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General Synod: lessons of Fresh Expressions considered

12 July 2019

Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


ON MONDAY afternoon, the General Synod held a debate with the title “Mission-shaped Church 15 years on”.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, requested that the Synod see Mission-shaped Church and the Fresh Expressions movement through the lens of the story of the large number of Hellenists who came to faith in Antioch, after the Church was scattered following the martyrdom of Stephen. “A new Church is birthed in a different culture by the Spirit. The apostles discern God’s grace in what is happening. Their calling is to nurture this new venture and to connect the body of Christ together.”

He described how, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Church Army research unit began to tell the stories of evangelists’ forming new ecclesial communities “through going to a part of our culture which was not able to connect with traditional church”. Nobody foresaw the response across the C of E and in other Churches around the world. He quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams: “If ‘church’ is what happens when people encounter the risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other, there is plenty of theological room for diversity of rhythm and style, so long as [we] have ways of identifying the same living Christ at the heart of every expression of Christian life in common.”

Dr Croft had come to share the view “that the Church is renewed from the edge, from the margins. But the centre needs to be connected to the edge to learn the lessons, to offer support, to be renewed”. From the start, Fresh Expressions had been a joint Anglican-Methodist venture. It had been “immensely fruitful ecumenically and across the world”.

There had been “vigorous theological debate” since 2004. Three lessons had stayed with him: the first was to “centre all that we do on Christ”. The second was to remember “that we are nurturing a movement here, not cascading out a programme”. The third was “how much more is done when the Church as a whole is able to bless this movement and encourage those involved”. He said: “The good news of Jesus Christ cannot be contained in the structures of the Church.”

The head of development for Fresh Expressions, the Revd Heather Cracknell, set out how the Synod could join the movement. The Godsend app was available free of charge, offering access to training and resourcing; and a new course, “How to Pioneer”, was also easily accessible. She introduced the Greenhouse Initiative, which supported those on the ground in ten dioceses, across five years, in setting up and running learning communities for their Fresh Expressions teams and pioneers.

There was, she noted, “a lingering perception that ‘fresh expressions are not for us’, despite research that indicated that three-quarters of all Fresh Expressions were parish-based and “a means of strengthening parish mission”. There was a lack of knowledge about Fresh Expressions methodology, “and, without realising it, many parishes have already travelled through part of the Fresh Expressions journey”.

Parent-and-toddler groups, for example, could be more intentionally missional. A Messy Church report had shown that 40 per cent of those who attended had never been to church anywhere before, and almost all children who attended had said that they had begun following Jesus. But it also highlighted the fact that many leaders were “over-stretched”. Fresh Expressions needed to be “resilient”. It was sometimes hard to ensure that they got the support that they needed, and it was important that they didn’t end up “reinventing the wheel”. Dioceses need to shift from an “ad-hoc” to a “more strategic and joined-up form of support” for planting and growing Fresh Expressions.

Work was now under way to recruit dioceses into involvement in the Greenhouse Initiative. She concluded: “I would argue that the Fresh Expressions [movement] is the most influential missionary movement of the last 50 years, and a significant means of allowing our Church to thrive now and in the future.”

The chair of the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Mark Sheard (Archbishops’ Council), moved a motion that called on the Synod to celebrate the success of the Fresh Expressions movement, which was growing rapidly. On average, they made up 15 per cent of a diocese’s total worshipping communities, and were attended by more than 50,000 people in 2016. The average size of a fresh expression was about 50: larger than many parish congregations, he noted. “Church Army follow-up research last year estimates attendance at Anglican Messy Churches alone is 50,000.”

Found across all contexts, they were “growing disciples”, holding baptisms, and building small groups. “It is definitely not ‘church lite’,” Mr Sheard said. They were also powerfully ecumenical, and were growing the Kingdom of God. “Although it is still early days, projects establishing new worshipping communities are delivering numerical growth more quickly than other approaches.” The Church had been witness to a “real and exceptional movement of the Spirit of God”.

His motion was not especially profound, he said: it simply called on the Synod to respond joyfully to what God was doing through Fresh Expressions. It called for celebration of the movement, and thankfulness to the Church Commissioners and others who had ensured that the vision was adequately funded. As of January this year, 22 Strategic Development Fund projects were either pioneers or fresh expressions. The motion also called for accountability. The Archbishops’ Council was being asked to update the Synod on the project in July 2021.

But the most important part of the motion called on every parish and diocese to join the movement, Mr Sheard said; and even this was too timid, and was not asking enough of the Church. “If this movement is of God, we should not simply be encouraging every parish — we should be exhorting every parish — to be part of it.” Every parish could be more far-reaching, with a local fresh expression, he suggested. This was not a top-down imperative, but an invitation to work together.

Lucy Moore (Winchester) noted that there were now more Messy Churches worldwide than branches of Tesco. Messy Church was the story of people of all ages finding the joy of belonging to their local church and setting out on an adventure with Jesus, she said. Sixty-one per cent of those who come to Messy Churches were either unchurched or dechurched. And, so far, it had cost the central funds of the C of E “precisely nothing”. She urged the Synod to treasure and encourage leaders of Messy Church in their dioceses, and to express “abject horror” if anyone asked when those who attended Messy Church would start coming to actual church services. “They are coming to church. It might look very different, but Jesus’s ministry was often very messy, too.”

The Revd Wyn Beynon (Worcester) said that society had changed enormously since Mission-shaped Church had been published 15 years ago. The new Right was increasingly powerful, and “dark days” were here; hatred of those who did not agree or look like “us” was common. The Synod was failing to tackle this: instead of addressing the “sickness” of knife crime, the debate ended up blaming schools for exclusions. Instead of welcoming in Methodist brothers and sisters, any reunion was pushed back by years. The Living in Love and Faith process was “patronising” the Church with “second-rate theology”, he said. “Where is the prophetic voice which must always proceed the preaching of the gospel?”

