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.
This is fine as far as it goes. If a fresh expression is a form of outreach, then I’m all for it. Indeed, in the days of old, I occasionally entertained ideas to help set up and be part of an expression of church for those who didn’t fit the usual pattern of churchgoers. But while I still see the importance of such groups for those who are ‘outside’ church, I am worried that such groups are not sufficiently integrated into a wider (or narrower, I suppose, depending on your perspective) concept of ‘church’. Consider this, also found on the Fresh Expressions website:
Fresh expressions:· serve those outside church;· listen to people and enter their culture;· make discipleship a priority;· form church.
That last bullet point is what concerns me. If any given fresh expression of church is set up ultimately to ‘form church’, then the church that is formed is surely going to be the model of homogeneity – unlike the Church, the body of Christ, which is as heterogeneous as any body is likely to be! So my ambivalence towards fresh expressions stems from my perception that a fresh expression of church is going to lack serious integration with the more institutional churches and, indeed, other fresh expressions.
With all this in mind, I wish to quote from a book review in this week’s Church Times.
One contributor, somewhat surprisingly, claims that “nothing is more exciting . . . than when bishops take informed and prayerful risks, and share prophetic wisdom.” Perhaps one risk that bishops might occasionally need to take is lovingly to call to order an increasingly anarchic situation rather than, as seems to be the current tendency, seeking to devolve as many decisions as possible to a local level.Edward Dowler, ‘Engaging with modern society,’ review of Generous Ecclesiology: Church, World and the Kingdom of God, edited by Julie Gittoes, Brutus Green, and James Heard, Church Times, March 28, 2014, p. 23.
Dowler seems to have put his finger on something, at least for me. I recognise that much of my ambivalence towards fresh expressions of church stems from church structure and church governance. I’m a fully paid-up small-‘e’ episcopalian; I see nothing inherently wrong with hierarchy. Also, I’m inclined to think that in a church setting, having a common liturgy and pattern of worship is necessary both to help establish a denomination’s identity and to grant congregations within that denomination sufficient flexibility in its worship without losing its particularity to the larger body. Any given congregation can be local and (inter)national. In this respect, and despite its problems (mostly its often-ambiguous rubric), I think that Common Worship functions well enough to establish a particular church congregation as part of the Church of England and to allow each of those congregations the freedom to tailor its services to local need. But I can’t help but wonder if those who favour fresh expressions are, at heart, congregationalist – which isn’t a problem in itself, of course, but could lead to differences of opinion in a small-‘e’ episcopal environment such as the Church of England.
Am I suggesting that small-‘e’ episcopal churches distance themselves from congregationalist fresh expressions, or vice versa? No, of course not; but I think further questions need to be asked about ecclesial identity – certainly from within the context of the Church of England (‘What does it mean to be part of the Church of England?’), and certainly with regard to the apparent expectation that a fresh expression will one day form church. (I should have made more of this earlier: What does it mean to form church? Is a fresh expression of church intended to become a church?) And there are questions about how the liturgical tradition of the Church of England can be used to serve the cause of fresh expressions. If Common Worship is as flexible as I think it is, then how can its service structures be employed in service of the wider evangelistic aims of the church?
One final observation. Earlier I noted that occasionally I had entertained ideas about helping to establish and be part of an expression of church for those who didn’t fit the usual pattern of churchgoers. But why did I want to do this? No doubt it was because I perceived that I didn’t fit the usual pattern of churchgoers, and I suppose I wanted to worship in a style that suited me alongside others who shared my presuppositions about church, life, etc. I suppose I still do; and cynically, I’d say it’s this sort of attitude that leads to homogeneity in the church, and it’s an attitude we all have to greater or lesser degrees. But this is why I need – and, I would venture, why we all need – to be part of a heterogeneous church, so that I can be challenged to be more than I would prefer to be.
Let me conclude with two questions that I suspect can’t be answered definitively: Do fresh expressions of church necessarily lead to homogeneous expressions of church? And how can prima facie heterogeneous expressions of church (e.g. a typical Sunday service) be so truly heterogeneous that the binary opposition of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the church becomes an absurdity?