Review of For the Parish – a critique of Fresh Expressions

There is a whiff of irony in reviewing this book by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank in that our new curate has Andrew Davison as her tutor.

I am a bit late to the party in reviewing this book. I first noticed it back last autumn when it became a minor cause celebre within those parts of the CofE who were feeling uneasy about the whole Fresh Expressions movement. Although aware of it I have only recently got round to reading it and I partly read it because I was going to be meeting Donna’s tutor at Westcott House!

It was quite amusing over lunch at Westcott with Andrew. I mentioned that I was reading the book and he stated that he was surprised that I was speaking to him! Andrew, if you get to read this it was delightful chatting to you!

The book is arranged in two sections. The first, written by Andrew, looks at the theological underpinning of Fresh Expressions. The second part, written by Alison Millbank looks at how the Parish ought to be the centre of Anglican life and gives some ideas to jolly things along.

There are indeed a number of issues that the book raises which it is important to take on board as a Fresh Expressions church.

For example, they are concerned that the Fresh Expression focusses solely on one segment – such as bikers or skateboarders or Goths and that this can’t be described as church as church involves the reconciliation of peoples rather than segmentation. They are also concerned that Fresh Expressions throws out all that has gone before it and creating something new that misses out on the depths and insight of the Tradition.

However, there are huge areas missing from their discussion which they take no account of. For example, the steep decline in the church in the last century; the alienation of many from the worship of the church; the lack of assimilation of many strands through the centuries – e.g. the methodist movement in the 18th Century and many black and minority ethnic peoples in the last decades of the 20th century.

So, for example they say

Gaze fears that mixed worship must inevitably fall prey to ‘culture wars’. It is surely the calling of the church to rise above secular futilities. Referring to her comment, this may well mean that Christians have to ‘compromise’ and even do so ‘constantly’. This is an avenue Gaze dislikes, wheras we take such compromise to be part of the virtue of charity.

And that can sound a reasonable comment to make. However, who mediates this compromise? Who ensures that those new ideas and ways of worship are championed and given space? The reality is that small groups coming in with ideas are the ones to make the compromise – resulting in their exclusion. So for example Wesley and the early methodists were excluded and pushed out of the church. The Anglican bishop Joseph Butler once famously remarked to Wesley that “enthusiasm is a horrid, a very horrid, thing”. This is indeed ironic when the authors acknowledge that:

.. and Anglicanism has learnt much from John Wesley … Wesley himself travelled many miles and spoke in the open air to vast crowds of the poor. In that sense the whole world was his parish … he wishes his evangelistic activities to strengthen the institutional church and not weaken it.

Sounds like a Fresh Expression to me! How sad that the institutional church could not find a way to compromise and include Wesley and his followers. Many of the concerns that people like me in the Fresh Expressions movement have is that of the existing church making space for others in the church. In fact what we are aiming at is the precise opposite of what the authors accuse us of. We wish for greater diversity of the church rather than its very often narrow state.

Interesting that Giles Fraser appears also to be realising that the Parish church model doesn’t always work. Having praised the book last autumn (you will need a Church Times subscription) he says in a recent article in the Church Times:

What I have learnt at St Paul’s, however, is a different way of being church which cannot work on the parish model. The very idea of a settled and regular congregation does not really make sense here.

It was interesting in my discussion with a neighbouring liberal catholic parish about planting a congregation into their parish that precisely some of these points came up and were discussed.We both realised that we want to see a broader selection of people in the Church. Neither of us claim to have the whole answer and we saw what we do as complimentary to one another rather than in opposition to one another.

What we have seen in our experience is both congregations growing and flourishing. For we see that although the ideal is that the parish church includes people from every background the reality is somewhat different.

So the authors say

The inherited church already values and embraces culture. In most parish churches, for instance, the musical and culinary traditions of its members are taken as part of the parish life.

So, the parish church embraces Hip Hop and rhythm and blues and pop music does it? Can’t say that I noticed much of it in the church. In Springfield Church we are in continuous negotiation regarding things such as worship and how we ensure that different styles of worship are catered for. We certainly haven’t arrived and nor do I wish to knock those who do choral evensong but we bring an extra dimension to the Church.

The reality is that each church has its own culture. To join that church you need to join that culture. You need to be prepared to come into that culture and suppress some of your own likes and dislikes.

There is a more worrying sub-plot to their book however. At one point they say

Fresh Expressions writers want to wean us from the ‘particular cultural patterns’ of the Church of England. We must face the possibility that this is because some of these writers have little historic attachment to the Church of England in the first place. Over the past few decades many who would previously have worshipped in non-conformist churches have found some sort of home within the Church of England, even if theirs is a loose attachment.