He thanked God for all mission-shaped-church expressions, but the world had changed, and now the Church needed to reassess the mission field and move to becoming a Christ-shaped Church. “Mission-shaped church and all that stuff is fun, but look around: the party’s over,” he declared. “Are we ready for what is to come, or are we sleepwalking into violence, hate, new-Right political stuff?”

Sheran Harper, the guest speaker from the Anglican Communion, said that the Mothers’ Union welcomed the success of Mission-shaped Church and Fresh Expressions. She said that, as an organisation, the Mothers’ Union mostly consisted of committed volunteers, and many had been involved in Fresh Expressions, including Messy Church. She expressed interest in the approaches that would be taken for continuing support for lay ministers to sustain the momentum of Fresh Expressions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was delighted to speak in support of Fresh Expressions. It sprang from many years ago, but was encouraged and blessed by his predecessor, and funded by the Lambeth Partners, he said. It was one of the new things that God was doing, and was “an essential part of any church that is looking outwards”. He said that the Good News of Christ could not be kept within the structures of the Church — “be free”, “do something different”, and “we are not going to make you look like us.”

“Praise God for everything messy in the Church,” Archbishop Welby said. He referred to Mr Beynon’s speech, which reminded them of the “realities” of the dark clouds around them. “There is no magic answer, no single response, that will allow the light to shine brightly,” he said: there had to be a portfolio of responses. “This is not just for the few, or the committed, but for the many. . . If we simply keep doing what we’ve always been doing, who are we not going to reach?”

The Archbishop of Central America, the Most Revd Julio Murray, another guest from the Anglican Communion, said that he came from a context where the language of “Messy Church” was not used, but “disciples making disciples” was used. “God is the one who has the mission, and the Church participates in God’s mission,” Archbishop Murray said.

Members and people who lived in Latin America were taking a different stand, because they knew what a disciple looked like, he said. For example, Panama had many migrants travelling through, and people are taking a stand: “Migrants are not a bad thing. . . Why are people leaving the countries? Why is there so much inequality?” It was speaking about Jesus, but it was also bringing Jesus to where they were, he said. Every parish and every diocese should be part of the programme. “We’re putting Jesus’s teaching to test, and it’s working.”

The Revd Andrew Lightbown (Oxford) welcomed the success of the Fresh Expressions movement, and hoped that it would be perpetuated. He expressed concerns about some of the language and some of the context. “Every parish, really? Micro-communities with only 46 people?” He said that he had no desire to label any of the different things in his church as Fresh Expressions, as they were just things that any church should be doing. “We cannot separate sacramentality from mission,” he said. He did not want Fresh Expressions to become the sole missional orthodoxy.

The Revd Barry Hill (Leicester) was encouraged that Mission-shaped Church was a response to what God was already doing in churches around the country. He spoke of Barnabas’s being sent to Antioch by the Established Church. How could they embody that spirit that first said “Wonderful! Let’s see,” rather than scepticism. He said that this should not just be encouraging generally, but encouraging specific people.

Canon John Sinclair (Newcastle) said that the move of the Spirit was even happening in Newcastle before Mission-shaped Church. He said the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, sporting a “trendy beard” at that time, had appeared to help evangelism grow at a time when even saying the word “evangelism” was frowned on in Newcastle.

Emma Forward (Exeter) said that it was impossible to follow Mr Sinclair. She was presenting a Catholic viewpoint, as her church regarded Fresh Expressions as a way into the sacraments of the Church — baptised, confirmed, maybe even ordained. Ms Forward urged the Synod to remember that that “what’s fresh is what leads us to what is ancient.” She described how evensong was bringing more young people to church.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, said that the impact of Mission-shaped Church had been “phenomenal”: it remained fresh and genuinely exciting. In Guildford, a challenge had been set to develop 100 new worshipping communities by 2026, but nearly 60 had sprung up in the first year. They were “refreshing the parts that the inherited Church cannot reach”.

His quibble was the report’s comparing of Fresh Expressions to parish churches, often to the detriment of the latter. If the Fresh Expressions were stand-alone, these comparisons would be “remarkable”, but the very large majority of them were “part of the mission strategy of the local church”. It was a “false juxtaposition”, and he was “increasingly wary” of free-standing Fresh Expressions that were not locally rooted. There was a need for a “big conversation”, too, about money.

The Revd Tim Goode (Southwark) gave examples of “wonderful Fresh Expressions” that he had come across as disability adviser in Southwark, including dementia-friendly church, silent eucharist, and Makaton services, where those present were ministered to by the very people for whom the service was created. They had “exercised parts of myself that other services just cannot reach”.

Brigadier Ian Dobbie (Rochester) spoke of an initiative at his church, “Sunday at 3”, which ran on Messy Church lines, designed to cater for totally unchurched people. He told the story of a young mother who had come to it, and, within 17 months, was a ministry assistant.

The motion was carried. It read:

That this Synod:
(a) celebrate this new missionary movement of the last 20 years and the impact made on the Church and society through the planting of thousands of fresh expressions of church since the
Mission-shaped Church report in 2004;
(b) encourage every parish and diocese to be part of this movement, forming new disciples and new congregations through a contextual approach to mission with the unreached in their community; and
(c) call on the Archbishops’ Council to bring to General Synod an update on the progress of the new project being led by the Head of Development for fresh expressions to develop fresh expressions in ten dioceses by July 2021.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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