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.