Now why do I think that this is worrying? Because it sets up the Church of England precisely as a inward looking subset of the Church. The Church of England, if it is anything, must be the Church for all the peoples of England. What I find sad and slightly bizarre about the book is the backward looking, we’re all right, we don’t need to change or be changed by those coming in. We define ourselves by our liturgy or our sense of superiority rather than by our serving all the people of England.

We lost the Methodists because of this in the 18th and 19th centuries. We have lost many from Minority Ethnic groups in the 20th century. If there are many free church people looking to join the Church of England then surely we should not make the same repetitive mistake of thinking that we have all the answers and that we can’t change anything.

Fresh Expressions does not seek to overturn the Parish system. They seek to supplement it. To add to it. To allow a greater diversity. If the Parish is working then there will be no threat to the Parish. Nor is it as if the dioceses are stripping the parishes of vast resources and putting them into Fresh Expression. Indeed I believe that they are doing far too little. In our own case we are net contributors to the diocese – meaning that our Fresh Expression is supporting the Parish system!!!

Of course, there are parts of the book where they want it both ways. So they say

The lectionary provides the perfect example of the freshness of the inherited approach….. [it] presents us with the whole of scripture

Yet later is says

even the adult Sunday lectionary avoids controversial material, while the so-called Pillar lectionary used in Cathedrals at Evensong  is aimed deliberately at not offending the occassional visitor, and therefore omits whole swathes of biblical material

In fact the lectionary covers the bible if you do all services on every day of the week. There are huge swathes of the bible that you won’t ever have a chance of hearing if you follow the lectionary and go to one particular service on a Sunday. How many lectionary churches have done a series of the Book of Ecclesiastes? I have – it was hard work but very worthwhile.

So I would say that the Fresh Expressions adds to the witness of the Church and is complimentary. Churches like ours and those that I know don’t wish to replace the Parish system. We are motivated by seeking the lost sheep in this country (I would add that a far greater criticism of Fresh Expressions is that we are far better at attracting the de-churched than the un-churched but that is a separate argument).

I have always been an Anglican and grew up in a middle of the road parish church (the only one of my age) where we sang the psalms and did BCP and sung communion etc. But if that was all that defined the Church of England that wouldn’t be enough. What, I believe, defines the Church of England is its ability to embrace such a wide range of people, its structures and its mission to serve all in this country. This requires preserving the best of all that has gone before with a willingness to experiment to seek to do its God given mission.

The Church of England is  a unique institution that embraces Anglo Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, Liberal. If this book was acted upon that uniqueness would be damaged. Thankfully there are no signs that it will be.

This book is the National Trust at prayer. Seeking to preserve all the old properties without change. A National Trust property can be a glorious thing but we can’t all live in one.

9 comments on “Review of For the Parish – a critique of Fresh Expressions

  1. Edward Green
    June 24, 2011 at 9:17 am #

    The model of ‘The Parish’ the book explores is unfortunately an ideal that I have yet to see operate. It is not an existing model, it is a model that can only come to fruition through a process of sacramental and spiritual renewal within the Church of England.

    Wesley had a passion for a restoration of the primitive church. I sometimes think this is lacking in many fresh expressions, especially in terms of sacramental theology – strong on.

    The concerns about the ‘non-Anglican’ nature of some fresh expressions are valid. At a meeting last week I heard an enabler admit that a number of pioneer plants had left the CofE after the pioneer had moved on.

    Time will tell I suppose.

    • Will Cookson
      June 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm #


      Thank you for your comment.

      I suppose that I don’t see it as an ideal. I see it more as trying to return to an idyll that never really existed.

      I do agree that many Fresh Expressions have a weak sacramental view. I think that this is for a number of reasons however. Firstly, that the evangelical wing has been most strongly for this and they have mainly been the least sacramental. Secondly, it is very difficult when most of the pioneers have been lay people and not authorised for sacramental ministry. This latter appears to be getting worse with dioceses like my own, Southwark, not allowing Pioneer Ministers and scrapping the OLM scheme.

      I think that it is interesting that some of the Fresh Expressions are leaving the CofE. I haven’t seen the stats for that. It maybe that some really haven’t matured into church and are more special interest groups – which is the point that I most agree with in the book. There are however many others that see being part of the CofE as part of our identity. I am the third minister of the church plant (EPP) that is Springfield Church. We have grown and planted another new congregation (cafe style) in someone else’s parish. We are a Church of about 400. Interestingly, we are no-one’s radar (nor are we seeking to be!) and not about to flounce off.

  2. Edward Green
    June 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    I haven’t seen any stats either. So I take it with a pinch of salt! The issue may be they are maturing into more ‘Vineyard’ forms of church rather than ‘Anglican’.

