2018):

As many reviewers have shown, ‘Just Love’ is an apologia for why, in Jayne’s view, churches should be encouraged, then compelled, to end opposition to same sex relationships and contemporary radical theories about gender. In other words, as Martin Davie points out, it’s not really about ‘love’ at all.

Then, apart from talk about ‘love’ in a general sense, this book is very light on theology, i.e. stuff about God; rather it is about Jayne, as a GP concludes in a scathing review.

See also: This review from David Robertson.

Editor’s note: A reader has responded to this article: “I don’t think the offer of “Weekly wellbeing workshops; Meditation, open yoga and mindfulness” at St. Paul’s is sufficient as a ground on which to base what is said about ‘a local church moving away from a fellowship centred around Christ and a message of repentance and faith’.

The St Paul’s Family News for 10 November seems to me to reflect a sensible and well-grounded Christian ministry.” (

Yours faithfully,

Paul McKechnie

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