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Sacraments and social circles

by
11 January 2013

Peter Anthony finds aspects of 'contextual' churches troubling

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Church for Every Context: An introduction to theology and practice
Michael Moynagh
SCM Press £30
(978-0-334-04369-0)
Church Times Bookshop £27 (Use code CT742 )

THE appearance of Church for Every Context is to be welcomed. It represents an important response to one of the most frequently made criticisms of Fresh Expressions, namely, that the phenomenon of "contextual" churches is too rooted in frenetic activism and not enough in theological reflection.

This substantial work provides a theological rationale for Fresh Expressions projects, and seeks to be a resource for the teaching and formation of those preparing to lead them.

This work's principal virtue lies in the fact that it synthesises in one volume the vast body of comment that has been published on "contextual" churches. As a pretty exhaustive manual of the theory of Fresh Expressions work, and as a summary of recommended practice for implementing that theory, this book is undoubtedly a success.

Nevertheless, the thing that struck me most profoundly is the way in which substantial portions of the methodology and conceptual underpinnings of Fresh Expressions are overwhelmingly rooted in the social sciences rather than theological discourse.

The business of planting new "contextual" churches comes across as a sociological answer to a sociological question. The account offered here is very vulnerable to the accusation of being a mixture of middle-class management-speak, group theory, and psychology, clothed with a fig leaf of theology.

It was also unclear to me to what extent the ecclesiology outlined in the book could be described in any sense as Anglican. At the heart of this book lies an understanding of the Church which many Anglicans would find distinctly problematic. One of the most significant misconceptions that it evinces is the presupposition that the sacramental life and apostolic order of the Church of England are just culturally conditioned externals that can get in the way of evangelisation, and be jettisoned when they do.

If this book is an accurate précis of Fresh Expressions thinking, it seems to take place in apparent ignorance of the ecumenical commitments that the Church of England has made concerning our understanding of the parts played by baptism, eucharist, and ministry in the life of the Church, and to represent a significant undermining of that ecumenical convergence.

The most worrying section of this book is the defence of the notion of culturally or socially homogeneous churches. Moynagh argues that it accords with natural justice that human beings socialise with the like-minded, and that there is nothing wrong with their being evangelised and worshipping as separate social groups. I cannot help but hear echoes of the sort of theological justification given by certain Christians in the past, and in other contexts, for social and racial segregation.

This book embodies a tricky theological impasse. Ultimately, those convinced of the worth of Fresh Expressions will find this a useful text for the teaching and formation of those offering themselves for pioneer ministry. I doubt, however, whether those with reservations about Fresh Expressions will find that this work convinces them otherwise; indeed, they may well find that it exemplifies precisely the theological concerns that they see as most problematic.

The Revd Peter Anthony is Junior Dean of St Stephen's House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

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