Archbishop Rowan and Fresh Expressions

One of the fascinating things that Rowan talked about both in his resignation interview in March and with us on our anniversary Sunday was about Fresh Expressions, new ways of being church. On the Friday he resigned (two days before he came to Springfield) he saw Fresh Expressions as one of the two areas of greatest satisfaction in his ministry as Archbishop.

I think the two things I look back on with greatest satisfaction are that we’ve managed in the Church of England to launch this very new mission outreach programme Fresh Expressions, and get the Church of England to recognise the possibility of new styles of congregational life and new styles of training for ministers to go with it.  I think that’s really begun to build itself in to the life of the Church.

And in the last couple of years we’ve also managed to launch the new Anglican Alliance for relief and development worldwide..

Then in the interview on the Sunday with us he unpacked a little of that for us. One of the key’s to understanding Rowan’s ministry is his sense of listening to God. In a recent reflection by Tom Wright (ex bishop of Durham and a major theologian) on Rowan he wrote this:

Once, questioned about strategy, he responded crossly ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit!’

Now Tom Wright didn’t necessarily mean that bit as a compliment! Rowan believed that unity in the Church was a huge goal commanded by Christ to be worked for tirelessly and he wanted to ensure that people are included in the church. I suspect that the strategy of the Spirit may well be more fruitful for the health and well-being of the Church of England rather than the political machinations suggested by others!

So, when I asked him on the Sunday he was with us what convinced him of the need for Fresh Expressions he gave the one word answer – God! And in that one word answer we see his rhythm of prayer and observing and listening to the world around him and the Spirit who guides the church of Jesus Christ. He then went further and talked about how he saw what was going on around him and saw how God was moving:

Not things that I or the Diocese had invented, but things that were just growing up – new kinds of community emerging, new sorts of ministry developing. …..

And when I first became Archbishop of Canterbury, I thought, “Well, there ought to be some way of connecting all that with the mainstream of the Church more effectively and more intentionally.” And that was just the time when Graham Cray was publishing his report on the mission-shaped church. It seemed like one of those moments that God had prepared – things slotted together.

Now I do quite a bit of work with the diocese and although there is often a desire for God there is also very often a belief that God works through the thought-through central structures and there is a tendency to see things in a bureaucratic way (I still bear some of the scars from this on some of the groups I served on!). In Rowan we saw something of the grappling with some of the tension of this and his desire to take the best of both.

It would be wonderful if we could recover a really lively and positive sense of what tradition meant. Not this great weight pressing down on you: “this is how we’ve always done it”, but there’s this great reservoir of experience and wisdom which we’re free to draw on and grow with.

I think that is one lesson that all new kinds of congregation have to bear in mind. The more traditionally mainstream kinds of church need to know that the Church is always being restored and renewed from unexpected places; the new renewing bits of the Church need to remember that God has not abandoned his church over 20 centuries, and has been giving gifts all the way through to learn from. So it’s that balance, what I once called the “mixed economy of the Church”, which I think keeps us fit.

Looking to the future we can start to glimpse more and more how the fruit of Rowan’s labours are beginning to bear fruit. Southwark used to be a diocese in which Fresh Expressions were viewed with suspicion. That is beginning to change. Bishop Christopher is welcoming more adventure and has opened a dialogue with Fresh Expressions. The arrival of Bishop Jonathan at Croydon, a keen advocate of Fresh Expressions, is another sign of hope for the diocese. It is also seen in that the Archbishop’s council is providing money for some experimental expressions in deprived areas which Springfield along with St Paul’s Brixton has bid for and won.

We are seeing the growing impact of Fresh Expressions around the country. According to the latest Church of England statistics there are about 30,000 people in Fresh Expressions around the country (about 3% of the total regularly attending CofE churches).

All this is great. But the danger lies when the Church tries to dictate how things should be done. Rowan also said in the interview with us:

Church always begins with what God is doing. The Church exists not because people decide to club together to start a society. The Church begins with a lot of people, as it were, drawn into one room by the force of Jesus’ personality and life and death and resurrection, and kind of looking at each other and thinking, “What are we all doing here together?”, and working it out.

And that’s, I think, how the Church really begins to generate itself, or rather God begins to generate the Church. So when you see God at work in these settings, you see that the initiative lies with God. A healthy church is one that constantly points to the God who takes these initiatives and invites people into that sort of fellowship of Jesus – and you take it from there, I think.

My fear for the diocese is that they will become open for Fresh Expressions but that they will try and control them. We are already seeing some of this in the  project we have just been awarded. I fear that like other areas I have been involved in that there is an attempt to push from the top down for the sake of political expediency and the God things that might be developed are squeezed out and that we are left with a “nice” project that tries to be all things to all people and ends up being neutered.

Fresh Expressions is about listening to God and to those around us and working out what we should do. I do hope that the diocese and the church generally realise that the structures need to sit lightly to that and not try to control things. Rowan Williams has been a real prophet in this area – encouraging the Fresh Expressions movement and realising that the structures must sit lightly to them. I hope and pray that this will be the same in Southwark!

Below is the part of the interview I did with him where Rowan talks about Fresh Expressions, or you can see the full interview here.

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