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Some Local Growth amidst Unambiguous National Decline,
This review is from: Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (Ashgate Contemporary Ecclesiology) (Paperback)
According to Goodhew's introduction, `it is likely that over 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain in the 30 years since 1980' with particular growth `in areas of migration, population growth and economic dynamism' (7-8). Every chapter in this volume does an excellent job of nuancing this picture and contributing to Goodhew's case that this growth is not simply down to the decline in other denominations. Yet however significant this development might be for the Christian Church, the volume is hampered by an overstatement of this significance. There is no denying that the growth of mainstream and new churches in Britain is incredibly significant, and it is refreshing to see scholars turning their attention back to these churches. However, whilst adding much of value to the debate, this volume cannot simply wish away the observable decline in belief, practice, and affiliation which is taking place at a national level.
Ultimately, this criticism can be traced to a uncritical account of secularization. To take a representative example, Paul Chambers castigates `most academics' , who are apparently unduly `concerned with focusing on statistical measures of religious belief and church membership' (233), whilst he himself utilizes dubious census results based on `identification' with Christianity, to make the totally unrelated claim that `religious belief [...] remains buoyant' (221), seemingly not appreciating that secularization predicted precisely this move from public institutional religion to private individualized `beliefs'. In pointing out this flaw, I am merely playing devil's advocate. There are many positive things which can be said about the collection, and Goodhew is well aware that his focus on growth is unbalanced `not because that is all there is to say, but because growth has been so widely ignored' (254). Firstly, the in-depth accounts of local expressions of growth do provide a timely reminder of the limitations of a simplistic reading of the secularization thesis, and act as a call for a widespread scholarly return to focusing upon more mainstream religious groups in their historically hegemonic contexts. Secondly, the book shines a light on constituencies that force us to rethink traditional understandings of `British' religion, raising interesting questions about the religiosity of national and international migrants. Finally, the book reminds scholars of the potential impact of their work in the real world, and the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases, become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world.
Ultimately, this collection has been brought together to offer `churches, church leaders, and theologians the intellectual space in which they could [...] let go of the eschatology of decline that the secularization thesis has instilled and replace it with an alternative eschatology' (Goodhew, 21). Yet, in spite of this theological underpinning, it does exactly what it sets out to do, by providing engaging and in-depth accounts of a neglected phenomenon that adds further nuance to our understanding of religion and secularization in contemporary Britain without, perhaps, providing the forceful critique intended.