Building on Church History: The Church in London
The Diocese of London Lambeth Palace Library King's College London The Open University

History, mission and ministry

Leading the Church

Men need the experience of the past to help them in practical endeavours, to enable them to understand the position of actual
questions with which they and their age are engaged -
Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, 1897-1901

Seminar for church leaders - photo
A seminar at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, for church leaders in the Midlands

The Building on History project has pointed towards the ways in which historical awareness can better equip senior clergy and diocesan policymakers to make good strategic decisions. The project chose to focus primarily on the nineteenth century because of the striking comparisons between the social context then and now, and also because of the extent to which the contemporary church has been shaped by this phase in its history.

In seminars and workshops we have pointed to the legacies and lessons of the nineteenth century, exploring the following:

  • The ways in which the modern Church of England has been shaped by significant institutional and administrative reforms in the past. For example, the creation of new dioceses and the growth of new diocesan representative bodies and societies were important innovations in the structure of the church with important consequences for mission and support of the ministry. Understanding the historical development of Church organisation and administration can provide leaders with useful perspectives for evaluating the present and developing strategies for the future.
  • The development of church parties and the sharpening of party conflict. The nineteenth century saw the rise of Anglo-Catholicism; increasing esprit de corps among Evangelicals; and later the emergence of a ‘modernist’ or ‘Broad Church’ group of Anglicans. Awareness of the tensions that resulted - and not only the stresses and strains they imposed on the church, but the creative energies they unleashed without ultimately dividing the communion - can provide perspective and a sense of proportion for those reflecting on current church issues and controversies.
  • Emerging approaches to mission. The nineteenth century saw an explosion of church planting and parish sub-division (for example, some 200 churches were consecrated in London during the episcopate of Bishop Charles Blomfield between 1828 and 1856). The spiritual and social challenges of the Victorian city also saw churches and clergy seek to connect with their parishes in innovative and often radical ways, with a purposefulness that is perhaps comparable with the Fresh Expressions movement. Critical appraisal of these approaches to mission can provide inspiration, instruction and sometimes cautionary tales for contemporary leaders.

What to do next?

One of the key aims of Building on History has been to highlight the accessible and exciting historical research done on the Church of England in recent years. The following three case studies show examples of this kind of historical perspective in action:

  • In the space of a decade, early Victorian Bethnal Green saw ten new Anglican churches erected on the back of an intense fund-raising effort. Today, only two remain open for worship, and by 1900 the district was already identified as demonstrating the shortcomings of pastoral strategies based on bricks and mortar. There are indeed lessons to be learned from the failings of the scheme. However, recent research suggests that subsequent commentators both overestimated the naivety of the project and underestimated its initial success in answering the district’s pastoral problems as understood by contemporaries, who focused less on church attendance than on changing the moral character of a district prone to public disorder and organised criminality. Closer investigation of the Bethnal Green experiment thus raises important questions about what constitutes a realistic timeframe for assessing the success or failure of pastoral initiatives, not least as understandings of the very challenges faced can subtly evolve in ways that render initial strategies redundant.
  • In 1850, as the suburb of Cricklewood in north London was developing along the arterial road now known as the A5, the then Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, suggested to the Vicar of Willesden that he should think about building a new church for the area. The bishop pointed out that, as the road itself marked the parish boundary, it might be a good idea for the vicar to liaise with his neighbour, the Vicar of Hendon, in order to achieve a coherent pastoral strategy for the new settlement. However, in the event, new parishes were created by independent division of the two existing parishes, meaning that the main road, the commercial heart of the community of Cricklewood, continues to this day to divide it into separate parishes, archdeaconries and episcopal areas. In the light of current plans for major development in the area, this historical legacy would seem ripe for reassessment.
  • In South Kensington after 1842, landowners and developers favoured evangelical designs and incumbents to enhance the value of their newly-built houses - at St Paul’s Onslow Square, St Peter’s Cranley Gardens, St Luke’s Redcliffe Gardens, St Stephen’s Gloucester Road, and St Jude’s Courtfield Gardens. Entrepreneurial high church clergy, with financial backing from rich members of their congregations, also began promoting new churches. St Philip’s Earls Court Road was sponsored by the vicar of St Barnabas Addison Road in 1857-8. The first vicar of St Philip’s established St Matthias Warwick Road in 1869-70 and St Patrick’s Kenway Road in 1872, and bought a site close to St Jude’s where he began to promote a new church, although the Bishop warned him he would not consecrate it. I the early 1880s a curate from St Matthias’s began promoting a new church, in Philbeach Gardens, St Cuthbert’s, to which again the Bishop unsuccessfully objected. Church planting, then, could be driven by local and party concerns, sometimes resulting in an over-provision of buildings. Contemporary leaders might find it useful to reflect on examples of historical tensions between local initiatives and central strategy.

Similar case studies are available on the Building on History website ( where resources are also available which facilitate the carrying out of strategic and purposeful research.

To discuss the possibility of members of the Building on History team speaking to senior leaders in your diocese, see our contact page.

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