Vol 3/6
July/August
1998

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Parish Profile

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www.wimbledon.org.uk

Any fan using that website to get the latest Wimbledon scores could be in for a surprise! It isn't the homepage of 'the world's best loved tennis tournament' but an Anglican church...

Emmanuel, Wimbledon

- just one of the facets of this very professional, unusual and apparently successful church.

It's a bit of an oddity, really! For a start Emmanuel isn't a parish. It's a 'Proprietary Chapel' - in effect an independently financed and managed church - within someone else's parish boundaries.

It's Church of England - but Emmanuel's trust deed says the Minister doesn't have to be an Anglican priest, although all but its first one have been.

It's part of Southwark Diocese. The Minister swears obedience to the Bishop, and is appointed with the permission of both the Bishop and the Vicar of St.Mary's Wimbledon - but Emmanuel pays no 'quota' and expects nothing in return.

It's part of Wimbledon Team Ministry but fairly loosely, and relies more on the personal relationships between clergy - 'excellent' at present, but not always so.

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A red-brick Victorian building Emmanuel Proprietary Chapel, on The Ridgeway just off Wimbledon Hill originated with a breakaway from St Mary's Wimbledon in the 1860s. Up to that time St Mary's had an evangelical tradition but a new Vicar changed it to liberal Catholic. A number of 'dissenters' started meeting for Bible studies in their homes...then in 1866 began to build their own church. Unlike many breakaways, including those of more recent times, they chose to stay within the Church of England. Today Emmanuel is a Reform church which they see as continuing their founders' conservative evangelical tradition. Its stated mission is to teach and explain the historic Christian message as revealed in the Bible. It does that at every level, from Sunday School through Sunday services to home groups - no frills, no 'liberal' interpretations and no ducking the uncomfortable or un-'PC' bits!

It has no parish but draws its congregation mainly from the surrounding SW19 and SW20 areas, attracted to the church by its style.

The church and parsonage houses are still owned by the proprietors, a group of five trustees which today includes General Synod member Mark Burchell and two retired Brigadiers, David Stileman and Ian Dobbie.

Church members pay all the running costs, including staff and buildings costs. They make no contribution to diocesan or national Church of England funds - but support to several other (mainly Reform) churches and individuals.

The current Minister in Charge is the Rev.Dr Jonathan Fletcher - a 'patrician' figure with an international reputation for Bible teaching and evangelism. Jonathan came to Emmanuel in 1982. He describes Emmanuel's priorities as: expository preaching, evangelism, being a training and sending church, equipping people to be Christians in their everyday lives and reaching younger people.

Supporting Jonathan are two full-time curates, a woman lay-worker, three NSMs and a Reader, and an army of laity running the different groups, where the pastoral and outreach work is done and where the congregation builds on its Sunday worship and teaching.

It offers a variety of worship to suit different tastes and traditions - and each seems to be well supported.

On the Sunday morning I paid a visit there were upwards of 50 people in the congregation for the first service of the day, the 9.45am Prayer Book Holy Communion. The congregation were mostly older people but with a fair sprinkling of 'thirties' and at least one family with children. The service was led by one of Emmanuel's three NSMs Robin Thomson and the curate Nigel Wilson-Brown preaches - both were robed. Jonathan Fletcher wasthere, - no robes and sitting quietly in the back row.

It was a very traditional service - traditional hymns, familiar phrases... I could have been back in my childhood parish church, forty-odd years ago!

Even before the service ends the foyer outside is beginning to fill up for the 11am Family Service. BCPs and hymn books are collected up... the two congregations exchange greetings as they pass in the foyer...Mission Praise is handed out as more than 350 people, mostly young families take their places for the second service of the day.

This time curate Michael Cain leads. It's less formal but familiar Anglican structures still apply. Michael is in a suit. The 9.45 congregation expect robed clergy, so that's what they get. At 11am it's civvies - because that's what they want!

