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Still defensive

11 November 2016

TOWARDS the end of the past century, the Parish Communion movement had created a widespread model for mission in Anglican parishes. The goal, if not always the entire pattern, was determined by a Sunday-morning eucharist at which most of the adults communicated, joined for at least part of the service by children (who might be withdrawn for Sunday school). Progress and Christian attachment were usually measured in sacramental terms: this many had been baptised, and this many confirmed, and this many were communicants. Indeed, much clergy time went into following up unexpected absences, and communicating the housebound.

Other communicants might attend a Sunday said celebration at an early hour. They and other morning or evening congregations might have other claims on their time at the hour of the parish eucharist, or be refusers of the products of liturgical revision, but in either case were not expected to proliferate. Among the theological strengths of such a model are: its explicit recognition that all become one in Christ, and through his Body and Blood; both old and young gather at the Lord’s table; social divisions are cast aside at the altar rail; personal preferences take a secondary place in common prayer and worship; and the day and hour when the Son of Man is coming are not treated as subject to individuals’ convenience. From unity in worship as the Lord commanded flows, in principle, unity in obedience to the Great Commission and in work for God’s Kingdom.

The market society with its secular Sunday and unprecedented individualism has put that model under strain. Where the pattern survives, it is often modified. Few developments in the Church present a greater contrast with it than Fresh Expressions: ventures that work mainly with non-churchgoers and aim to “become church”, seeking to fit the context and make disciples. It is, no doubt, this contrast that has created uneasiness. Fresh Expressions begin, as much outreach does, by expecting not too much, but continue without any aim of recruiting people to what is (perhaps unhappily) referred to as an “inherited Church” congregation; so there is still a defensive aspect to last week’s reports from the Church Army, whose summary of its research is quick to emphasise that only a minority of those drawn into Fresh Expressions have transferred from other churches. This does suggest a level of contact with non-churchgoers which cannot be dismissed.

One question that remains, though, is how far these groups mature and enter into the deeper tradition and wider fellowship of the Church. Since this question is also regularly asked of some parish churches, it is unlikely to be settled soon. But all can rejoice that so many people are being found who are willing to receive the Church’s ministry.

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