We are all ‘for the Parish’ by Graham Cray

Bishop Graham Cray is Archbishops’ Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team. In 2004 he chaired the working party which wrote the Mission-shaped Churchreport on church planting and fresh expressions of church. Here he responds to For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank.

Key quotes:

…properly understood, the mixed economy is about the interdependent partnership between the traditional ministry of the parish and its extension through fresh expressions of church.

For the Parish rightly recognises the seductive and corrosive nature of consumer culture and calls for transformative patterns of ecclesial life and discipleship

The Church of England has a choice between its call to ‘evangelize the whole country or decline into a sect’ – such is the concern at the heart of For the Parish. Those who work in fresh expressions identify exactly this challenge but have a different strategy to address it. Both sides of the argument want the same outcome.

In many ways this book makes for a frustrating read because its misinterpretations detract from the important issues it affirms. The fact is that I am as much ‘for the parish’ as authors Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, having spent 35 years of ordained ministry as a parish priest, training ordinands as parish priests, or exercising episcopal oversight for parishes.

The authors see fresh expressions as independent from parishes, claiming that ‘until now the average Fresh Expression has had little or nothing to do with its parish, deanery or diocese.’ In truth, the vast majority of fresh expressions in the Church of England are new congregations planted by parish churches and most of the remainder are deanery or diocesan initiatives. Fresh expressions often serve as an extension of the ministry of these parishes and deaneries, helping them to remain true to their calling to be the church for all.

The book’s ignoring of the Fresh Expressions initiative’s ecumenical nature is a major flaw too. The authors come near to making exclusive claims for their particular understanding of the Church of England that would fall far short of our existing ecumenical understanding and commitments.

For the Parish also fails to understand the strictly limited purpose of the Mission-shaped Churchreport, namely to:

  • provide a follow up to the 1994 Breaking New Ground: Church Planting in the Church of Englandreport, and comment on more recent developments, and as a consequence;
  • provide ‘some theological principles’ for its proposals about church planting. It was never expected to cover the whole of a developed ecclesiology. The Mission-shaped Church report identified itself with, and assumed the ecclesiology of, two key reports: Eucharistic Presidency (from House of Bishops) and Presence and Prophecy (General Synod).

The Mission-shaped Church report gave considerable emphasis to the need for legally authorised network church plants to supplement existing parochial provision. It did so because this required legislation, now provided by Bishop’s Mission Orders, whereas new congregations planted within a parish did not.

Criticisms and shared concern

Responding briefly to some of the criticisms the authors identify, I will also highlight some important areas of shared concern:

(1) Faulty methodology

It is claimed that the Fresh Expressions initiative uses a faulty methodology based on a philosophical mistake, making an inappropriate distinction between the forms and the meaning of the Faith. The authors rightly say that the meaning can only be learned, and embraced through the forms. But the quotations about fusing ‘the meaning and the forms’, or about the ‘one gospel having many clothes’ – which they criticise – come from international consultations at Lausanne and the Evangelical Fellowship of the Anglican Communion about the engagement of the gospel with diverse and changing cultures. What was being addressed was the danger of confusing culturally specific forms with the embodiment of the gospel itself. An example would be a conviction that Church’s responsibility to teach the Scriptures could only be fulfilled if it used the Authorised Version. Such confusions distance the Church from culture in the wrong way.

(2) ‘Inherently neutral’ culture?

Fresh expressions practitioners allegedly lack a proper understanding of the mediatory role of the church because we see culture as ‘inherently neutral’ and merely there as ‘clothing for the church’. For the Parish uses a fine quotation to explain the mediatory role of the church:

‘In mission we share God’s work: in mission we pass on the saving message through human words and communities, through human words, drama and music. Supremely, what we draw people into through mission is the life of Christ lived out – and thereby mediated – in the community of his Body the Church’

These words explain very well our understanding of the purpose and nature of the church in both fresh expressions and inherited forms. Culture is not regarded as neutral by fresh expressions practitioners; rather it is seen as providing a profound missional challenge to the church.

