Speaking of Fresh Expressions, sacramentality and mission

Fresh Expressions are very much in vogue, of this there can be no doubt.

At the recent gathering of General Synod the invitation was issued to celebrate and endorse the success of the Fresh Expressions movement. For the avoidance of all doubt, I too think we should celebrate the success of the Fresh Expressions movement. But, I don’t think we should do so uncritically, allowing Fresh Expressions, (maybe alongside alongside grafts and plants), to become the sole missional orthodoxy.

I began my speech at synod by suggesting that I might be about to commit a ‘very modern heresy and place myself just slightly on the wrong side of my diocesan bishop,’ (I don’t think I did place myself on the wrong side of Bishop Steven, who introduced the session, by the way).

I deliberately used the word heresy for two reasons: First, because I am genuinely concerned that Fresh Expressions are seen by many as the answer to the ‘problem’ of mission and evangelism and, secondly, because I felt that some of the language used was overly flamboyant –  ‘every parish’ – and that some of the numbers deployed were ever so slightly fantastical.

Now I am sure that the number of Fresh Expressions will continue to grow and that there will be good, real, growth alongside poor, unreal, or synthetic growth.

Good growth will occur where men and women, normally lay, establish, nurture and grow genuinely new congregations. Unreal or synthetic growth will occur when parishes report that they have established a Fresh Expression to satisfy expectations. In the return statistics parishes are asked to declare whether they have launched a Fresh Expression and my fear is that many parishes will say ‘yes,’ even though what they are actually undertaking is what they would hitherto have regarded as the ordinary activities of an ordinary (missionally minded) church. In a very real sense we will become that which we count. When we become what we count the numbers, in many ways, cease to be real.

In my own benefice I think we could legitimately claim two or three Fresh Expressions but I have absolutely now desire to do so. In fact I would go further and suggest that those who lead them have no desire to be badged, or branded, as a Fresh Expression. Why would they?

I have one other big worry and concern or question: to what extent are the majority of Fresh Expressions sacramental (eucharistic communities)? Now I dare say some, perhaps many, will argue that it doesn’t matter. I think it does and, that it matters both missionally and ecclesiologically.

Let’s start with ecclesiology. As a reformed-catholic church celebrating and, being formed through, the practice of participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist is central to the Church of England’s understanding of what it means to be a practicing Anglican (or communicant Anglican). Put simply the Eucharist, alongside the word, is our ‘daily bread,’ and that is why the canons (rightly) insist that the Eucharist should be celebrated each and every Sunday in each and every parish / benefice. Participating in the Eucharist isn’t simply something we do, a ritual we enter into, it is a weekly (fresh) expression of our need to be fed with the very body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is, in this sense, highly catechetical. As a moderately catholic Anglican I expect to be nurtured, and discipled, through the simple act of participating in the Eucharist. I expect to meet God in, and through, the Eucharist.

Once more as a moderately catholic Anglican I also believe that sacramental worship is missional worship. In the Eucharist the church dares to proclaim that God really, and truly, is here in our very midst (‘The Lord is here’ – I far prefer this liturgical assertion to yet another ‘Lord be with you.’)

In the Eucharist the ‘mystery of faith’ is also loudly proclaimed alongside the Pauline doctrine that ‘every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes in glory.’ For St. Paul, it appears, (who knew a thing or two about Fresh Expressions) sacramentality and mission were indivisible. In fact the indivisibility of sacramentality and mission and evangelism appears to have been highly characteristic of the apostolic church (cf Acts 2, 42-47).

Moving on: Fresh Expressions are frequently justified through reference to the prevailing culture and context.

One of my worries is that the church’s cultural analysis might just be a bit thin and that our analysis is guided by a fairly questionable set of assumptions; one of these assumptions being that traditional or inherited church won’t cut muster for millenials. I think we need to be very, very, careful with such assumptions. Inherited or traditional church might not be attractive to some millenials but it is undoubtedly to others.

Last year I baptised a young adult whose first experience of church was watching MidNight Mass on television and finding herself mesmerized. In a couple of weeks time I am baptizing a young woman who went to a baptism at a very high Anglo-Catholic church in London. During the service she had what can only be described as conversion. Both of these women live in social housing and both, I suspect, are people the church would wrongly categorize as being unlikely to respond to the traditional or inherited church.

In the presentation at synod there was no reference to sacramental theology. For a reformed catholic church I found this to be incredibly bizarre and, if honest, disturbing. For me a missional community must also be a sacramental community. The two simply cannot be divided. I would argue that this is both biblical and constituent of what it means to be ‘catholic and apostolic.’

I do worry worried about some of the language used and the figures quoted. My biggest worry is however this: in focusing so much on the growth of Fresh Expressions might we, paradoxically, be undermining both our ecclesiology and far more importantly mission?

I think it’s a distinct possibility and I apologize if this is a modern day heresy.

Speaking of LLF (Living in love and faith)

Living in Love and Faith is the name given to the episcopally sponsored teaching and learning document, which is considering relational and sexual ethics.

Of course the stimulus for such a report is the ‘vexed’ issue of LGBTIQ+ relationships.

One of my frustrations in the Church of England’s ongoing conversation is the extent to which sweeping statements such as ‘the majority of Christians think’ are thrown around with gay abandon, and presented as ‘self evident’ truths. I for one am suspicious of ‘self evident’ truth claims. I would prefer real evidence.

