Few neighborhood Anglican churches in London are more prominently and strategically situated than Christ Church, Highbury. A solid, imposing, Gothic revival structure overlooking a major thoroughfare, it is noticed by thousands of people every day. A campus of the Metropolitan University of London stands directly across the street. Highbury Gardens, which, though covering only twenty-seven acres, is the largest park in the borough of Islington, is directly adjacent. Buses pass frequently. The world-famous Arsenal football club is within shouting distance. Over ten thousand people live in Highbury ward, the vast majority within a ten or fifteen minutes' walk. Surely Christ Church should be as lively as its parish.
On Easter Sunday 2003, however, it has the smell of death about it. Only seventeen gather for the evening service on this holiest of days. Of these, one is an overseas visitor, and three others will slip out quietly before worship is concluded. Nor is thin attendance here unusual. At the main service this morning, a visitor is told, sixty were present. And the report of a "mystery worshipper" at http://ship-of-fools.com/records a congregation of twenty on a Sunday evening in 1998. But more noticeable than the small numbers, striking though these are, is the mood of discouragement and uncertainty. Tonight marks the end of an era in the church's leadership. The long-time vicar retired several weeks earlier, and the non-stipendiary priest who has held things together since then is moving to the north of England after the service this evening. A new vicar has been appointed, and he is believed to be very capable, but it cannot be assumed either that the old leadership was the problem or that new leadership is the solution. Like a critically ill patient in a remote facility waiting for a shipment of medicine which might or might not work, the faithful remnant of Christ Church is hanging on as well as it can, hoping for the best, fearing the worst.
How have things come to this point? How can one explain the apparent failure of a church with so many advantages of circumstance? The usual grand interpretations are no doubt pertinent: secularization, consumerism, competing claims on diminished leisure time, the changing roles of women, and multiculturalism have pummelled former patterns of churchgoing. But these theories do not explain why on this particular evening this church is moribund, while four Underground stops away, the ushers at All Souls, Langham Place, are busily packing people into every corner of the room.
A visitor cannot analyze what is beyond a doubt a complicated situation with many hidden layers of history. But clues can be found in the public liturgy, which both reflects and shapes the inner life of a Christian community.
Christ Church is at the center of a village steeped in history. Highbury manor was a country retreat of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem after 1271, and the manor house was situated about half a block from where the church stands now. After the dissolution of monasteries the property passed through several hands. In the early nineteenth century the area was known for its dairy farms and a popular country resort. Highbury was growing suburban in the 1820s, and in the 1840s its real estate market caught fire. With some exceptions, the developers overbuilt and seriously skimped on public space, but it was an upscale community until the twentieth century. Christ Church was built at an early stage of the development in 1848. Around the turn of the century residential infilling, conversions to flats, and some industrialization lowered the character of the area, but in the 1960s artists, professionals, and entertainment people rediscovered it and began some gentrification. Assisted housing and comfortable villas both exist here; the average income in one Highbury postal code is twice what it is in a postal code a hundred yards away. The average flat costs about £220,000; a typical semi-detached house runs about £500,000. …