Simon Heans shares a blow by blow account of the setting up of a church plant in his own parish and wonders what it presages for cooperation between Catholic and Evangelical Anglicans
Your enemy’s enemy isn’t necessarily your friend.’ That old adage was quoted to me by a Roman Catholic priest from Sussex with whom I was running a discussion group at Taizé some years ago. He was led to make the comment by my attempt to explain to him the alliance between Catholic and Evangelical Anglicans on the issues of gender and sexuality. I have recently been reminded of those words by the experience of having a church plant in my parish.
Christ Church, Bromley
The story begins some time before Easter 2005 when a priest from another Forward in Faith church in the Beckenham Deanery (there are three) was having a ministerial review with the archdeacon. In the course of it, Archdeacon Paul told Fr Leon that he had heard at Senior Staff Meeting that the Vicar of Christ Church Bromley had approached Bishop Michael of Rochester to tell him of his plans to start a new congregation in the Beckenham Deanery.
A venue in my parish was mentioned as a possible meeting place for this group. Naturally Fr Leon took no time at all to tell me and the news soon spread among the clergy of the Deanery. Suddenly my parish of St Barnabas, hitherto not much regarded by them, became the subject of considerable interest among my predominantly evangelical brethren. A number of them phoned me to ask what I intended to do.
I wasn’t able to say because I had no idea myself, although I do remember telling them that if the scheme had episcopal approval it would go ahead anyway. The Archdeacon was not prepared to give a straight answer to that question but Bishop Michael told me that nothing could happen without my approval as incumbent. So I phoned the Vicar of Christ Church, Bromley to arrange a meeting with him.
Iain Broomfield is a middle-aged Oxford graduate who had once served a curacy at the big evangelical church in Beckenham, also called Christ Church. He had been employed by the Bible Society and been a school evangelist. This I gleaned from our informal conversation before getting down to business and I was
struck then by how different our experiences of the Church of England were -this despite superficial similarities for I am exactly Iain’s age and like him went to an ancient university and followed that with work as a schoolmaster.
Iain told me that his church building was not big enough to hold the congregation, and that the people who came to him from my parish and surrounding area had approached him with the proposal to start a new church. He also said that the plan was to meet on a day other than Sunday. I was puzzled because I could not see how that would solve his accommodation problem.
suddenly my parish became the subject of considerable interest among my evangelical brethren
When I met Nick Hiscocks, the curate of Christ Church, Bromley, things became clearer. Like his boss, Nick is an Oxford graduate, where he read Theology. Nick has just turned 30 and has been at Christ Church six years. He told me that he would move on unless the church plant idea came to fruition. It also quickly emerged that the church plant would be meeting on Sunday mornings.
The branch in Beckenham High Street was the place where three of us had our chats over the next six months. I was never quite sure what purpose they served but was assured by Iain and Nick that they found them very helpful. Because I enjoy religious controversy (why else would I write for New Directions!) I didn’t mind going along. We talked about the Reformation and eucharistic theology. ‘Just what do you think you’re doing?’ asked Iain when I told him about the daily celebration of Mass at St Barnabas. He was not satisfied by my answer. But I persevered and gave them copies of New Directions drawing their attention to the masthead: Serving Evangelicals…
I also tried out C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity on them and told them about the Alpha Course I was then running. Yes, I did hope we might be able to cooperate, but if I am honest I have to admit that I thought that given access to Iain’s people I would be able to show them that the ‘historic faith’ is so much richer than the narrow biblicism he and Nick seemed to espouse.
Just before Christmas 2006, at what proved to be our last coffee session together, I was told that ‘theological differences’ precluded any possibility of working together and that the church plant would begin meeting after Easter.
This happened in the summer, i.e., after the church plant was up and running. The Archdeacon had clearly thought long and hard about the seating arrangements. Two sofas were placed opposite one another and Iain and Nick were put in one while I was sat on the other. Then he interposed himself. Perhaps he thought we might come to blows.
He was obviously nervous as he asked us to say the Collect for Purity, but relaxed a bit after we proved able to recite it together. He even moved to sit next to the Rural Dean. And then the group therapy began. We were each invited to say how we ‘felt’.
I told them that the plant was taking place against the express wish of St Barnabas and quoted the PCC resolution as proof. Then I said I really didn’t care what Iain and Nick were up to because they’d made it plain that they were going to do their own thing and indeed were already doing it. Somewhat to my surprise both the Archdeacon and the Area Dean complimented me for being gracious’.
I leave my readers to draw their own conclusions about what this little tale means for the prospects of catholic-evangelical cooperation in a new province. My own conclusion is summed up in the quotation with which I began. However St Barnabas’ answer to the mission question set by the Rural Dean at the last Beckenham Deanery Synod is now clear. There is only one thing my church needs to do to double its congregation by next Christmas: get the people of the church plant to come to Mass here.