By Philip Harrold
“The Church of England is no longer messing about when it comes to God’s mission.” That is the opening line in Steven Croft’s introduction to Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for Today’s Church (Seabury Books, 2008). Bishop Croft writes with experience, having been appointed the archbishops’ missioner and team leader of Fresh Expressions in the momentous year of 2004. Shortly before his appointment, the Church of England had given convincing proof that it was, indeed, serious about its “missionary responsibilities” in England by publishing the best-selling Mission-shaped Church (Church House, 2004). No other official report from the Church of England has sold so well or generated so much activity and reflection throughout the United Kingdom.
Mission-shaped Church introduced the distinctive language of “fresh expressions,” now heard from Lambeth Palace to parishes in rural Yorkshire. Its call to mission has been formally recognized in General Synod, and the “mixed economy” of new and inherited forms has been regulated since 2008 in the Code of Practice of the Mission and Pastoral Measures. Fresh Expressions includes alternative worship congregations, base ecclesial communities, café churches, churches arising out of community initiatives, multiple and midweek congregations, network focused churches, school-based and school-linked congregations and churches, seeker churches, traditional church plants, traditional forms of church inspiring new interest, and youth congregations.
Other kinds of groups continue to emerge because the new language and relaxed oversight have, in Croft’s words, been “immensely releasing and encouraging to local initiatives.” Dave Male, director of the Centre for Pioneer Learning based in Cambridge and tutor in pioneer mission training at Ridley Hall and Westcott House, Cambridge, has discovered in diocesan reports that as many as a third of parishes are involved in Fresh Expressions, with nearly 30 percent of these efforts successfully aimed at non-members. Dioceses are also reporting that Fresh Expressions now accounts for as much as 14 percent of total diocesan attendance.
While the numbers are trending upward, the challenges of reaching a society where 66 percent of adults have no connection to any church (or other religion) remain daunting. The Fresh Expressions Initiative, as it is now officially called, has also encountered some challenges within the church. From the start, many have worried about the fate of the traditional parish system in the new kaleidoscope of church forms. Martyn Percy, principal of Ripon College, sees the initiative as “a form of collusion with a contemporary cultural obsession with newness, alternatives and novelty” over and against the “deep complexity of wisdom” represented by England’s venerable parochial structures. Conversely, University of Birmingham professor John M. Hull, one of the earliest and sharpest critics of Fresh Expressions, argues that the movement remains beholden to the territorialism of a “land church” despite the collapse of Christendom. He thinks that the new groups merely fill gaps in the fractured edifice of a national church that would rather control the mission than be shaped by it.
With Percy one has to admit that the terminology inspired by mission-shaped thinking can present its own problems. Fresh, he observes, “implies ‘consume immediately’ and/or ‘discard after sell-by date.’” Expressions may also suggest a feeling, appearance, or sentiment lacking substance or endurance. Does any of this language have “sufficient density to be church?” he asks.
Ian Mobsby, a leading practitioner in Fresh Expressions from the Moot Community in London, admits that the terminology is too easily associated with freedom and discontinuity. But he is quick to remind critics that it was initially inspired by the preface to the Church of England’s Declaration of Assent, which dates back to the early 17th century.
Ordinands, according to the explanation given in the preface, declare their loyalty to the “inheritance of faith” that the Church “is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.” Is this not the “incarnational principle” that the original Mission-shaped Church report saw as “integral to the Church of England’s mission”? Does it not imply that as something new emerges, there can still be a vital connection to the history of God’s activity and presence in the Church? These seem like reasonable inferences for proponents of the new language, but few would deny Fresh Expressions research director Michael Moynagh’s claim that the initiative owes too much to the “inherited church” to be dismissed as an enemy. “Might fresh expressions become an Antioch on behalf of Jerusalem?” he asks.
