Rt Revd Adrian Newman, the Bishop of Stepney explains how it is the work of churches that matters and not the size of the congregation


- Credit: Archant

A couple of weeks ago the Daily Mail wrote a mischievous article contrasting the numbers of people attending Sunday services in two East End churches (not many) with those at Friday lunchtime prayers in a Spitalfields mosque (lots).

Publishing this so soon after the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich looked suspiciously like it was playing to the prejudices of those who fear for ‘British culture’ in a world of increasing diversity. But it was disingenuous for other reasons as well.

One of the churches was St Mary’s, Cable Street. I was there the previous weekend, celebrating the enormous contribution of this small church to a very challenged and challenging community – youth work, a mental health charity, a Sure Start project, ESOL classes, a Credit Union, AIDS/HIV support, and a project with vulnerable children and families.

Just down the road the other featured church, St George’s in the East, serves a community where eight out of 10 self-identify with a faith group other than Christianity. Its ‘church school’ is predominantly Muslim, and it’s just been awarded ‘outstanding’ in all categories by OFSTED.

These interventions within the daily struggle for human flourishing don’t put bums on Sunday pews, but if they didn’t happen then London would be the poorer for it.

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It’s a little-understood feature of the Church of England that it doesn’t exist to serve the needs of its own members. Our clergy are ‘parish priests’, and we’re there to serve the whole of society, every man, woman and child regardless of whether or not they go to church or even identify themselves with Christianity.

This is a faith and a church that gives itself away. Which is why small congregations often punch far above their weight and make a much bigger impact on their communities than numbers alone would suggest. Witness the fact that at the same time as the Daily Mail article appeared, research was published which suggests that around 40% of social action projects in London emerge from faith groups in general and churches in particular, despite the fact that within the population as a whole our numbers are not large.

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I celebrate the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, the Church of England in London is thriving and growing. If you want me to play the numbers game, I can take you to churches that have tripled in size in the last few years. Numbers in our churches are up by more than 60% in the past two decades. Good news stories abound. But numbers are just one half of the story, the other is to do with a faithful, committed, continuing presence for good in places that are often bypassed or forgotten.

I love the priests and people of the East End’s churches. They are good news stories in the best possible way – quietly, unheralded, below the radar. They may not hit the headlines but they change the world for the better day after day. And that’s a story I’d love the Daily Mail to publish.

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