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Church Growth in Britain (Ashgate Contemporary Ecclesiology) Paperback – 28 May 2012
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'Goodhew rounds off this very interesting collection by arguing that the religious landscape of the UK is more complex and dynamic than previously thought. I agree and recommend this text as core reading for anyone with an interest in the unfolding dynamics of Christianity in the UK.' ----- Theology
'This is an important study that should certainly be read by anyone in a leadership position in the church.' ----- Church of England Newspaper
'For years, the media have fed us a diet of stories and comment to the effect that the Church in the country is in terminal decline. This excellent book, by a team of leading international researchers, challenges this dominant narrative by providing firm evidence that the truth is much more complex: alongside decline in some areas, substantial church growth has taken place in Britain in recent decades.' ----- Church Times
About the Author
David Goodhew is an Anglican priest and Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, an Anglican theological college which is part of St John's College, Durham. A former fellow and chaplain of St Catharine's College, Cambridge and an experienced parish priest, he has published widely in the field of modern British church history and South African history, including the first monograph-length study of a South African township, Respectability and Resistance: a History of Sophiatown
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First, this is not a sociological perspective: only 2 of the 16 contributors are sociologists: the rest are religious professionals, theologians and historians. Second, were they sociologists they would not so often confuse `the growth of some churches' with `church growth' (which implies that the UK is becoming more religious). There is a great deal of value in this collection of studies of growing churches and each essay can be read with profit but the evidence presented comes nowhere near to filling the role that some readers (and its publishers) which to accord it. The general weakness is that evidence of growth is cited without reference either to changes in overall population or to the possibility that apparent growth is simply transfer. For example, Goodhew's study of York refers repeatedly to church growth but its own evidence shows only that - if none of the people who attend newly created churches had previously attended other churches - the proportion of the York population that goes to church now is about the same as it was in 2001. What he presents as growth in church attendance is, on the most generous assumptions, only keeping up with population growth. The same applies to Wolfe and Jackson's claims for London. They describe a growth in church attendance of 15 per cent over the last twenty years as an `Anglican resurgence' when the adult population has grown over the same by about 20-22 per cent. That seems like a proportionate decline.
I strongly recommend this book but I also recommend that readers note the absence of good evidence for net growth.
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.