About Providence, Divine Action and the Church


In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Fresh Expressions of a Homogeneous Church


I’m ambivalent towards the concept of fresh expressions of church. The Fresh Expressions website says:

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?

5 comments:

  1. Bishop Graham Cray tackles homogeneous issue in his response to Milbank. See section (4) A 'flight to segregation' http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/news/cen/201011parish

    Also, the Anglican Church planting initiative writes about the Homogeneous Hot Potato at http://www.acpi.org.uk/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=202&Itemid=65

    In my experience Fresh Expressions may start out at homogeneous, but over time become much broader see the Tube Station Surfers Church Update: https://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/resources/makingadifference/26

    What started as a surf church has turned into a community hub.

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  2. Thanks for these, Tim. I've gone through these, and will probably go through the second link again - lots for me to think about on that one!

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  3. Hi Terry, firstly mea culpa for not reading and commenting on your blog anything like as assiduously and faithfully as you appear to for mine! I am a bad and selfish man.

    Secondly and more relevantly, the church I've attended for 20 years is technically a 'Fresh Expressions' congregation, though of course that designation is far more recent than the actual church.

    I don't really know what exactly constitutes a Fresh Expressions congregation nor how ours qualifies, but I can see both strengths and weaknesses in our own set-up. It would take a very long comment to list them all but I certainly don't think that (in our case at least) FE is either unequivocally a Good or a Bad thing.

    Though it's worth noting that the lovely Rowan Williams seemed to be quite positive about FE and certainly said as much when he visited us in 2012. I think his main warning was to be aware that we weren't the only people who'd ever read the Bible...

    What I would say in favour of our own church is that it does see itself as very much part of the wider C of E - or at least the minister does. And we do use reasonably standard liturgy and avoid anything too weird and wacky most of the time.

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  4. I think one of the things I have problems with - and this is quite possibly more my blinkered perception than an accurate observation as such - is an apparent tendency to assume that mainstream or traditional churches aren't as outward-looking as FE churches (if a FE gathering constitutes a church, that is!); that mainstream or traditional churches are more about maintenance than about mission. But I believe within a C of E set-up in particular, the two are meant to work alongside each other. I still think there's an ambiguity about what an FE gathering is...

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    1. Yes, I'm not entirely sure what an FE gathering is either, despite supposedly being part of one!

      In some ways FE might partly be a pragmatic measure to keep more off-beam charismatic churches within the overall C of E fold. But I think there's also an acknowledgement that some people just want to do things a bit differently, perhaps a bit less traditionally, while still keeping broad C of E affiliation.

      And thirdly, yes, I think you're right that there's a tendency to assume that trad churches are about maintenance and FE is about mission. I would disagree with that overall, but perhaps it may be true in some cases (though I'm not at all mission-minded myself!).

      Where I think FE feels a bit different is that there's an emphasis on building groups around needs or interests within secular society, and seeing that as an expression of church, rather than expecting secular society to come to a church building/service. But that's a bit of a simplistic distinction of course...

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