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Opinion: Home is where faith can grow  

18 August 2023

Households should be given more help in discipling young people, writes Leslie Francis


TODAY, there is a proper concern to grow a younger Church and to invest in initiatives that may achieve that end. The underlying question, however, concerns the nature and the location of faith transmission.

The documents of Vatican II offered clarity regarding both the nature and the location of faith transmission. The location was defined as a partnership between three agencies: schools, congregations, and homes. Here, the key question regarded the primacy among these locations. Building on the documents of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II observed that, within current societies in which the Christian narrative was weak, primacy may need to rest within the home, within the ecclesia domestica.

The invitation to deliver the John Hull memorial lecture at the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values, held at Bishop Grosseteste University, in Lincoln, this summer, challenged me to reassess Hull’s contribution to the debate concerning faith transmission. John had moved from Australia in 1959, and was puzzled by the complacency with which Churches here had accepted the primacy of schools in faith transmission.

Hull’s major contribution came in two key reports from the British Council of Churches: The Child in the Church (1976) and Understanding Christian nurture (1981). The first considered the location, and the second the nature of what he chose to style “Christian nurture”. Hull moved the primacy from the school to the congregation. In my lecture, I argued that the time had come to move the primacy from the congregation to the home, the ecclesia domestica, for a time when the Christian narrative is weak in society.

My argument for the primacy of the ecclesia domestica is not, however, simplistic. The transference of primacy to ecclesia domestica is not the beginning of the argument, but the climax of taking into account the following themes: faith in research, faith in discipleship learning, and faith in Anglican ecclesiology.

THE Anglican tradition has long valued a creative dialogue with the academic community. Today, that dialogue is dispersed, diverse, and multi-disciplinary. The challenge now is to identify the territory on which such dialogue can prosper. At a time when the Christian narrative is weak in society, a Church that has faith in research needs to play host to building such a community. In recent years, Liverpool Cathedral has worked collaboratively with two cathedral-sector universities to build research capacity for a research-led Church.

Alongside Professor Andrew Village (York St John University) and Professor Julian Stern (Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln), Liverpool Cathedral has hosted each term a two-day seminar. At these events, academic research can be nurtured and critiqued within the atmosphere of intelligent kindness, and academic researchers can contribute to and be sustained by the rich liturgical life of the Cathedral. From 2024, this perspective will be further embedded by a three-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership, when a full-time academic employed by BGU will be located in the Cathedral.

My first point is that strategy must be coherently thought through and underpinned by research. The move to ecclesia domestica is not whimsical. It is grounded in peer-reviewed research (see Francis, 2020; Francis et al., 2020).

THE Anglican tradition is a rich tradition, resourced by Catholic roots and by Reformed roots. It takes seriously the twin gospel mandate to call and to nurture disciples and to feed the five thousand, to assuage both their physical and spiritual hunger. When the Christian narrative is weak in society, a real emphasis needs to be placed on calling and nurturing disciples. Without investment in nurtured discipleship learning, Jesus would not have been equipped to feed the five thousand.

Discipleship learning, however, is a slow and long-term task, for which there is no quick fix. In a society in which the Christian narrative is weak, real and deep connections with the tradition need to be made, and that involves both theological reflection and personal transformation. Within the academic community nurtured by Liverpool Cathedral are the architects of the degree in theology for discipleship, shaped for by the Anglican Church in Newfoundland, and currently delivered throughout the diocese of Cyprus & the Gulf.

My second point is that the ecclesia domestica needs to be professionally resourced, and resourced at multiple levels. Not to aim high for the minority who wish to respond would be unwise.

ANGLICAN ecclesiology may offer multiple strengths within societies in which the Christian narrative is not strong. Observation suggests that, properly implemented and resourced, Anglican ecclesiology may be more resilient and more sustainable than some forms of denominational or sectarian polity. Within Anglican ecclesiology, the unit is the diocese, and the pastoral care and oversight is the bishop’s, shared with priests, deacons, and laity. There is strength in collegiality and in complementary skills for ministry and mission.

There is also an added potential strength within Anglican ecclesiology if clear thought is given to the position the cathedral takes within the diocese. In his insightful analysis, “The Purpose of Cathedrals”, published in the Anglican Theological Review in 2014, Garry Hall argues, in effect, that cathedrals are called to do what bishops are called to be. In this sense, cathedrals may be called to resource the bishop’s ministry across the diocese, to exemplify good practice, and to celebrate the diversity that Anglicanism properly embraces.

My third point is that an Anglican ecclesia domestica may be best resourced and nourished under the leadership of the bishop through the cathedral.

THE pandemic presented challenges and opportunities to cathedrals and to parish churches. When the nation was locked down and the churches were locked up, online strategies were used to offer services in people’s homes and to support wider pastoral ministry. From a combination of practical experience working in Liverpool Cathedral and the research data emerging from the Church Times Coronavirus, Church & You Survey, we began to build up a picture of the newly emerging prominence of the ecclesia domestica.

How were people at home engaging with online worship? How could the journey be made from being spectators gazing at a screen to participants engaged in worship? How could households be more actively engaged in a learning and nurturing community? It is from this experience that Liverpool Cathedral has now developed and is beginning to refine a programme of all-age discipleship learning, Exploring the Sunday Gospel, that locates the household at the centre of faith transmission, and does so with links to the characteristic liturgical life of the Cathedral itself.

My fourth point is that the emerging ecclesia domestica is not an end in itself. Rather, it is strengthening the primacy of the home to help to shape the life of the congregation, and to draw in (where appropriate) the collaboration of schools.

THE Exploring the Sunday Gospel initiative maintains that households can function best as effective transmitters of faith among young people when the whole household fully engages in discipleship learning. The core assumptions underpinning the programme are that the eucharist is at the centre of the cathedral, at the centre of parish churches, and at the centre of the diocese; in the Anglican tradition, weight is given both to word and sacrament; the ministry of the word is resourced by the Revised Common Lectionary; households, congregations, and schools engaging in preparation for the Sunday eucharist will participate more intentionally offline and online.

The Exploring the Sunday Gospel initiative focuses on households who are in contact with cathedrals and churches. It is fully recognised that not all households will wish to engage with this venture. But those who do may journey together in growing closer to and more engaged in the Sunday liturgy. Alongside this primary focus, cathedrals and churches may become better equipped to retain families and young people who are in active or semi-active membership, and, by so doing, develop a stronger platform from which to engage less committed and more transient members.

Now that the programme has been available online for three years, we are beginning to research how this is impacting the discipleship trajectory of those engaging with the programme. The programme is now ripe for further development if appropriate resources and collaborations can be found.

Perhaps growing a younger Church would be best achieved by investing in discipleship learning within households that, in turn, would be in a stronger position to resource congregations and (where appropriate) schools.

Canon Leslie J. Francis is Professor of Religions, Psychology, and Education at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, and Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at York St John University.


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