The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou reflects on the doctrinal implications of the removal of historic saints’ names from some of our rebranded churches and is concerned that this is a departure not just from the historic character of Anglicanism but from a fundamental feature of the Christian faith.
‘ …take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines… pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition, so that there remain no memory of the same…’From the Elizabethan ‘Injunctions of 1559
In the TV comedy Rev about an inner-city vicar, there is an episode when his church is suddenly ‘taken over’ by a church plant. The pews are replaced by sofas, tea after services is exchanged for a smoothie bar, and traditional worship accompanied on the organ is supplanted by a drum kit and projector screens. Ultimately, Fr Adam himself is also to be replaced by a better-looking and trendy vicar with much more confidence, and much more money at his disposal too.
It is a send-up of a certain kind of evangelical church plant, and unfairly exaggerates some aspects of such projects for comic effect. There are many ways in which Fr Adam is a failure and this is very obvious in his tiny congregation and dilapidated building. At the same time, there are many ways in which Fr Adam is a model priest in his ministry among the poor and marginalised, epitomised by his regular conversations sitting on a bench alongside Colin, the local homeless alcoholic.
The episode raises important and legitimate questions about what success looks like and the nature of parish ministry in the Church of England. These questions are even more urgent today than they were a few years ago when the episode was first broadcast. As congregations continue to decline and coronavirus brings with it a looming financial crisis, a church like Fr Adam’s, with so few people and so clearly unable to support itself financially, can’t go on as it has done before.
Life sometimes imitates art, and recently it was announced that the church featured in the series – St Leonard’s, Shoreditch – is embarking upon a partnership with another church that has the skills, personnel and resources to regenerate and bring new life to a struggling church. There is much in these partnerships to be commended, not least the energy, enthusiasm and the impressive track record that they have in rescuing a church from closure.
There is one feature however that I wish to highlight as a concern, because of its doctrinal aspect and its potential to change the character and nature of the Church of England. It is noticeable that in the information about the project, St Leonard’s is repeatedly referred to as ‘Shoreditch Church’ and the partnering church, properly known as St John at Hackney, as ‘Hackney Church’. This isn’t the only example of a church losing its original designation. ‘Hope Church’ in Islington was originally St Mary Magdalene, and there are many other instances where the name of a church and parish are reduced to an acronym so that the original title is almost never used. Holy Trinity, Brompton, is perhaps the most famous example, with the ubiquitous use of ‘HTB’. I use these merely as illustrations of a trend, without wishing to criticise the leadership or ministry of these particular churches as such.
I also don’t wish to question the excellent regenerative work of church planting and partnering. Nor do I want to cast doubt on the importance of some benefits of branding, which can provide a consistent and attractive look and vocabulary that helps to interest and attract people to a church and ultimately to the Christian faith itself. However I do think that the trend to remove or hide the traditional and proper names of churches is fundamentally a doctrinal one, that has an impact upon the very character of Anglicanism. In the Apostles’ Creed we say ‘I believe in… the communion of saints’. In some of these rebrands of our parish churches, as the names of the saints are removed from common usage, so then is their influence upon the Christian life and the parish communities in which they are set.
I was struck that in the excellent history section of the website for ‘Hackney Church’ there was this sentence: ‘the whitewashed walls attest to the degree of change wrought by the Reformation inside the church’. The Reformation greatly diminished popular piety towards the saints among the English people. The quotation at the beginning of this article from the Elizabethan Injunctions reflects the extent of efforts to remove all reference in churches to the saints ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’. In every church in the land, the statues of the saints were destroyed and their images painted over in accordance with a reforming zeal against what the reformers saw as idolatrous worship. However, one of the ways in which England’s belief in the communion of saints continued was in the dedications of its churches, which remained unchanged in most places, with the names they were given at their foundation centuries before. This has become an important feature of Anglicanism which, unusually among churches influenced by the Reformation, retains a much fuller recognition of the saints. This is evident in the liturgical calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, which largely adopts the pre-Reformation sanctorale.
It is true that today the legal name of these re-branded parishes still remains unchanged. Does that mean the removal of the name is insignificant? My concern is that by eroding the historic dedications of our churches we are also eroding our belief in the communion of saints and the charisms they represent. What does it say about our belief in this essential aspect of our Christian faith when the names of St Leonard, St John and St Mary Magdalene are removed from collective memory? Have the martyrs, apostles and confessors of earlier ages ceased to be important as examples and inspirations today? Do we still truly believe in the communion of saints?
In the 16th century many of the more ardent Protestants were unhappy with the Reformation in England and, despite the near-universal removal of images of the saints, described the Church in England as ‘but halfly reformed’. My view is that this particular rebranding aspect of the church plant and resource church movement is misguided and should be reconsidered. Accidentally or otherwise, it has the appearance and effect of completing the task left unfinished at the Reformation which left intact the ancient dedications of our churches. In these disappearing dedications I fear we have a new attempt to undermine and ‘make utterly extinct’ the saints of God, whose memory and example should be honoured and celebrated not forgotten and ignored.
As the Church of England prepares to make some difficult decisions about church closures, amalgamations and partnering over the coming years, I urge a reconsideration of this trend that risks undermining the character of Anglicanism, and one of the essential tenets of the Christian faith itself.
The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou