Another church on Mayfair

Name: Richard Coekin

Family: Married to Siân; four children, Charlotte (9), Rupert (7), Rhian (5), Johnny (3).

Ministry background: Trained at Moore College, Sydney, and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; four years at St Mary’s, Manchester; appointed pastor of Dundonald Church, Wimbledon, in 1995, and has served as that church’s first full-time minister since it was planted in 1990.

Richard Coekin, evangelist, church planter, pastor, family man and (by necessity) political negotiator within Anglicanism, pulls no punches when he preaches the gospel. He speaks with an energy that is reflected in the rest of his life. Along with pastoring a family church at Dundonald in Wimbledon (20 minutes by underground to central London), Richard runs lunchtime meetings for business professionals in Westminster. On Sunday evenings, he swaps hats and travels into central Mayfair to run an offshoot of St Helen’s—a congregation of young professionals being trained in evangelism and a vision to plant more churches in the suburbs when they move into family territory themselves.

In Australia for a few weeks recently to speak evangelistically, Richard spoke of the concerns that he left behind him in England.

“There would be three issues that concern me mainly. The first is that our new church in Mayfair is currently excluded from the building we were supposed to be in. It’s an empty church, and we agreed with the Bishop that we would redecorate it at our own expense as a condition of its use. However, an Ethiopian Orthodox church has recently started using it in the mornings. We have no particular problems with that, but they have now insisted on their theological conclusion that the building has become a sacred space so no-one else can use it. So what do we do? They have no right to keep us out, but the press would have a field day if we took it to court—trendy yuppies kicking Ethiopian refugees out of their church. We don’t want to cause a fuss with the Anglican hierarchy either, since evangelicals are somewhat unwelcome in London.”

Evangelicals unwelcome in London? That sounds like an old story. It is, but with a new spin. Evangelicals are viewed with suspicion these days because they’re just too popular. Their churches are showing tremendous growth while other areas of Anglicanism are declining, and this tends to raise certain jealousies. There are other reasons, too: as Richard says, there’s suspicion about how evangelicals are growing their churches. Apparently it’s assumed that they do it with aggressive management and professional wealth—and consequently, they’re accused of not supporting smaller churches that are struggling for money. To diffuse that, Richard’s church at Dundonald gives away an incredible half of their income to other small churches and ministries.

“The second issue that concerns me is that at Dundonald, our congregations are full, so what next? We want to plant a new church with some people from the Mayfair group who are ready to start their move out to the suburbs. But we don’t want just to break up our existing congregations into smaller groups. There are benefits in having a larger central church, particularly for children’s ministries, and to have offices for our administration. All this needs to be planned now if it’s to happen in two years’ time.

“Third, we’re trying very hard to build up our 9:38 scheme, which assists people who want to pursue gospel ministries. So we need to raise money and shape the scheme properly so we can have large numbers of trainees, but without losing the personal training input.”

It seems that the stresses Richard comes under arise mostly from his church planting work. So why does he do it? It’s not that he sees himself as a church planting guru, he is quick to insist! It’s just a simple matter of evangelism. Different forums appeal to different people.

“If there were evangelical churches that could reach everybody in London, we wouldn’t need to be planting at all. But with different sorts of churches, you can access different geographical and social networks. So the lunchtime work is accessing a network of working colleagues at Westminster—people who meet in London, but who would never see each other at home, and who may not have much social time at home. St Helen’s has had a great deal of success in planting groups like that in central London. The Sunday evening congregation reaches people who travel by tube, and can bring their friends who are also young professionals.

“It’s not that evangelism has to mean church planting, although I think evangelism should operate out of a local church. The church community is the community into which you want to bring people when they’re saved. So you want to create a church that is accessible to the people you’re reaching with the gospel. The church is the result of the evangelism, but you can establish a church from which you can reach new people. The gospel aims to gather people together under the Lordship of Jesus. So it’s both; having gathered the people, it then is a base for more evangelism.

“That said, I don’t agree with the theology that you must always plant small churches—that they are better than big churches. The momentum should always be to become bigger. You can split off to create more small churches, but you always need to remember that the basic ministry is evangelism. There is room for both big and small churches. Big churches can resource small churches.

“Some people in Britain would say that the best churches are the biggest; others, the best are the smallest. I say there are advantages in both.”

Despite this open attitude, Richard has experienced difficulties. Often other clergy don’t understand his need for new staff, and there are always tensions with the Anglo-Catholic and liberal factions.

“The trouble is, there is a quota of ordained ministers for any diocese. The evangelical churches who see God’s power in the gospel at work need trained staff, but the hierarchy seems intent on distributing ordained clergy among the Anglo-Catholic and liberal churches. I do think we do need to break this stranglehold on quota. We are doing this at Dundonald in three ways: my first colleague, Orlando Saer, is a fine free churchman, and he now oversees the evening congregation at the parish church in Wimbledon. I eventually had to threaten to seek alternative Episcopal oversight if I wasn’t given permission to have one of my previous apprentices back as an Anglican curate at Dundonald, and eventually the local Bishop gave in. And we are due to employ unordained graduates of Oak Hill pending their ordination by the Bishop at a later stage, or by irregular ordination.”

This idea of a quota on clergy sounds ridiculous, and Richard agrees. He was originally told in Dundonald, for example, that he couldn’t have a curate because his church wasn’t contributing to the life and witness of the diocese. He replied that he thought the diocese existed to support the life and witness of the local church.

“The issue is your view of church. The bishop’s view is that the central church, or cathedral, is the diocese. It seems outrageous that because we don’t contribute financially to the diocese—because we pay our own salaries—that even though we run a growing church, we don’t contribute to the life and witness of the diocese.”

So the diocese itself is the main problem with church plants. “I’ve tried to be open in consultation with Anglican authorities, but they are both uninventive and slow. They can’t conceive of a church that is not in a church building. And there are few buildings not being used by someone else. Also, of course, they want to maintain control of it. So if we try to plant (as we want to) another church from Dundonald, there might be a great deal of opposition.”

At this point in discussion, Richard Perkins arrives. He was one of Richard Coekin’s first apprentices, and is now at Oak Hill, on a year’s exchange at Moore Theological College in Sydney. Richard Perkins offered his opinion of the situation:

“The establishment doesn’t seem to understand team ministry, so the idea of doing ministry as Richard does it in different churches and in different dioceses blows their minds. Many bishops think of the centralized structures of the diocese as the church, but even some evangelicals think of church as the parish with geographical ownership. This can be good in recognizing geographic relational links, but it doesn’t recognize the non-geographic networks, which are increasingly important in urban environments. It is increasingly the case that you don’t know your neighbour, but you do know the people you work with.”

The two Richards have to leave, so Richard Coekin offers some final comments about evangelicalism in England and how it’s perceived.

“The public face of evangelicalism in popular thinking seems to be the Alpha Course. Personally, I want to praise God for apparently large numbers of people with no other contact with church who are now hearing of Christ. We have some people in our church who were converted through it. But we don’t run Alpha because of our theological misgivings: Jesus is finished much too early so that Christianity is presented as an experience of the Spirit, rather than faith in Christ; there is not nearly enough about the future and judgement, heaven and hell; and becoming a Christian is not really explained: it is presented as an experience of God, rather than turning to Christ as our Lord and Saviour in repentance and faith. Some evangelicals run Alpha for the publicity value, and then change the content. The Alpha administration doesn’t authorize this, and I think it’s a shame to back something that is theologically unsound. However, I do want to praise God for what he has done through it, even if it is a rebuke that we didn’t write something better earlier.

“As ever within evangelicalism, the battle is for confidence in the power of the gospel. Evangelism is always a struggle, and I haven’t found any easy ways or recipes for success. The pressure is therefore always on to use something other than the Bible. We need to remain committed and contend for the faith once delivered—doctrinally orthodox and learned in the Word of God, and adventurous and inventive in our evangelistic efforts.”

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