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Fresh Expressions

13 July 2012

THE General Synod endorsed Fresh Expressions (church-plants or new congregations that have been created in response to the changing culture) as "authentic manifestations of Anglican ecclesiology", after a debate on Saturday evening.

"Fresh Expressions and traditional churches are part of one and the same Church engaged together in a common mission," the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, said at the start of a debate on a report from the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Fresh Expressions and Church Growth, to which was appended the report of an Anglican-Methodist working party, Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church.

The Bishop said that the report recommended a "health checklist" to help both traditional churches and Fresh Expressions to look at their lives as Christian communities. The motion, he said, "asks you to affirm that what is going on under the banner of Fresh Expressions can be considered to be an authentic manifestation of Anglican ecclesiology".

The report, he said, concluded that "Fresh Expressions, as part of a mixed-economy Church, have a legitimate place in the mission strategy of the Church of England and the Methodist Church; and the teaching of the C of E and the Methodist Church concerning the nature of the Church itself provides the necessary theological and ecclesiastical framework for the development of fresh expressions."

The Revd Dr Roger Walton (Methodist Church) said that the report made "a considerable theological contribution to the discourse around Fresh Expressions". The Methodist Conference, held in Plymouth the previous week, had made constitutional reform to support sacramental ministry in Fresh Expressions

Hannah Page (Church of England Youth Council) said that "young people want to be a part of a community and belong to something that's bigger than themselves. We need to make sure that Fresh Expressions is not taking them away from the Church, but keeps them in it."

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, reported that the Blackburn diocese, where weekday family-orientated Fresh Expressions have been adopted in a number of places, has experienced a 20-per-cent rise in attendance at weekday services such as Messy Church or Friday Praise.

Last year's data also showed that the largest increase was in the under-12s group. Many of these new congregations were lay-led, but not without the involvement of a parish priest, and usually with help from the diocesan children's officer.

Could the Methodist Church and the Church of England look at creating a dedicated senior position to cover the full mixed-economy approaches, focusing on growth and new life?

Lorna Ashworth (Chichester) said that some of the "most remarkable conversations" that she had had on Sunday mornings were not in church, but at her rugby club. Although she could point people in the direction of Alpha or Christianity Explored, however, she was "unable" to point them to a community "where we fellowship in the name of Christ, grow, and are nurtured".

The Dean of Portsmouth, the Very Revd David Brindley (Deans), moved the amendment. He suggested that the best Fresh Expression to come out of the Church in the past 200 years was the Mothers' Union, a "socially innovative" organisation that had brought education, welfare, and health care to millions of women around the world. Its effectiveness was, at least partly, due to its blending faith and social action.

The report was "good as far as it goes", but its ecclesiology was "distinctly conservative". It was "very churchy", which was a "real danger".

Canon Pete Spiers (Liverpool) cited a report from the Sheffield Centre: "Fresh Expressions are growing faster than we could have imagined. For every one Christian who began a Fresh Expression, another four have been attracted."

Samuel Follett (St Albans) highlighted the work of Re:generation, a network church that developed from Romford Methodist Church, which was now "filling that gap in our age profiles - 18- to 35-year-olds". The report, he said, stated that many Fresh Expressions had taken calculated risks to use young people and their gifts in a way in which they would not be used in a traditional church.

The Revd Stephen Coles (London) said that Fresh Expressions tended to be targeted at particular groups. "How can we encourage Fresh Expressions and traditional churches to grow together in the next phase, so people are worshipping with people who might be very different from themselves?"

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, who was team leader of Fresh Expressions from 2004 to 2009, said that the theological critique of Fresh Expressions should be welcomed. It was "part of this movement's coming of age and being the best it can be in the life of the Church", but "we still have a long way to go."

Kay Dyer (Coventry) said that her "rather conservative" church had been "so inspired by Fresh Expressions" that the laity "are moving closer and closer to those around who are planting Fresh Expressions".

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that the criticisms were "not fair". Fresh Expressions had sometimes suffered from a "hangover of the '90s", and it was seen as a blend of affinity groups and middle-class Evangelical groups. "The reality is so much richer than that," he said.

Dr Elaine Storkey (Ely) praised the "wonderful" report, but supported the amendment. She went on to list chapters of the Acts of the Apostles which referred to social action: justice, ethnicity, financial support for those in need, and slavery. By making this "little addition", the response would be made "perfect".

The amendment was carried.

The Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, speaking as a member of the Liturgical Commission, assured Synod members that the Commission had already begun to address some of the recommendations in the report. "There are not five marks of mission," he emphasised, "there are five of the marks of mission."

Prebendary Pat Hawkins (Lichfield) said that it was important "not to confuse the issue of young people in our churches with what we are doing with Fresh Expressions".

The Revd Dr Philip Plyming (Guildford) said: "I don't think I'd previously read a General Synod report out loud to anybody, but I did this to my wife last Saturday. . . I did it because I was very encouraged by what I read."

The Synod carried the motion nem. con. It reads:

That this Synod, recognising Fresh Expressions as authentic manifestations of Anglican ecclesiology:

(a) express gratitude to the Fresh Expressions team for its leadership, inspiration and effectiveness as catalyst to over 1000 fresh expressions within the Church of England, and many more ecumenically;

(b) affirm the mixed economy of church as an enduring model for ministry and mission into the future;

(c) affirm that radical social action and comment are essential elements of the biblical witness and Christian tradition, and therefore of any ecclesiology;

(d) call upon the Archbishops' Council and House of Bishops to ensure that the report Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church and its recommendations are incorporated into the programme to "re-imagine ministry" and are reflected in the future work of the Ministry Division, the Mission and Public Affairs Council, and other National Church Institutions; and

(e) request the Archbishops' Council to report to the Synod before July 2014 on how the Fresh Expressions team's legacy is to be secured within the life of the Church.

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