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Interview: Heather Cracknell, head of development, Fresh Expressions

29 March 2019

‘You don’t have to be a pioneer to start something these days, because we’ve got a huge pool of experience’

Fresh Expressions isn’t about worshipping in a more informal way. It’s about “loving service, not worship service”, and asking: “What will really show God’s love and build community?” Not “What kind of music do we think they’ll like, and we’ll use that style in our meetings, so that people will come.” People who have no connection with church, and don’t know what prayer is, are not going to be reached by putting on a service, even if the coffee or the music is great.

Another misconception is that it’s for young people. Many [Fresh Expressions of church] have lunch clubs for older people, and some of these have become “churches” in their own right. Once you’ve built community and are exploring faith together, worship can start to take shape — but not at the beginning. These lunch clubs have found that they’re talking about the Christian life, and then begin to worship — at a time and in a place and in a way that makes sense to them.

The thing about fresh expressions of church is that they fit their context; so it’s about getting to know your place, and what will lovingly serve the people there and build community. If your neighbours are mainly young parents, then your fresh expression will need to be different from one in a rural village with mostly retired people. If you’re a ballroom dancer wanting to build community with the other dancers, then your church needs to look different than if you’re in a group of snooker players, or birdwatchers, or police officers.

We’ve always had contextual church. Culture shaped the Church and then Church shaped the culture; but Church is now so disconnected from our culture in so many places that we’re having to look more closely at the way in which Church and culture connect or don’t connect. Worship is supposed to be the living sacrifice of our everyday lives, and, if people aren’t being equipped to do that by the Church as it currently is, we need to explore how they can be.

It all starts with getting to know your community, and prayerfully working out what will bring people together so that they can experience belonging and contributing to one another; then helping them to connect to God and get to know what it’s like following the way of Christ.

The real strength of church when done well is that it brings people from diverse backgrounds and groups together; so this is starting where you are, but not necessarily staying there. A group might be very like-minded to start with, but that’s not the way of Jesus; so when they realise that way means hanging out with people who are different, that’s maturity. Success is when a fresh expression of church becomes resilient, well-connected to the wider Church, and growing new disciples, so that it can start the process again and create another new community.

I’ve been involved in creating and leading new ways of being church since the early 2000s, starting with a young adults’ community and leading alternative worship with my husband and others in our church, inspired by what we discovered at the Greenbelt Festival. Actually, that’s what showed us that just changing the worship style wasn’t going to connect our friends and neighbours with the Church.

It was reading Mission-Shaped Church that encouraged us to become Anglicans, and people were telling me I ought to be ordained. I thought I’d wait till my children were older, but God had other ideas, and I was ordained in 2008. So, I do get the challenges, frustrations, and joys of starting something from scratch, as well as the pressures of being church and needing to change so that people can connect more easily.

Becoming an Anglican after being part of House Churches, I found so many treasures in the liturgy: it was like eating steak after living on doughnuts. But we do tend to rather pile on the steak, and it can be hard to digest. [We need to] help people who’ve never connected with church before to think about what would help them get closer to God and one another. Then they’ll find that the time of confession and absolution, sharing the Peace, listening to chunks of God’s word, being baptised, and having communion are all really helpful. We might not all do this in exactly the same way, but that’s OK. We’re a big family, and there are quirks in all families, aren’t there?

I’m taking on a brand-new post, helping to embed the learning from the past 20 years of Fresh Expressions into the life and ministry of the Church of England everywhere, so that more people can grow a fresh expression of church where they are, and more people can connect with the Church. I hope that my new role can be about creating more space for people who want to start something brand new, while supporting those already in the Church to make space for that.

The next phase of the movement will recognise that you don’t have to be a pioneer to start something these days, because we’ve got a huge pool of knowledge and experience: we kind of know what works. We’ve got useful tools and guidelines, and we’re trying to make that accessible to people. We’re offering training and tools, and a new app, Godsend. I’m going to be supporting people to grow their fresh expression of church to be robust and resilient, through coaching and mentoring, and setting up local learning communities in partnership with diocesan missioners. And I might end up pioneering something again — it’s kind of in my blood.

It takes about six years of faithful presence and loving service when you’re starting from scratch to build a sense of community and people are wanting to explore faith. The Church hasn’t been switched on to that — so many leaders are either moved on when they don’t want to leave, or are burnt out; so we must address the issues of training and deploying people, funding projects for longer, and offering support along the whole fresh-expression journey.

My mum says that I’ve always believed in God, and that memory was certainly from before I ever went to church. I went to a church primary school, and was really impacted by assemblies led by a young curate. I knew I wanted to follow God. In Little Women, Amy builds a little shrine to help her pray when she’s sent away from home, because Beth is ill; so I built a shrine in my room, so that I could pray. Later on, I connected with a Baptist church, and began to follow God seriously then.

I met my husband when we were at university, and we’ve been married nearly 23 years. We worked in London before moving to Norwich, where we’ve lived ever since. He works for the NHS, and our offspring are at a high school in the city.

Walking on the beach with my family makes me happiest. Picking up stones to paint or just enjoying the sea air. And lie-ins.

I love the sound of rain on a roof. It’s so relaxing.

Injustice makes me angry. And when people are misjudged. Also, when people cut me up in traffic.

Viscerally, my bravest moment was jumping out of a plane for a tandem parachute jump; but, emotionally, probably having counselling to put my inner life in order. And, professionally, probably taking on a national role in the Church.

My kids’ generation gives me hope. So many of them are smart, switched on, inclusive, and believe that they will change the world. They look at climate breakdown and economic inequality and the way our politics is failing us, and they get that they’re going to have to. My prayer is that they do it in Kingdom ways; so that people can thrive through being connected to God, each other, and the planet.

I pray for people to know that they’re loved by God and that there’s a “them-shaped” hole in the universe for them, being wholly who they were meant to be, by being open to the Spirit.

If I were locked in a church with somebody, I’d enjoy chatting to Eddie Izzard about faith stuff; but, if I could talk to Mother Julian of Norwich, I’d love her to tell me about her “Showings”.

The Revd Heather Cracknell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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