After a quarter of hour or so of 'all-age' worship, including a short story aimed mainly at the children, the youngsters go off to the three creches (for babies, crawlers and toddlers), the Sunday School for 3-8s, Explorers and Pathfinders for older children. The adults settle in for Jonathan Fletcher's sermon... around 40 minutes of expository preaching on 1 John, part of a series he's been doing weekly since mid-May.

I popped into the Sunday School where after singing 'Happy Birthday' to one of the children, they had settled down to a Bible-based story-time.

"The watchword must be 'fun'. We want children to look back on their childhood in church as a time of fun - if they can learn too, that's a bonus" says Jonathan.

The Family Service ended at around 12.30 - but no-one seemed to want to leave. At 1.15 the foyer was still full with people drinking coffee and generally enjoying each other's company.

I was told that the evening service, although less formal and geared to an even younger audience had the same basic ingredients...and got the same enthusiastic following.

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So what is Emmanuel's secret?

I started by asking Geoff and Anne Campbell. Australians, they came to the UK six months ago and deliberately found a house within Emmanuel's vicinity. "We read an article by Jonathan in a magazine in Australia and decided this was the church for us. It's the focus on the Bible and our response, that draws people here."

Brigadier David Stileman is the third generation of his family at Emmanuel - the next two generations were with him at the 11am service. He described Emmanuel as "a stronghold where the Bible is faithfully preached. "Emmanuel is totally CofE" he said "but the Bible ministry attracts people from all denominations and all ages".

Jonathan Fletcher's recipe for success is in two parts.

"You attract families by providing good creche and Sunday School facilities - you keep them by teaching the Bible and preaching the gospel without frills!"

"The church is shaped by the families" he said. "They give its ethos and its feel. After all clergy come and go, it is the laity who are permanent".

There is strong evidence of lay leadership from the church council which has never taken a vote but operates on consensus ("12 years ago we discussed a church plant but shelved it because one person disagreed" said Jonathan)...to the twenty weekly house bible-study groups - the 'heartbeat of Emmanuel' - the very lively Acorn young people's group and the women's and men's groups. "The powerhouse of Emmanuel is the 2nd Wednesday of the month when the groups come together for supper and prayer" said Jonathan.

It's certainly not a poor church! The annual running costs are around 160,000. In addition they budget to raise and spend a further 130,000 outside the parish, on mission and evangelism, both overseas and in the UK, supporting societies, churches and individuals.

It's conservative evangelical, modern hymns but not 'happy-clappy'; financially independent and secure; numbers still growing despite a church plant 7 years ago, now itself virtually independent of Emmanuel; and it has 'sent' more than a dozen people for ordination in the past 10 years!

Are there no 'worms' in the apple?

There is a risk of the church being 'congregational'. Emmanuel has lots of weddings and baptisms - but only its own members, and because they are mainly young, and it has no parish church role, it has few funerals.

"It would be easy to become 'comfortable' even a clique for the middle and upper classes" said Jonathan. "I sometimes think we fail the wounded - they can feel uncomfortable among our flock of happy families. That's why the meeting after church over coffee is so important, it breaks down artificial barriers."

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There is a danger of 'busyness' - particularly with so many groups - although most people only go to one meeting a week.

The housegroups are the basis for pastoral care and outreach which again runs the risk of like attracting like - although a Christian enquirers course is run, and during Wimbledon fortnight Emmanuel have been out among the queues at 10pm offering soup and a chat.

"I believe that many people want the Gospel message of God's forgiveness but I reject the emphasis some churches give on come to Jesus and all your problems will be solved" said Jonathan

I freely admit to coming away impressed with Emmanuel, Wimbledon - though with nagging doubts about whether it would work quite so well in a less 'comfortable' area and without the impressive Dr Fletcher and the very professional team he has gathered round him. However, I tried an 'Emmanuel-style' sermon in my village church the following Sunday...and they wanted more. Hmmm!

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