The bishops and fresh expressions

by
30 January 2008

Steve Hollingshurst wonders whether new proposals for supervising fresh expressions of church will be effective

Hard to catch: non-geographic fresh expressions of church, such as Rezurgence, will not fit easily into a network of diocesan supervision GREG MINNAAR

Hard to catch: non-geographic fresh expressions of church, such as Rezurgence, will not fit easily into a network of diocesan supervision GREG MI...

IN THE early 1990s, I was involved in starting what would now be called a “fresh expression of church”. It came out of my work as a youth evangelist in an urban area of Nottingham.

We dealt mainly with young adults and teens, most of whom had no church background. As they began to explore faith, we realised they were never likely to fit into their parish church, even though it was good, lively, and welcoming. With the church’s blessing and support, we started something seeking to be church in the local youth culture.

The Bishop, and others in the hierarchy, were very supportive, but no one was sure how such initiatives sat within canon law. The message to those of us across the country who were involved in planting such churches was: “Keep doing what you’re doing, but don’t tell us too much, or we might have to stop it.” Dioceses wanted to be supportive, and didn’t want to kill our creativity with too many legalities, or too much oversight.

We were inspired, as many were, by the Nine O’clock Service (NOS) in Sheffield, and made several trips up the M1 to explore what was going on. A few years later, NOS was to collapse under a scandal that, among other things, exposed how the “don’t tell and we won’t ask” approach could go disastrously wrong.

Our church plant also didn’t last, though thankfully there were no scandals. We simply put too much energy into worship events and not enough into building community. I have since learnt the importance of doing it the other way round.

I was recently talking about learning from this with an experienced church-planter from the United States. He smiled, and told me that many US churches had made the same mistake. I could have done with such knowledgeable advice 17 years ago.

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Fortunately, we did not also have to face what many such ventures did, as parish churches struggled to fit new expressions into old structures. Our parish understood that we were planting a church, even though it didn’t look much like what happened on a Sunday morning. Others had regularly to deflect the question: “But when are they going to start coming to church?”

Looking back, what we all needed was some way for such church plants to be officially recognised and supported — but not forced into structures that governed regular parish churches.

THE UNDERSTANDING of such church-planting has greatly improved, especially since the report Mission-shaped Church ; but the need for this kind of recognition and oversight is still there.

The introduction of Bishop’s Mission Orders, along with changes to the Pastoral Measure, is intended to address this situation, and this is very welcome. The question is, will they work?

There is much that is good about the proposed orders. The legislation clearly notes two important features of the kind of church plants we increasingly require in Britain: the need to plant churches within networks that cross parish boundaries; and the need for culturally diverse expressions of church within a geographical area.

In addressing this, the legislation is not afraid to tackle the issue of recognising church plants across parish boundaries, accepting that this may mean, for example, women celebrating communion in a church recognised through an Order in a parish where the parish church does not accept women priests.

This goes hand in hand with the changes to the Pastoral Measure which redefine a parish as an area that the parish church serves, not as an area in which the parish church has control. In doing this, it rightly realises that church plants need to be approved at diocesan and not parish level.

The legislation also recognises that such plants take time to mature, and that it is only at a certain stage that the formalisation of a mission within a network or culture as a “church” is appropriate.

Similarly, it also recognises that this will change over time, and that an Order should thus be, for a limited time, subject to review.

Lastly, in the introduction of the role of visitor for churches recognised by a Bishop’s Mission Order, there is the possibility of both oversight and advice that is much needed. If this is all done well, the use of the Order should not be about the Church taking more control of what is going on, and thus hopefully making another NOS scandal less likely; it should also help projects grow healthier, and enable them to maintain creativity while firmly placing them as legitimate churches in the Anglican structures.

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THERE ARE some potential problems that need facing, however. A sensitive issue in church-planting has always been the fear of parish churches that plants they have not set up will draw away their parishioners. The legislation is clearly aware of this, and sensibly notes that any church recognised by a Mission Order should be clearly different from the parish church. The aim of missionary church-planting is to reach those whom the local parish doesn’t, and this is what the Orders seek to recognise.

The widening of the geographical home of a church plant from the parish to the diocese, however, may well not be wide enough for some fresh expressions. The idea that a church may attract members from a wide geographical area is nothing new. If a church has a fixed meeting place, it will be in someone’s diocese, and as long as it is recognised that some network or work-based churches may draw from several dioceses this should not be a problem in granting a Bishop’s Mission Order.

The widening of the geographical home of a church plant from the parish to the diocese, however, may well not be wide enough for some fresh expressions. The idea that a church may attract members from a wide geographical area is nothing new. If a church has a fixed meeting place, it will be in someone’s diocese, and as long as it is recognised that some network or work-based churches may draw from several dioceses this should not be a problem in granting a Bishop’s Mission Order.

But not all churches do meet in a fixed place. A good example would be Rezurgence, creating Christian community in the extreme-cycling fraternity based at cycle events around the country. Similarly, in whose diocese would a church among the traveller community be? Or a church on the internet?

This problem is not insurmountable, but it needs to be recognised, so that bishops will be able to use Orders for some churches that function across several dioceses without always being able to determine whether there are other bishops they need to consult.

Another issue is the role of the visitor. To be able to fulfil this, experience of exercising oversight of parish churches is not enough: the visitor will need to understand cross-cultural church planting if he or she is to avoid unwittingly measuring progress under the Order against entirely the wrong benchmarks. The wrong visitor can be worse than no visitor.

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There are people around the country equipped to serve well as visitors, but are there enough of them if Mission Orders really take off? Diocesan missioners may already have the necessary experience, and might be the most likely people to train as visitors if not; but such training will take time. This can’t be left till a diocese wants to use an Order: dioceses will need to know in advance that they can draw on a suitably experienced visitor, and know where they might find another if needed. It certainly can’t be assumed that archdeacons will simply add this to their portfolio.

Finally, I am concerned by some of the language about the “temporary nature” of Mission Orders. It would be wrong to grant Orders and then never review them. But it would also be wrong to assume that an Order is needed only until the fresh expression can function like a “proper church” under the measures used to guide oversight of existing parish churches. If we are truly going to plant churches in networks or cultures that contain people very different from those we can attract with a good parish church, then we need to recognise that such churches will not look like an existing parish church. Their patterns of worship and governance will accord with the culture of the group that brought them to birth.

I am not convinced that the Church at large has really grasped this. Behind the language of “temporary” lies the assumption that all Anglican churches can be made to fit the existing patterns. The same mistake has been made in the creation of Pioneer Ordained Ministers, expected to fulfil the role of conventional parish priest as well as that of pioneer, when these should have been seen as different callings.

Bishop’s Mission Orders are part of a very welcome series of changes designed to ensure that the Church of England can meet the challenges identified by Mission-shaped Church. These challenges require a rethink of what it is to be a Church shaped by mission rather than pastoral oversight.

Such a rethink calls into question the traditional way the Anglican parish system has functioned, and it is clear that the legislation for Bishop’s Mission Orders does not shy away from raising what may be some difficult areas of debate. It may be that some of these issues are more challenging than it is at present realised. I hope that these are faced now, so that Mission Orders can do the right job and enable good oversight of the kind of innovative churches we are planting in today’s Britain.

www.rezurgence.com

www.stjudeschurch.com

The Revd Steve Hollinghurst is Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at the Church Army Sheffield Centre.

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