For the Parish
A Critique of Fresh Expressions
By Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank.
SCM Press. Pp. 220. $35.
Review by Tony Hunt
For the Parish is not a book that pulls any punches. The first half is a sustained polemic against Fresh Expressions, a popularizing and mostly youthful church movement that is finding a place in many churches in the United Kingdom, including the Church of England. Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank are priests in the Church of England and it is mostly to their own church that the work is directed, though the critique could fall just as hard on the movement’s incarnation in other churches and the more on American “emergent church” models. The primary target is the document Mission-shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (Church House, 2004; PDF). They engage with several works of prominent Fresh Expressions leaders, though not as many as they perhaps ought to have.
“Mission-shaped Church is a flawed document,” they say. “Yet, at present it determines the shape of ecclesiology in the Church of England.” Were the document merely an exploratory piece of theoretical missiology, and not a fundamental shaping influence in the Church of England, we might imagine the authors would not be quite so alarmed. They lay several heavy charges against Fresh Expressions.
“The argument of Fresh Expressions would make no sense unless the ‘outward forms’ of the Church were one thing and the inner message or essence of the Church another,” say Davison and Milbank. Fresh Expressions charges that at least one of the reasons the Church is flagging in the West is because of a stilted traditionalism. While the world around is rapidly changing, they argue, the shape of Church life remains stuck in a past that is not relatable to contemporary people. In order to reach people the Church needs to shed common liturgies, the priesthood … indeed, it’s hard to see what is not up for grabs.
Thus, in the effort to reach people, Fresh Expressions advocates a “mixed economy” Church: a “network” of “homogeneous units” or “membership societies” connected most overtly not by the sacraments and common worship but by “leisure interest, music preference, or disability” (quoted from Mission-shaped Church, p. 65). In bypassing parish structures and opting instead for meetings in houses, pubs, skate parks, and the like, Fresh Expressions hopes to “contextualize” the Gospel in order to reach the unchurched.
The authors believe that many of these “expressions” are indeed valuable and useful ways to share the Gospel. But insofar as Fresh Expressions does not see itself as an outworking but rather a replacement of parish structure (often operating well outside the oversight of the local bishop and without the camaraderie of local priests), Davison and Milbank fear that the real calling of the Church to be catholic, universal — a people of reconciliation, not of interest enclaves — will be subverted.
Marshaling a substantial stream of theologians and philosophers, the authors challenge what they see as separation of form and content, flight to segregation, flight from tradition, intellectual escape from mediation, and associated problems of soteriology and ecclesiology. The second half presents a constructive missional theology for the Church of England, with praise for the place and possibilities of the parish in creative missionary outreach.
The authors are almost wholly right in their critique of Fresh Expressions and in their constructive work. Unfortunately, their stinging polemical tone will not prove persuasive to supporters of Fresh Expressions. Moreover, Davison and Milbank can tend to contrast the worst of Fresh Expressions with the best of parish life. While parishes certainly ought to function as they propose, it does not always work that way. Happily, the authors offer several conciliatory remarks about Fresh Expressions toward the end of the book, as when they allow that it could help enliven the Church of England as an extension of parish work.
The concise nature of the book leaves many arguments underdeveloped, as the authors themselves admit. This means there is much more work to be done in this field, for which For the Parish may be commended as one aid.
Tony Hunt (theophiliacs.com) is an aspirant for holy orders in the Diocese of Minnesota.