Growth and decline in the Anglican Communion

Feb 6, 2017 by

Book Review by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

18 months ago a book was published on church growth in England, edited by Durham-based academic David Goodhew, which urged church leaders to reject  a ‘theology of decline’, and instead to learn about and intentionally foster growth where possible. A new book, featuring research brought together by the same editor, looks at brief histories of Anglican mission in a number of countries around the world, and delves in detail into statistics of church membership, attendance and affiliation. This is a timely addition to the literature on church growth; it recognizes the importance of non-Western Anglicanism, and shows how the picture of ‘church decline in the West, growth in the South’ is simplistic and needs more nuance.

In his introduction and survey of the material in the book, Goodhew counters the theory that the church will inevitably decline where Western secular culture is strong (citing Singapore, Sydney and London as examples of Anglican growth). The idea linking church growth to population growth in the developing world is also a myth, as Nigeria and South Africa have seen similar demographic changes but Nigerian Anglicanism has exploded while in South Africa things have remained static. Evidence suggests that churches which encourage lay ministry and have flexible structures are more likely to grow (contrasting, for example, Congo with Ghana). Social action can always be found as a feature of Anglicanism whether the church is fully committed to evangelism or not, but contrary to the theories of Western liberals who believe that actions speak louder than words, “social action on its own does not tend to feed into numerical growth…churches which focus on social action and make minimal efforts in evangelism struggle to grow” (p25).

The situation in England is serious, as the chapter at the end of the book by David Voas shows with carefully chosen statistics. Usual Sunday attendance has dropped from around 1.25 million in 1980 to 775,000 today; the percentage of the population who refer to themselves as “C of E” has dropped from 42% in 1980 to 25% today. Voas paints a picture of ‘progressive secularization’, whereby Anglicans in England are not passing on the faith to the next generation: compare nearly 100,000 confirmations in 1980 with 19,000 in 2013.. He notes that while there is growth in a few areas (notably in London, Cambridge and Oxford), the overall picture is of relentless decline. Disappointingly, though, he does not offer a convincing explanation of possible reasons for this, nor does he attempt to analyse the growing congregations to see what they have in common.

The situation with north American Anglicanism in its TEC form is even more dire than in England. The author of this chapter, Jeremy Bonner, explains in his overview that unlike in England, where secularism has affected all denominations, in the USA some churches have grown (eg Roman Catholics, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists), while TEC have followed a rapid downward trend in conjunction with other mainline Protestant denominations. Bonner admits that theological division, and the formation of ACNA has played a major part in this. He says more research is needed to back up ACNA’s claims of growth compared to TEC’s decline, but the relative fortunes of the two churches certainly reinforce the narrative which associates church decline with theological liberalism.

However there is a curious reluctance from some of the book’s authors to pursue this theme. The chapter on Nigeria provides an informative summary of the history of Anglican mission in the country, and in particular the shift around 1980 from being a rather formal church generally opposed to charismatic renewal, to embracing it. The Pentecostal movement, together with strong evangelical bible-based foundations provided by EFAC and the Christian Unions in schools and universities, was embraced by Anglicans. Visionary leadership from successive Archbishops have made mission a priority, leading to rapid church planting and proliferation of new Dioceses. Nigerian Anglicanism has always followed the principles of CMS founder Henry Venn, in seeking as much as possible to be self- governing, self-supporting and self propagating; the church has grown to approximately a quarter of all Anglicans, and has an influence across the world. This is a remarkable example of Christian mission success by any standard, but chapter author Richard Burgess is diffident, linking growth with Pentecostal practice but not to evangelical theology, and almost damning the church with faint praise, saying at the end that its own future looks bright, but questioning “its relationship with other member churches of the Anglican Communion over the authority of Scripture and human sexuality”.

Southern Africa is another Province where in my own personal experience, growth and decline is at least partly linked to theological conviction. Since the 1970’s there has been explosive growth among independent Pentecostal, evangelical and Zionist churches, with corresponding decline in mainline Protestant denominations. Whereas in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, biblically compatible elements of this spiritual life were embraced by Anglicans, in South Africa this only happened among certain sections of the white and coloured communities; the majority of black Anglicans held to a high church spirituality combined with a commitment to social and political action. After the end of apartheid there was a lack of vision from the senior leadership and often poor organization locally, according to author Barbara Bompani. Unlike in the West where secularization has led young people to abandon the church, in South Africa there has been a steady flow away from mainline churches such as Anglicans, to the independent churches with their Gospel preaching and healing ministries. Those Anglicans who remain often define themselves as different, perhaps in a similar way to North America. As has been said to me more than once in South Africa – “we’re not born again – we’re Anglican”! However while there is much of interest in her chapter, Bompani appears to be more interested in the sociology of church life in South Africa rather than exploring the obvious link between theological conviction, spiritual vibrancy, evangelistic zeal and church growth.

The chapters on Australia and South America do consider this link more explicitly. South American Anglicanism (with the exception of Brazil, not included in the study) is more uniformly evangelical, while in Australia there appears to be more of a division between different theologies and churchmanships, with the result that Ruth Powell’s research leads her to conclude that reformed or charismatic evangelicalism is more likely to lead to church growth than a liberal progressive approach.

Overall there is much to commend this book as a resource for anyone wanting to know more about the worldwide church. But the most serious omission is that I cannot find any mention of the significant recent renewal and reform movements of GAFCON and Global South. GAFCON in particular has led to the formation of ACNA, a new and deeper unity in the Gospel across national and cultural divides,  a clear challenge to those parts of the church which have aligned with Western secularism, and a call to mission and church growth based on confidence in the biblical Gospel, and a track record of growth. As the book is endorsed by Graham Kings and Martyn Percy, among others, it should not be a surprise that this important element of recent global Anglican history is airbrushed out – it is for others to decide whether this enhances or detracts from the book’s status as an academic document.



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