EVERY day, Christians serve their communities in countless moving and sacrificial ways, especially during Covid. Yet we know that we are not connecting with many in our communities. The emerging Vision and Strategy work that General Synod members will consider next week provides an opportunity to renew what it means to be for the parish, not just the congregation; and, in particular, how it relates to one of the three main Vision and Strategy themes: a mixed ecology (News, 5 November).
In its simplest form, a mixed ecology honours the Church’s historic vocation that, to serve and reach all in our parishes, many more worshipping communities are needed, so as to reflect the beautiful diversity in which God has made us. Nearly always emerging as part of, or being positively sent from, existing churches, it is not about, as the Synod paper makes clear, “abandoning or dismantling one way of being the Church in order to develop another”; rather, it is about being “the Church for everyone, everywhere, paying attention to the different ways and the different places in which people actually live”.
For the past 13 years, I have worked in a diocese, first, supporting and overseeing fresh expressions of Church, and, more recently, parish churches that are growing into being resourcing churches. I have found that, in practice, mixed ecology mostly looks like parish churches responding to God’s highlighting of gaps.
These gaps might be in demography (e.g. an intergenerational youth-focused worshipping community in a team with few young people), in geography (e.g. Christians entering into partnership with the community to serve an area of new housing, or a pioneer starting a new ministry in a neglected housing estate), or in need (e.g. a new church gathering those with a passion to be better stewards of creation, or the church that has formed a new community with those who were homeless).
Research shows that when existing parish churches form additional new worshipping communities, this is a very effective way of reaching more people, and brings more diversity in a parish. There are many reasons for this, but there are two that I observe most often.
The first is that new “custom-built” communities are often better placed to attract people from families in which there has been no Christian faith for several generations, by reducing the pressure for what one friend calls “a double conversion”: once to Christ, and once to church culture. The second is that those who are new to the Church often want to contribute their gifts to shaping something in its early days rather than join what can feel more like a finished work.
In Harborough, where I am a parish priest, we have seen this at first hand, as God has grown wonderful existing and new worshipping communities (pre-Covid, at least). Such a journey is, however, sacrificial, painful, and vulnerable; and so the “new” needs not just practical support from the faithful, existing, sending church, but also wisdom, prayers, and encouragement.
FOR decades, the primacy of the congregation has been one of the C of E’s most pervasive institutional sins, from which many other sins concerning power, control, and defensiveness flow.
Our theology says that we exist to serve all in our parishes — to have a preference for those not yet part of any Christian worshipping community, learning from and with all. Yet our collective habits, energies, and identity are so often moulded around serving the needs of existing congregations. This focus on the congregation is rarely the aim — the wonderful people of God across the Church are better than that — but something in the culture that we have collectively created means that it can, on occasions, end up being so.
The eucharist and the various feeding of the thousands are a reminder that bread cannot be multiplied and shared unless it is broken. The calling to be a mixed-ecology Church gives us the opportunity to be broken just enough to be shared more.
But being broken is painful, and, in exhaustion and defensiveness, narratives of scarcity can be contagious. The world tempts us to find identity sideways, in comparison with one another, rather than upwards in God’s freedom. Many of us are bone-tired, which can lead to occasional narkyness: criticising each other rather than seeking to see the best in others, especially when mistakes happen.
It is striking that in Acts, when the church in Jerusalem chose people to explore the church in Antioch’s legitimacy, they chose Barnabas, not only known as an encourager, but someone who was from the same island as the Antioch planters, and who, therefore, understood them. When famine struck, the Antioch church responded in kind, sending gifts to sisters and brothers in Jerusalem.
THE mixed ecology cannot be either/or, or even both/and, but learn/with, where we encourage the best in those worshipping communities that are most different from how we would do things — cheering on the sacrificial mission and ministry that we see among friends and families, classmates and colleagues.
If we can rise, in all our brokenness and fallenness, to rediscover the wonderful call to be a mixed, diverse ecology of missional disciples for all in the parish, then we can be confident that God isn’t done with us yet.
The Revd Barry Hill is half-time Team Rector of Market Harborough, half-time Resourcing Church Enabler for the diocese of Leicester, and a member of the General Synod.