Changing how we perceive church

There is a perception from some that new forms of Church are not welcomed within the Church of England. That they are tolerated but not embraced. The other side is that many parish clergy feel that they are being encouraged into trying new things that they don’t want to do. There is even a perception that new forms of church take priority of traditional ones and that existing parishes should be resourced more.

So, it was fascinating to catch up with the address that Rowan Williams gave to the “Changing the Landscape” conference earlier this year. It’s well worth listening to (although its 28 minutes long) but there were a number of things that he said that I thought very interesting. It’s interesting as well by remembering that Rowan has a unique position in the Anglican world. Not only as having oversight in the Church of England but also being the focus of unity in the worldwide Anglican church.

He talks about many different things – from cell groups to ancient Syrian liturgy – but there were a number of things that I thought were interesting points that he made that are worth repeating.

The first thing that he touches on is church and its nature. He makes the point

The church is about what God wanted from before the beginning of the world. The church is not some kind of decorative religious luxury that was thought up by people who wanted something to do on Sunday mornings. The church, the assembly of God’s friends, of God’s invited, starts with God’s purpose before the world began.

It’s important for us to reflect that the church, as the assembly of God’s friends, is therefore brought into being by God and for God. It means that we aren’t gatekeepers as to whom God wants in or out of it. He is. If he lets us in when he knows everything about us who are we to say who should be kept out?!!

He then goes on to simplify church even further

And if we read the Gospels I’d want to say with some emphasis that the Church begins where Jesus is with others

But this simplification is also profound. As one of my daughters said to me recently, “Jesus always points to what God is doing in others’ lives”. In other words Jesus does not prop up or take sides in the “church wars” but rather is always relational, is always pointing us back to being the “assembly of God’s friends”.

He goes on to talk about the wide variety of responses to Jesus that we see in the Gospels and that

What holds them together is, of course, boringly simply – Jesus – but more specifically it’s Jesus as, how shall we put it, Jesus as suggesting, opening up, change and newness

So, ++Rowan suggests that Jesus opening our eyes to what is around, what God is already up to and that the Fresh Expressions movement is about vision

So when we talk about fresh expressions I’d like to think that we’re talking about countless local enterprises of vision; enterprises of vision where people are being encouraged and nourished and enabled to see what they hadn’t seen before so that the picture shifts. You see the picture in the picture. You see beyond the details. You see a greater world.

He talks about how we are called to walk alongside people pointing out various things, never in a controlling way.

I love the beginning of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian is about to start off on his journey and meets the man at the wicket gate who says, ‘Can you see that light?’ And Christian says, ‘I think I do.’ And he sets him on his way.

And that ‘can you see?’ ‘I think I do’ is often the beginning of a long conversation and a long journey of the kind I think everyone here has some experience of. So that’s just one point about leadership as helping vision and therefore being alongside, nudging, encouraging, discussing, suggesting, listening and learning; learning to see yourself because sometimes when you see – as it were through the eyes of someone else – you see something new as well. So you don’t stop learning in that process.

But all of this is leading, in our time and in our society, to a change in how we “do” church, how we gather together and what church will look like. Here he is at his most radical.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Church, the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, and probably – if the truth be told – the Roman Catholic Church in due order as well, will be looking far less homogeneous in a couple of decades; different kinds of congregations, with different rhythms of life. I believe very strongly that whether we’re talking about inherited models of church or fresh expressions, the real heart for the next generation is pretty well bound to be in those small groups of people working at their relationships, at their understanding, together, quietly, in the long term. The cell, in other words.

What is fascinating is that he sees huge change in the church over the coming decades. I believe that he recognises that these changes will be profound and, for many, unsettling. Not only does he recognise that this is coming but also he is prepared to say it.

He also sees that the small group system, cell groups, will end up at the heart of the church of the future. I totally agree with Rowan on this. He understands that these small groups become the heart of community and the heart of mission. He also touches on the large scale celebration that also encourages and envisions people.

Springfield Church, as part of the Church of England, will be part of this changed landscape. Our role is that as the Church of England changes to change as well. To push forward into new ways of mission, to never be satisfied (not with moans and groans) because Jesus is leading us to always want more. Because we recognise that we want to invite people into the “assembly of God’s friends”. I have often jokingly said that we are at the “bleeding edge” of Church. We were set up to take risks for God. That can mean that it can sometimes be painful. But I was very encouraged that ++Rowan sees that churches like Springfield are necessary and welcomed by the Church of England. I hope that we continue to play our full part in encouraging and learning from others inside and outside the church.


2 comments on “Changing how we perceive church

  1. Beth Foley
    September 14, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Pleased he is more hesitant about us. It will hardly be more homogenous. Benedict has just introduced a ‘new’ form of liturgy that Germany has told Rome they aren’t doing. The language is going back to more literal Latin translation and more archaic language. We have recently been informed not eating meat on Fridays is back. We have Anglicans coming over who’ve left Cof E to join the homophobes and sexists amogst us and bringing their families and us paying for that without being consulted, our priests vowing celibacy – a million quid I’ve heard.Looks like he’s doing the Murdoch and Thatcher tricks of trickle acceptance and then the robots’ll accept the dangerous stuff. It’s all homogenously hypocritical

    • Will Cookson
      September 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

      Hi Beth,

      I think Rowan was right to be cautious about the RC’s. I think that your church is prepared to go its own way for a while yet. I think that Rowan’s comment implies an eventual inevitability about seeing change even in the RC church although I suspect that it is just the timetable will be longer.

      I suppose my question to you would be – can Rome take the Western European and US pain of not changing longer due to larger congregations in the developing world? Especially since the running costs of the RC churches will be significantly less than in the Anglican church?

      I don’t know how many from the CofE are going over to Rome but they are relatively few in number (and probably outnumbered by RC priests going the other way!). It has been sad to see but the affect on individual dioceses has been negligible to date.

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