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The baby and the parochial bathwater

23 November 2010

Stephen Cottrell gets to grips with a sharp critique of Fresh Expressions theology


For the Parish: A critique of Fresh Expressions
Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank

SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

THE Fresh Expressions backlash starts here — and with verve and vengeance. Likening them to “lavender-scented cat-litter”, the authors assert that Fresh Expres­sions have become a dangerous seg­regating and commodifying move­ment within the Church, which has redefined Anglican ecclesiology, cast us adrift from our historic roots, undermined the parish system, and damaged clergy morale. They have a phrase for it: ecclesial apartheid. It is quite a read.

So, where to begin with a review of such a book? Well, the first thing to say is that in my view this is the most serious and important book on Anglican mission that I have read for many years — not least be­cause it is an unashamedly theologi­cal book, taking the report Mission-shaped Church and its agenda to task precisely because of its lack of theological depth or analysis.

Indeed, on the opening page the fundamental philosophical charge is laid that in making such a sharp distinction between content and form, the mission-shaped Church falls at the first hurdle. The Church of England has never been a confes­sional Church. Our liturgy has always been our focus of unity, the assurance of our historic continuity, and the means whereby our doc­trinal identity is communicated and preserved.

Even in the pick-and-mix days of Common Worship, the formulation lex orandi lex credendi (what we pray forms the pattern of what we believe) has been central to Angli­can­ism. Therefore, to suppose that the unsullied kernel of the gospel can be easily separated from the cultural accretions of the husk is a dangerous mistake. The content of the gospel is communicated through its forms, and the forms that we have received from the past should not be discarded lightly.

Anyway, that is the nub of a read­able, challenging, and closely argued book, and Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank are to be congratu­lated. Indeed, every parish priest and pioneer minister needs to read this book as a matter of urgency.

Sometimes, the book chooses rather soft targets — knitting-circle church, for instance — and some­times this weakens the argument. While we all know of the parent-and-toddler group that has been re­branded a Fresh Expression, the serious concern that this book raises is that many Fresh Expressions would be much better understood as mission initiatives, that is, not churches in themselves, but forms of Christian community where people are nurtured and evangelised. By insisting that these places are church, church itself is devalued, and, as the book argues brilliantly, the gospel itself could be compro­mised — not least the radical in­clus­ivity of the Church that Paul writes about, where all human boun­dar­ies are removed.

But we can’t just leave it there. First, we must also acknowledge the many fresh expressions where sacrificial and serious attempts have been made to re-engage with groups who have felt excluded or marginal­ised from the Church. This mission­ary endeavour was the impetus be­hind Mission-shaped Church, and, although this book devastatingly re­veals its weaknesses, we cannot deny that many people have been in­spired and directed by it, and that many have come to Christ.

There are also things that this book omits. Although I do not want in any way to detract from the power of its critique, it is what is left unsaid that seems to me to set the agenda for the next stage of a vitally important conversation that the Church of England needs to have with itself about its mission strategy.

Most serious of all, the book hardly mentions episcopacy. Al­though, as the title declares, this book is “for the parish”, it seems odd that the connection is not pro­perly made between parish and dio­cese. It really gets a mention only in a quotation from Bede, who writes to Egbert of York advising him to set up what we would now call the parish system, because the places in his diocese are too far apart for him to minister by him­self. In other words, the parish can­not exist with­out the diocese and the bishop.

This has several implications that the book doesn’t address. First, the parish system is the consequence of mission, not its cause. In a new mis­sionary context, like the European one in which we find ourselves, the parish still has a central place, but there may be other forms of church — not least, the new monastic move­ments that also don’t get a men­tion — which may again pro­vide the vanguard for evangelisation in situations that are too far apart from our current parish churches.

What we don’t want to do is to reinvent the medieval suspicions that often existed between abbot and bishop; and what we do want is a missionary episcopate that holds together different legitimate and complete expressions of Anglican faith.

It follows that, as Anglicanism has always understood the bishop to be the focus of unity in the Church, it has always allowed for other min­is­tries alongside the predominant model of the parish. So it is also strange that another recent develop­ment that gets no mention is Bishop’s Mission Orders. These are specifically intended to create other expressions of church whose unity is found through the bishop and the diocese, not only through the par­ish. Moreover, many Fresh Expres­sions whose main focus may be to a particular group of people also recognise that the gospel demands us to be drawn into a new humanity where we don’t just sit tight with those we like, but are muddled together with everyone and anyone.

These communities make a distinction between the cell and the celebration. The Fresh Expression, like the parish, is a cell of the whole, and just as the geographical diocese does from time to time need to draw itself together, so that the dif­ferences of church tradition can find uncomfortable unity, so a Fresh Expression ministering to young people needs regularly to be part of a larger congregation — the cele­b-ra­tion — where all ages gather together.

Finally, the book does not take seriously enough the decline in churchgoing in many parts of the country, and the ways in which the parish church has failed to be the rich resource for Christian living and community involvement which the authors describe here. Some­times the authors are a little senti­mental. I fear that there are many people who would not share their confident assertion that every human heart is lifted just by the sight of a church spire. Indeed, the fact that this is not the case (and that some of the clergy seem to think that it is) is itself part of the problem. In this way, the book is open to the charge that this way of doing mission — Fresh Expressions — may, indeed, be theologically in­ferior; it is still, however, a massive improvement on not doing any­thing at all.

On the whole, the book is fair and generous to those pioneer min­isters who are giving themselves in order to find fresh ways of bringing others to Christ. But there is a danger of the pendulum’s swinging too far the other way. Surely, there is the legitimate and necessary re-expression of the tradition that the Church has always been involved in. There is no single form that can carry the content of the gospel. Not only do these forms change and evolve: they are often the refining fire through which we rediscover what is vital to the gospel in our own age. Think of the liturgical movement in the 20th century, the massive convulsions of Vatican II, the Reformation itself.

Hans Küng has observed that to do the same thing when everything else around you changes is not to do the same thing. Therefore, the Church is right to respond liturgic­ally and evangelistically to the com­plex changes going on around us in our society. The question that re­mains for me from this book is how the energy of Fresh Expressions can be brought much more closely into the oversight of diocese and parish.

Having said all that, however, I want to affirm the importance of this book. It raises fundamental ques­tions about our ecclesiology and our mission, and it reveals our shameful failure to think about these matters with enough theo­logical rigour. It also does the parish clergy of the Church of England a great service by affirming the cen­tral place of the parish and the min­is­try of the parish priest.

But, at the end of the excellent and inspiring chapter “Rebuilding a Christian Imaginary in the Parish”, I did find myself naughtily wanting to add new congregations to the list of things that the parish could offer. And yet, on balance, I think that the authors would agree with me: Fresh Expressions don’t need to stop, but they do need to be held within the Church.

So this book isn’t against Fresh Expressions. It longs for them to be woven into the tapestry of parish life so that they are vibrant expres­sions of the Church we already are, and not just expressions of part of it. It urges the Church to put down deeper roots in its traditions, so that the many flowers that may bloom are clearly of the one plant.

Mission-shaped Church sold thousands of copies. This book deserves to do just as well.

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.

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