THE Church of England is finally acknowledging the significance of Fresh Expressions, a national conference of 600 participants heard on Saturday.
The event, Catching Sight, hosted by the diocese of Leicester, was designed to take stock of the movement, which dates back to 2004 and has registered 3400 different groups. It has a parallel in pioneer ministry.
Canon George Lings, director of the Church Army Research Unit, took a Screwtape approach to demonstrate the unwillingness of the inherited Church to accept the positive findings of reports such as The Day of Small Things and From Anecdote to Evidence.
This manifested itself, he suggested, in everything from ignoring the reports, to complacency — “Cathedrals now sing Graham Kendrick songs so we know we’re up to date” — and ridicule: “Five Christians meeting at a bus stop, so it must be a Fresh Expressions church.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in a filmed interview at the start of the day, emphasised persistence: “You can only change a culture over time.”
The first ordained pioneer curate in Cumbria, the Revd Beth Rookwood, spoke of the unexpectedly aggressive attacks that had come “not from outside the Church, but from within”. Churches, as well as individuals, could do the pioneer journey, she suggested. Pioneers should not be thought of as “terrifying mavericks”; and, although she was often seen as a walking novelty, the label frequently opened doors.
The introduction of Pioneer ministry had been an attempt to reach beyond the Church, the director of ministry for the Archbishops’ Council, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, said. The C of E was having to learn to “walk and to chew gum”, and, while positive lessons were being learned, there were acknowledged difficulties in how the institutional Church had coped with this phenomenon. But the message was getting through, “which brings both trepidation and excitement”.
Speakers throughout the day reiterated the rule of thumb in Fresh Expressions, which was to go where the people were. The Fresh Expressions’ director of training, the Revd Ali Dorey, drew a capacity audience for a session on reimagining learning. “We are not going out with all the answers to people who have all the questions,” she said.
In Sheffield diocese, she said, training courses at set times had been replaced by an apprentice model, in which mentors went out to groups and individuals. Leicester diocese was looking at growing a network of coaches to work alongside people trying to set up a fresh expression of church. And Fresh Expressions were also “delving into the ancient wisdom of the Church” in reviving practices such as lectio divina .
In an analysis of Generation Y — those born from roughly 1982 onwards — the national mission and evangelism adviser, Dr Rachel Jordan, spoke of what the institutional Church could learn from young adults, Fresh Expressions, and from the digital space.
This was a generation that was engaged with social justice. “We are good at that,” Dr Jordan said. “We should make that clear.” It was the first generation for whom “the computer has now filled all the gaps between one thought and the next”, a global generation, “connected in ways we could never have imagined”.
The breadth of Fresh Expressions was apparent throughout a day that embraced everything from the emergence of new monastic communities to the opportunities and challenges presented by asylum-seekers.
Participants heard from the director of the Joshua Centre for Pioneer Ministry, Canon Richard White, and the leader of the Iranian congregation in Liverpool Cathedral, the Revd Mohammad Edghtedarian.
There were talks on Outdoor, Barefoot, and Forest Church, and on Multi-generational Church.
Fresh Expressions was founded on following Jesus’s example, Andy Wier and Andrew Wooding, of the Church Army Research Unit, concluded. The way sustainability was talked about should not be rooted in fear and panic, they said. Sustainability should not be equated with permanence.