London’s Floating Church

At the moment Western Europe is not seen as a place of vibrant churches. Indeed, most denominations in most places have seen a substantial decline in the numbers of people who attend regularly. The Anglican Church is no exception to this generalization. In Wales, between 1990 and 2016, the number of adult members of the Church of Wales has dropped from 98,900, to 45,800. Yet surprisingly there is one English Anglican diocese that is doing well, the Diocese of London.

I am no expert on Anglicanism, but it seems as if the City of London is more or less evenly split in two between the Dioceses of London and Southwark. These dioceses have similar populations and ethnic composition. Between 1990 and 2016, the adult population of the Diocese of London has grown from 45,100 to 73,900 (a net increase of 28,800). Over the same period, the population of the diocese of Southwark has fallen from 46,100 to 42,800 (a net decrease of 3,200). The Diocese of London even plans to found 100 new congregations between 2012 and 2020.

A recent study has proposed the following reasons for the vitality of the Diocese of London:

* The Bishops’ single-minded valuation of growing and multiplying local churches, which has spread across diocese.

* A financial framework that encourages growing churches instead of penalizing them.

* A readiness to live and let live between traditions.

* An ambitious strategy for starting new churches.

In this post, I want to examine one strategy of church building that London is using, a church boat. This boat, which is soon to be dedicated, will be the home of the parish of St. Peter’s Barge: London’s Floating Church.  The church will be able to travel through London’s waterways mooring at different places, thereby providing a building where a nascent parish can meet until such time as they are able to build their own more permanent worship space.

The parish is not very liturgical, and judging from their website, they only have the Eucharist once a month. For the moment they are celebrating their Sunday service in a cinema. However, the new church boat will have a particular aesthetic. Their architectural firm describes the church boat in this way:

Taking our cues from church organ bellows and the pop-up sleeping pods found in vintage VW camper vans, the concept was developed to provide a dramatic and transformative space within the confines of a barge designed to traverse the London canal network. During its nomadic existence, the boat will alternate between two distinct characters. When navigating the waterways, the boat will be compact and low-lying, so as to pass beneath bridges. When moored, the boat will bloom into an illuminated beacon with its sculptural pop-out roof canopies. The largest canopy will provide a dramatic internal space for worship through to arts and cultural events.

The translucent bellows, crafted from sail material, will provide a soft, ambient light during the day and act as a Chinese lantern at night, creating a warm, inviting glow to passers-by and imbuing the interiors with a celestial quality.

Some readers might want to reflect on the idea of a VW camper van as a sacred image (indeed I wonder whether the young people that the parish seems to be attracting even know what a VW camper van is). It is obvious that this is not the solution for most Catholic parishes and the fact that this particular parish does not practice a traditional worship style is significant for much of our discussion. But the Diocese of London must be admired for their determination to do something and to think outside the box. We all ought to question ourselves as to what we might learn from them.

It could also be noted that this floating church is not a million miles away from certain Roman Catholic practices, this week there was an articleover at The New Liturgical Movement with a photo post on Eucharists celebrated for soldiers during World War One, here a number of portable or provisional churches featured prominently. Yet another example of a similar pastoral practice can be seen in Russia where His Holiness, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church recently visited a new church bus that will serve as a mobile church serving various villages that have no church of their own.

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2 comments

  1. ‘The parish is not very liturgical’ -understatement! I may be mistaken, but to my eye most of these new church establishments are from the powerful evangelical wing of the Church of England, which has very little patience with ‘liturgy.’

    I also wonder if part of it in the London Diocese at least has been the initiative of the former Bishop Richard Charteris to keep church buildings open and functioning after their regular congregation has died out. Part also is the sense that the C.of E. still has, commendably, of its mission to the people, whoever they are. This is reflected in the nationwide initiative to find functions for church buildings which will benefit the local community and which will co-exist with worship.

    ‘being with people wherever they are’ seems to be the general intention. Maybe evangelicals are better at this than anyone else. It certainly looks like that to me.

    AG.

  2. Regard needs to be taken of the effect of migration on the population of London and attendance at its churches. I attended a Lenten service at the London Oratory the other year and my impression was that even despite the level of eastern European migration the majority of worshippers were ‘non-white’.

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