    I suppose Wesley himself was the last great Anglican Evangelical Sacramental (although I doubt his models of the atonement would sit easily in the culture today). Outside the CofE however there are evangelicals with a more sacramental spirituality, who celebrate communionon a regular basis – I get the impression that Driscoll’s Mars Hill follows Calvin’s approach to regular communion and the spiritual presence. How this ties up with lay pioneer work here is complex. Evangelists and Pastor-Teachers have to work together which can be a challenge!

    As you may have picked up I am something of a convert, spending 10 years in NFI and another stream before having a sacramental conversion 10 years ago. I struggle to see the church as church outside the practice of regular communion, and that being understood as a reception of the real presence of Christ. But I am also missional – I desire to see people come to greater and deeper faith through an ongoing conversion with the ‘converting ordinance’ as Wesley described communion.

    Which highlights some of the deeper theological differences with the CofE that have been a part of us since we were formed. These differences come to the fore when new plants begin to explore sacramental faith. It doesn’t help that we express our theological differences in tribal ways.

    The Parish Communion has bean the dominant ideal for some time in some circles, but where I am people still seek an idyll based on regular Matins, so it is not universal. ‘For the Parish’ has not been warmly received within the Sacramental Fresh Expressions side of things eithee – but it is a significant challenge because it paints a picture of a Eucharistic community that strikes me as coherent with what we know of the Apostolic Church.

    What you are quietly getting on with however sounds inspirational. We have a diversity of worship styles and forms of community here including cafe church, new monasticism, contemporary worship, cluster groups, children’s Eucharist, prayerbook and so on. Very mixed economy!

  3. Will Cookson
    June 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm #


    I had clocked that you came from an independent church background – hadn’t realised it was NFI but I can understand your journey. It is also great, having read your post about prophecy, to see you see how good prophecy leads to an expansion in our understanding of God rather than a re-enforcement of our current view.

    Again its interesting to see a journey from, presumably, a Zwinglian view of the Eucharist to a Lutheran or Calvinist view. I was grabbed by Lutheran ideas in my teens and although I don’t consider myself Lutheran and disagree with quite a bit I did like the Reformation’s view of the Eucharist. However, one of the other insights that has really grabbed me has been the Jewish understanding of celebrating “as if you were there”. So that the Eucharist is never purely a remembrance but a partaking.

    Having said that I do find a balancing act with Communion. I can understand people’s desire for Matins (translate into seeker service in my context!). It allows people to make their way in without having to make a big commitment. The early church also had communion very often tagged onto the end of their services.

    I do think that you are right about how we express things. It is so easy to become tribal and pull up the drawbridge. The best way that I have found to counter-act that is listening to people of different traditions. I don’t always end up agreeing but I have found that we end up with a far better understanding of one another.

    Also sounds like you are up to some really interesting things. As I’ve said my real beef with the book is that it tries to make the CofE such a narrow church. I love the fact that it is a diverse body.

    • Edward Green
      June 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

      Just a quick reply, very much agree with these comments – especially the Anamnesis!

      We have a Matins and Holy Communion service and in the same church a Toddler service where the community has developed its own Communion service. Both are ‘seeker sensitive’.

  4. tallskinnykiwi
    June 27, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    i havent read the book but Fresh Expressions, as i have observed them in UK, NZ, Australia, North America all seem to have a key denomination backing them (Uniting in Aus, Anglican in UK, Baptist in NZ) with one or two other supporting demoninatinons partnering with them. And the flow tends to be towards those denominations, not away from them. Which means in UK [i am sensing this conversation is localised in UK] there are more non-Anglicans moving towards the Anglican-influenced fresh expressions than there are Anglican fresh expressions moving away into other streams.

  5. tallskinnykiwi
    June 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    shoot. did i just say “demoninations”? it was my keyboard . . no me!

  6. Will Cookson
    June 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks for commenting.

    Yes, I think that there has been a move towards Fresh Expressions from other denominations (or at least nominal allegiance to those denominations). As I hinted earlier I think that most Fresh Expressions have been better at attracting people who were part of a church but have drifted away rather than from totally unchurched people.

    In the UK Fresh Expressions is supported by both Anglicans and Methodists – although from where I sit there seems to be more focus on Anglican Fresh Expressions.

    The other thing is that many Anglicans (including the authors of this book) would rather only attract people to historic forms of Anglicanism. They think that it is too dangerous and unstable to use other forms. Of course, not all Fresh Expressions, are that new – my own church is nearly twenty years old!


  1. The Rich Ecclesiology of Fresh Expressions - Luke S. Edwards - April 20, 2016

    […] should be of no surprise that John Wesley also faced great resistance. The Anglican bishop Joseph Butler famously remarked to Wesley that “enthusiasm is a horrid, a very horrid, thing.” Sound […]

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