Andy Phillips suggests that the Church needs to adapt culturally to a changing society and describes how he used this approach in setting up a Celtic Christian fellowship in Cornwall

Just over two years ago, I was posted to Faslane submarine base in Scotland, where I inherited a tiny Sunday congregation clinging on to existence. I set in motion a traditional visiting plan involving knocking on 800 doors and delivering Christmas and Easter cards with times of church services. However, after a year’s hard footslogging, it became obvious this plan was not working – we only saw two or three extra people at Christmas services and we never saw them again.

A different approach

Turn the clock forward now to a year ago when I wanted to test the feasibility of setting up a Celtic Christian fellowship in Cornwall, similar to Lindisfarne’s Community of Aidan and Hilda. This involves the risk of being ridiculed by my peer group; for unlike the evangelical tradition, Anglo-Catholicism is notoriously bad at cultural adaptation, having developed a concern that this will somehow affect the integrity of the Catholic faith. This need not be the case.

For example: the modern expression of Celtic Christianity is traditionally dismissed by Anglo-Catholics as being ‘New Age’. What they probably do not realize is that the Celtic Church was entirely orthodox; it is just that its orthodoxy was of the Eastern variety because of its origins (and we all too easily forget the Orthodox Church is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church too); and despite efforts to create a popular myth by the disingenuous, there is no evidence it ever ordained women.

I emailed an outline of the idea to a small number of contacts. About forty mainly unchurched people turned up to two early meetings, most of whom I had never met, such is the power and reach of the internet. They are mostly still involved in some way with what was to become Cowethas Peran Sans – the Fellowship of St Piran. It had taken a relatively small amount of effort to get a very positive result and I had learned a hard but useful lesson: don’t waste time and energy randomly knocking doors – adapt to changing times and make technology your friend.

It must be pointed out that Cowethas Peran Sans is not an alternative church,

and never should be; it is intended to act as a resource for Christians, sustaining them in the churches they attend as well as providing an easy way in for those prejudiced against the institutional Church and of a very different culture. It is all very much about the pursuit of holiness using a precedent from a specific time and place in Christian history: we seek to learn about the spirituality of the early Celtic Church, apply it in our lives and share it with others.

Engaging with other cultures

One of the cultural challenges facing the Church in Cornwall is the growing number of pagans who are attracted by the stone circles and other Neolithic monuments here. There is no point standing outside mystic fairs protesting like the evangelicals – we have to find ways of meeting pagans part way, the modern expression of Celtic Christian spirituality being ideal for this. But things can get messy in fresh expressions of Church, with the ecclesiology and theology often catching up with the practical realities of mission.

The usual accusation levelled at what is being called ‘fresh expressions of church’ is that they are ‘popularist’, implying that popularity is somehow wrong. But that is the very point. Should the Church die a gloriously sacrificial death, embitteredly clinging on to its old ways, or live a positive new life engaging with society?

Should the Church choose splendid isolation where it is now or seek to be at the centre of people’s lives where they are? Jesus turned his back on no one, sharing fellowship with pimps, prostitutes, quislings and revolutionaries; are we to turn our backs on a generation of young people simply because we will not make any effort to adapt to their distinctive culture? We should not be surprised if they then turn their backs on us.

The safest thing, of course, is to carry on battering one’s head against an ever-hardening brick wall – there is no risk of ridicule involved; but the cleverer way is to go around the side of it. Society is changing rapidly; we don’t know our next door neighbours; we are suspicious of strangers at the door; we make our friends at the soccer match, golf club or on the internet, not at the post office; we move house on average every few years; 40% of people have never had any contact with the Church now apart from occasional weddings or christenings; a further 20% have had a bad experience of the Church and are therefore hostile to it. Consequently, the Church is finding it has to adapt its approach to an ever-changing and more mobile society.

Change to survive

Almost every parish priest is frustrated by resistance to change among the people he serves; clergy may be less aware of their own reluctance to change. Much as we would like things to stand still in society, they don’t. There is no point moaning about it: we have to try to adapt the presentation of the Gospel intelligently and bravely in these changing times while still preserving the integrity of the Catholic faith. In an Anglican Church which in many places is imploding numerically (accelerated, as we know too well, by the divisions caused by the ordination of women), there is surely no alternative.

In the August edition of New Directions, Bishop Andrew Burnham prophetically said: ‘It is the sign of a growing organism that new developments have to be acknowledged and provided for.’ Believing that the Catholic faith in this land can only be expressed culturally in the traditional Latinesque way may well consign it to eventual oblivion.

The SAS have a motto: ‘Who dares, wins.’ If our Church is to survive in any meaningful manner more than maybe a couple more generations, it will have to show a lot more initiative and dare to take a lot more risks. But the failure to adapt culturally will be the biggest risk of all.

Cowethas Peran Sans can be found at