At various points Mission-shaped Church made it clear that the Church is called to be a countercultural community. Our present culture is described in sociological detail, not because we have no choice but to accept it – instead the detail aids understanding of our missionary context.

The disagreement between fresh expressions practitioners and these authors is between two different approaches to engaging our culture with the gospel, the former seeing engagement as the way to be countercultural and transformative, while the latter argue for more of a distinct parallel presence in society. This is worth a rigorous debate, but both approaches are committed to an understanding of the Church as a supernatural transforming presence.

(3) Inadequate individualised understanding of salvation

For the Parish suggests that fresh expressions are ’embarrassed’ about the church and just see it as a means to an end rather than as a foretaste of God’s final purposes. This does neither the movement nor the literature justice. Mission-shaped Church was about the ‘Church’ in mission in a changing context – not about individualized salvation – precisely because ‘salvation has an ecclesial dimension.’

Mission-shaped Church, quoting Eucharistic Presidency, affirmed that the Church is ‘a genuine foretaste of God’s kingdom’. For the Parish suggests that fresh expressions thinking prioritizes the Kingdom over the Church in such a way that the church is reduced to less than its biblical dignity and identity. But the authors are in equal danger of collapsing the Kingdom into the Church.

(4) A ‘flight to segregation’

For the Parish sees the development of fresh expressions of church as a ‘flight to segregation’; claiming that the American ‘Church Growth’ idea of ‘homogeneous units’ provides the foundation for many of the Mission-shaped Church report’s proposals. It is the case that Church Growth thinking was influential in some church planting circles. It offered at least some answers to the problem that many parish congregations were already more or less homogeneous units, in other words groups made up of a single people type or culture, and it opened the way to expanding their reach by engaging with groups which had been untouched.

This remains a major challenge in the Church today but the Fresh Expressions initiative now addresses it primarily through contemporary missiology, through the literature of the Gospel and Culture movement – and in particular through post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic thinking on inculturation.

There is particular emphasis on the significance of the incarnation as being both (a) a unique salvific event and (b) the paradigm for the Church’s mission as it crosses cultural boundaries with the gospel.

For the Parish dislikes this incarnational principle but it has been the theological basis of cross-cultural mission around the world, mission which is now required here. Many fresh expressions establish a bridgehead for the gospel through a particular group with which they have established a relationship but this does not mean they would settle for niche church as a final outcome.

In the New Testament, boundary-crossing mission led to new problems of unity which the church then had to address and resolve. That is the right order. The mission to the Gentiles was not put on hold because it created problems for the unity of the church, nor because all types of Gentiles were not being evangelized at the same time. When previously unreached people find faith it is the Church’s task to resolve the new challenges to unity which have been created by the Missionary Spirit.

For the Parish tends to dismiss statements which contradict its reading of fresh expressions as being ‘token’. This then colours the way it engages with the concept of a ‘mixed economy church’. But properly understood, the mixed economy is about the interdependent partnership between the traditional ministry of the parish and its extension through fresh expressions of church. Difference can be a resource for a more representative unity.

(5) A flight from tradition

I have already distinguished a false dichotomy between the meaning of the faith and its forms, from the absolutizing of the forms of a particular era. The description of a ‘Christian Imaginary in the Parish’ in the latter chapters has many excellent features but also seems embedded in a literary middleclass culture alien to much of our population and to offer an inappropriate one size to fit all. What impresses me, by contrast, about many fresh expressions is the seriousness of their approach to worship, spirituality and discipleship. Many are engaged at a catechumenate level with friends with little knowledge of the faith or of the Church, and their creative engagement with the traditions of the church for a missionary context is a gift from which we can all learn.

For the Parish rightly recognises the seductive and corrosive nature of consumer culture and calls for transformative patterns of ecclesial life and discipleship. When fresh expressions adapt or translate the Church’s historic traditions to engage with our society, that is also their intention. The ultimate test of the ministry of any Christian congregation lies in the quality of disciples being formed through the patterns of its ongoing life and ministry in Christ. To the authors I would say that they are right in claiming it is time for a proper ecclesiological debate – but not one that’s based on caricature.

+Graham Cray