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Doorways to the Sacred: Developing sacramentality in fresh expressions of church, by Phil Potter and Ian Mobsby, editors

17 November 2017

Traditionalists or pioneers, churches can find wise guidance here, says Paul Avis

IN A missionary Church — whether in parishes, cathedrals, chaplaincies or “fresh expressions” — everything is mission-motivated, and that includes worship. A missionary church proclaims the gospel, celebrates the sacraments, and offers pastoral ministry — all in a multitude of ways. The Church is present where we see all three activities taking place. So if fresh expressions are to belong to the Church, the sacraments must be central to their life. The public exposition of the gospel includes the celebration of the sacraments. Because the Church constantly celebrates the sacraments, the role and function of the sacraments in mission is now a pressing question.

The Church of England’s manifesto for the missional reshaping of the Church, Mission-shaped Church (2004), did not ignore the sacraments. It recognised that all churches were by definition eucharistic communities, and that a local mission initiative outside the parish church — a fresh expression or a church plant — does not become a church until it celebrates the sacraments. But that seminal Anglican report did not itself address the function of the sacraments in mission. Some published sequels began to do so, especially Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition, edited by Steven Croft and Ian Mobsby, in 2009. Doorways to the Sacred carries the inquiry further, offering at the same time some thought-provoking — sometimes heart-warming — examples of sacramental experimentation in fresh expressions. If the mission of the Church is sacramental by its very nature, deep theological reflection, allied to pastoral experience, is needed in that area. In this book, 19 contributors from both Evangelical and modern Catholic traditions explore the sacramental spirituality of mission in an accessible style.

Several aspects of the argument show interesting developments from what we have come to expect. First, “sacramentality” is the overarching concept — a sacramental understanding of creation, human life, and Christian worship. The term “sacraments” is used in an expansive and inclusive way. The dominical sacraments (baptism and the eucharist, explicitly instituted by Christ in the Gospels) are foundational, but others of the traditional seven sacraments are brought into the discussion.

Then, some contributors embrace the notion of Christ as the sacrament of God and the Church as the sacrament of Christ, which is indeed the theological basis of sacramental ministry. This move suggests that the question of the sacramentality of the Church is not as divisive as it once was (the concept has Protestant and Anglican, as well as Roman Catholic sources). Third, as the title suggests, the argument employs generic anthropological concepts: “the sacred”, “ritual”, and “initiation”. Here we have the beginnings of a broader inter-disciplinary approach. Drama, colour, and narrative in worship are advocated. And fourth, confirmation is rehabilitated as part of the journey of Christian initiation, primarily as a means of grace (blessing, strengthening), but also as an opportunity to affirm one’s own faith in a liturgical setting (the Faith and Order Commission’s report The Journey of Christian Initiation, 2011, is apparently not referred to).

A couple of aspects of the book were a bit troubling. To begin with, there is ambiguity about the function of sacraments: are they primarily about what we receive, what the Holy Spirit does for us and in us (initiating us into Christ’s body, strengthening us in our life of discipleship)? Or are they about our own response of faith and obedience — basically human acts? Of course, they are both — but can you have the human response without the prior divine gift?

Next, I confess to being allergic to the use of “Church” without the definite article, especially in the common verbal forms “being Church” and “doing Church”, and even in the phrase “fresh expressions of Church” used in the subtitle and liberally in the book. Is the Church a social activity, such as football, which anyone can engage in, anywhere, at whim? Or is there one Church, holy, catholic and apostolic, that we seek to belong to and to serve? Some contributors correctly say “fresh expressions of the Church”. This way of putting it acknowledges that the sacraments are instituted, owned, and performed by the risen Christ in his Church. Neither the sacraments nor the Church itself are at our disposal, nor do they await our initiative. We serve what is given.

More positively: much of the wisdom of this book applies, not only to fresh expressions — its intended target — but equally to ordinary parochial ministry. Here are some of the book’s imperatives. Remember that God is present and active everywhere, and that God comes to us through visual signs and symbols, especially the sacraments. Reduce the cultural hurdles to participation. Maximise the entry points: music, pilgrimage, the beauty and history of the building, fellowship meals. Be aware of the “audience” — uncommitted tasters — at worship, as well as the congregation. Encourage participation by invitation, welcome, and hospitality. Keep the threshold for baptism as low as is consistent with an intention to begin the journey. Celebrate the sacraments of initiation as publicly as possible. Banish drabness and dreariness from worship. Don’t overlook the liturgical healing ministry or underestimate the power of touch. But — clergy and other ministers — don’t try to conceal your own vulnerability and weakness, indulging the illusion that you are the one who gives, the one who knows. All in all, look for the “centrifugal dynamic” of liturgical celebration.


The Revd Dr Paul Avis is Honorary Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Durham, honorary research fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.


Doorways to the Sacred: Developing sacramentality in fresh expressions of church
Phil Potter and Ian Mobsby, editors
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church House Bookshop £15.30


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