A sympathetic outsider like Michael Stead of Sydney, Australia, has explained how Fresh Expressions encompasses two realities: “existing churches that are seeking to renew or redirect what they already have, and others, who are intentionally sending out planting groups to discover what will emerge when the Gospel is immersed in the mission context.” Greater clarity and acceptance has been achieved in the language used by the more recent initiative, with input from the Sheffield Centre of the Church Army and in mutual endeavor with Methodists and other denominational entities in the United Kingdom. The overriding emphasis is now on mission rather than ‘newness.’ In 2006, the initiative published this definition:
A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.
• It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
• It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.
Even a revised definition usually prompts new questions, so during 2007 a series of “Hard Questions” conferences met throughout Great Britain, with two theologians each addressing a different concern followed by panel discussion with practitioners and church leaders. Mission-shaped Questions is one of the fruits of that exercise. The questions range from “What is the essence of the Church?” to “How does a mixed economy Church connect with contemporary spirituality?” The content of the responses is substantive, often scholarly, and the overall tone is conspicuously charitable.
With regard to the substance of reflection surrounding Fresh Expressions, it is apparent that ecclesiology and theology of mission are receiving a great deal of attention. Not since the Tractarian controversies of the 19th century have we seen such a proliferation of writing on the subject of the Church. Of particular interest are questions regarding distinctively Anglican understandings of ekklesia in relation to mission and contemporary culture. One finds a great deal of soul-searching regarding the legacies of Establishment as well as quandaries over the “mixed-economy” metaphor, first introduced by Rowan Williams in his foreword to Mission-shaped Church.
Sorting through the Anglican doctrine of the Church, if indeed there is one, and the complex writings of a theologian like Williams are no easy tasks in themselves, but inquiring and, at times, anxious minds have also reconsidered classic doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, and eschatology in light of the missiological thrust of Fresh Expressions. Theologians from Richard Hooker to Lesslie Newbigin have been appropriated and, in some cases, reinterpreted to bridge the perceived Christ and culture divide. One of the more vigorous conversations has been generated by For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank (SCM Press, 2010), which questions the determinative role that Mission-shaped Church has played in defining contemporary Anglican ecclesiology [see Tony Hunt’s review for TLC]. The literature is voluminous and, in most cases, fruitful as the Church of England undergoes what many observers consider to be a paradigm shift in its stance toward late- or postmodern society.
As regards the tone of this lively conversation, there seems to be a gradual move toward charitable listening as the hard questions persist. In his contribution to a collection of essays, Evaluating Fresh Expressions (Canterbury Press, 2008), Steven Croft is, again, among the more ebullient voices in the movement. He traces the constructive nature of the discussion to the general recognition that “a fundamental and evolving shift is taking place around faith in British society.” This awareness has led theologians and practitioners from across the churchmanship spectrum to “respond responsibly and in a way that is faithful to scripture and tradition by re-engaging with what it means to be the church in mission.” In effect, there is nothing like a shared sense of mission for establishing common ground, especially given the latitude afforded by a mixed economy. Sara Savage, a senior research associate and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, thinks that listening, especially “listening to the voices and needs within a locale,” has been an essential key to Fresh Expressions from the start. Perhaps this “intersubjectivity” has spilled over into the Church proper, she suggests, and with a generosity that invites honesty and openness to new possibilities.
This sort of listening may very well turn out to be the most remarkable feature of Fresh Expressions. In just a decade, the movement inspired by Mission-shaped Church has shown how the structures and thought patterns of a centuries-old church can be re-envisioned and, in some instances, revised afresh for the sake of gospel mission in a rapidly changing society. Here we find that the definitions are working definitions, the conferences are animated by hard questions, yet markers of historic faith like the Declaration of Assent remain on the table as church commissions draft their reports. Best-selling books, and frequented websites like Share are part of the mix, and now these endeavors are inspiring a wider constituency. Meanwhile, Anglican seminaries like Wycliffe College and Trinity School for Ministry have begun their own listening to theological educators in the United Kingdom like Dave Mal and Michael Moynagh, who are sharing their Fresh Expressions wisdom in a North American context. No “messing about” here, nor there, when it comes to God’s mission!
Philip Harrold is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.