Fresh Expressions, the theologian the Revd Dr Alison Milbank tells me with a twinkle in her eye, is actually a form of perfumed cat-litter in the United States. That is worth a chuckle; but at least cat litter doesn’t do all that much harm.
Its namesake within the Church of England, however, is far from harmless. As the Revd Dr Andrew Davison and Dr Milbank have ably demonstrated in their impressive new book, For the Parish: A critique of Fresh Expressions (SCM, 2010), the whole Fresh Expressions movement is nothing less than a threat to the integrity of the parish structure of the Church of England. This book presents the choice before us thus: we either “embrace the historic mission to evangelize and serve the whole people of this country, or [we] decline into a sect”.
“Fresh Expressions encourages new forms of church for a fast-changing world,” it says on its website. “It is a way of describing the planting of new congregations which are different in ethos and style from the church which planted them.” The examples given are a surfer church on Polzeath beach, a eucharist for Goths in Cambridge, and a youth congregation based in a skate park.
I have always disliked the cringe-making trendiness of Fresh Expressions. It feels like the teacher wanting to get down with the kids. There is nothing so humiliating and embarrassing as the attempt by older people to communicate in the complex grammar of youth culture; still worse, when it comes from ecclesiastical civil servants working in Church House — which, I believe, is the true spiritual home of Fresh Expressions.
But what Dr Davison and Dr Milbank have done is to give these instinctive reactions a proper theological grounding. The Church must never be a series of special-interest groups that we might choose to join, as we might choose a club or gym. This is ecclesiology that has been mugged by the choice-is-everything ethos of late capitalism.
Yet, unfortunately, this is precisely what Fresh Expressions proposes as an alternative to the parish system, which it clearly thinks has had it. No doubt there will be a letter in this paper in the next few weeks denying it. But, as it says in the founding document of Fresh Expressions, the report Mission-shaped Church (Church House Publishing, 2004): “We are not about patching the fabric of that old garment but seeking to set up a new loom to weave the new fabric for tomorrow’s society of the kingdom.”
Well, excuse me if I don’t want to dress up in these trendy new fabrics. It is time to stick up for the traditional parish model.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.