But *is it* decline theology?

This just in from the church side of things (how ironic – I’m trying to do more posts on critical theory of tech and the first blog post I write is online church stuff), I’ve been seeing this article by Revd. Goodhew make the rounds via a couple of priest-y friends on twitter. It’s yet another of those posts that make me realise there’s a whole other world the priests/vicars/etc. are living in to those of us in the laity.

Or just me. Yeah, maybe just me.

So anyway, Goodhew’s main argument in the article is that a key factor to the CofE semi-existential crisis is what he calls a theology of decline, or at least an organised spirit of suspicion from broad (so basically any non ‘Evangelical’) Anglicanism when it comes to the issue of church growth, where one finds – according to Goodhew – ‘hostility to talking of growing churches is widely shared, at least in the Global North’.

Yes obviously as a Nigerian diasporan I have my own biases so I admit to being put off from the get go when I read that. I’ve always found the enthusiasm for the Church in the Global South bizarre (especially given its intent on committing the same institutional sins the Church in the Global North did when it had that level of social, political and legislative clout but whatever…*), but then I’m also a scientifically literate lesbian on the side who rapidly veers into hardcore materialist atheism upon close contact with the ‘best of’ Nigerian Anglicans.

Most importantly, however, I also found it oddly tone deaf considering that – at least from the perspective of the supposedly decline based theologian – the primary and predominant concern behind what Goodhew is referring to as a theology of decline, is that language about church growth is often accompanied by a theology that does downplay the importance of ‘the kingdom’ (which I’m assuming implies a parallel downplaying of social justice and the other, nicer, sellable bits of organised Apostolic Christianity) and the communion of saints.

After all, quite a lot of us attend churches originally built to host much larger congregations than they currently do, yet built in eras when those very congregations – or so the cliche goes – paid more attention to respectability politics, were preoccupied by a hypocritical and judgemental religiosity, happily infantilised by a religious institution run by hapless third sons etc. etc. There is still a deeply held suspicion, a prejudice – if you like – that larger, ‘popular’ (or is that populist?) churches are in some way repeating the follies of the past, where larger congregations imply watered down practice and intellectually nullifying theology, follies that the Church seemed too slow to learn from and still commits when not externally prodded (see Church schools for example…).

I’m well aware this isn’t a new or original point. I guess I keep saying it because it fascinates – and worries – me that this dubious heritage and its impact on not only those who have been baptised as its inheritors but the wider society they exist within, much like the non-binding nature of the EU referendum, is almost never seriously acknowledged. As such, I don’t think we’re dealing with a ‘theology of decline’. It is a heritage of shame that we’re confronting here. Shame and embarrassment.

In that light, to go on about the theology of growth as though the ‘growth skeptics’ are sincerely arguing that having (sustainably) growing congregations is not theologically justifiable, is a trifle… unfair. Is it really that the ‘growth of congregations has been sidelined’, or that in a secular age, no one knows what that even means yet alone looks like. Is it that people genuinely think it’s not theologically justifiable to want growing congregations, or that they don’t know what theology to inspire and ultimately share with the growing-congregation-to-be.

Now I think there’s at least one positive to the ‘theology of growth’ mindset which is kind of alluded to in the article and it’d be hard to get much deeper into without going all ‘power of positive thinking’. I think I lean more to the idea that if this perspective can offer ‘decline theologians’ in the contemporary CofE anything, it’s at least the impetus, the bravery to take that first step into understanding the psycho-spiritual needs of the community they serve, including what the theology (and thus ecclesiology etc.) of the contemporary church should be.

Overall though, I find there’s a slight irony when Revd Goodhew writes, ‘[h]aving a nuanced theology of church growth will assist churches in growing numerically, but doing so in a godly way’. I rather wish there’d been a bit more of that nuance in the article to begin with.

 

 


 

*Cosying up to the state? Check. Using social and political influence to enforce religious beliefs on the general public? Check. Using religious posturing to justify horrific abuse of LGBTQIA/minority religions/internal corruption? Check. Honestly 90% of the time I swear white Anglicans who keep bigging up the church in the Global South don’t so much care about… anything, not even the genuine persecution such communities face cos then they might stop voting for people who create the environments in which said persecution is enabled and flourishes and maybe even take up some direct action, no never mind their enthusiasm seems mostly motivated than little more than another form of colonialist nostalgia, even though the colonialism I’m talking about… was as much on home shores.

Argh, ok, I will definitely get to working on my critical theory vocab. Much work is needed there, clearly…

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