It continues to surprise me that the Church of England refuses to do the hard work of finding out what her Sunday by Sunday worshipers actually think. In a very real sense LLF will be launched into an epistemological vacuum. For me this is a major, foundational, and structural problem. I think I understand the reasons why the Church of England is reluctant to  commission her own research (a two-fold fear: fear of what the research findings may yield and fear of the possible consequences), but I also think that its a missed opportunity. Be that as it may.

Despite my frustrations and despite the fact that I believe the project is too limited in scope, in that the aim is to produce yet more resources to facilitate yet more discussions, I believe that it is worth sticking with, and entering into with a sense of hope. I believe this in the knowledge that others have come to a very different conclusion, with good cause.

So why do I believe that the project is worth sticking with and that over the medium term it will help facilitate change?

First, because I believe in the power of story and testimony.  Stories and testimonies have a real evangelical and missional authority in their own right. Stories and testimonies are a powerful antidote to hard line dogma. Stories and testimonies challenge the status quo and keep the tradition honest, alive and fluid. It is real lived stories that facilitate the reading of the bible with experience in one hand and the text in the other. Living in Love and Faith will, hopefully, be a depository of such tradition enlivening stories and testimonies.

Secondly, because the audiences for the stories and testimonies, alongside the deliberations of various groups (where the deliberations and discussions have been recorded) will be both widespread and nuanced. So far the audience participation has been if not limited then restricted.

Widening of the audience may well lead to an accelerated move towards a ‘a radical new inclusion in the life of the church.’ I do hope that a mechanism will be created whereby parishes, benefices and deaneries will be able to formally feed back on their engagement with the final documentation. If the project is to be a teaching and learning exercise for the whole church feedback will be necessary. Ordinary parishioners up and down the land, in small churches as well as large, must be allowed to offer their considered reflections on both the stories told and the way ahead.

I don’t think for one moment that those who are already absolutely sure of where they stand are going to change their minds. I am also sure that those who are opposed to any movement whatsoever will continue to trot out their favored reasons for the prevention of change (complimentary and binary theologies of sexuality, the ongoing repercussions of the fall, ‘the bible clearly says’, ‘the church mustn’t capitulate to culture and so forth’). However, I also believe that a large majority of careful, thinking, feeling people will be influenced through the power of narrative and testimony. The Church of England, as a whole, is I suspect far more progressive and ‘liberal’ than the powers that be realize.

The Church of England has over recent times been accused (with justification, in my view) of becoming overly managerial and the LLF process has been criticized for being yet another example of the bishops seeking to manage and stay on top of things. But, the paradox of managerialism is that it frequently, normatively, tends to undermine itself. LLF will, I hope, let the genie out of the bottle, and as we all know the genie can’t then be put back in the bottle. So my third reason for remaining hopeful is the paradox of managerialism.

LLF isn’t perfect, far from it, but it will help facilitate change. It will be one of the building blocks that will eventually lead to ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church,’ where inclusion will be ultimately verified through liturgy, for liturgies and rites are the only real proof statements of both culture and belief in Anglican ecclesiology.

LLF is allowing individuals and groups to tell their stories and express their concerns. These stories will change hearts and minds, of that I am sure (and I know others will disagree!) The road ahead won’t be smooth, and it will be painful, but the status quo is no longer sustainable.

The fruit of LLF, bitter or sweet, will be a discovery of the direction of travel that the Church of England should take in its pastoral and liturgical practice as it strives to make ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church,’ concrete.

In the meantime: ‘Patient endurance attaineth to all things,’ (St. Theresa of Avila).




Talking about depression, anxiety, fear and healing.

Someone asked me some time ago whether I still believe in healing.

The answer I gave is that yes, I do, but that I tend to think about healing slightly differently these days. My thinking about healing has been largely conditioned through experience, by which I mean my own experience (of living with depression and anxiety) and the experience of ministering amongst others as a parish priest.

In the past I have prayed unbelievably hard (perhaps you have to) for miracles to be performed. I have prayed that pain will be removed and health fully restored. I have prayed for the miraculous. Now, let me be clear: I do believe that the miraculous can and does occur, but I also know that my prayers for a wonder miracle have tended to go ‘unanswered,’ (where I am the judge and final arbiter of what wonder and answered prayer looks like!)

Wonder miracles can, and perhaps do, occur but, surely they are the exception rather than the norm?

Nowadays I tend to focus on the ing in healing. I tend to regard healing in process terms. I regard it as attending with love and compassion to the reality of the human condition.

In my benefice we have three aspirations: hospitality, holiness and healing. They all defy precise definition and they all clearly relate to and inform each other: you can’t really be a healing community, unless you are a hospitable community, you can’t really be a hospitable community unless you, in some way, commit to seeking to grow into the likeness of Christ, the host, and the Messiah. These aspirations are about as close to a vision or mission statement as we can manage.

So what is this thing called healing and why am I so passionate about it?

I am passionate about healing because poor mental health has been an enduring feature of my life, and the great lie that I have been the victim of for most of my life is that I must suffer alone. Depression and anxiety (and I have suffered with both – they are my ugly and uninvited ‘twin impostors’) are not silent conditions: they breathe pain into both your mind and your body, they tell you things.

They tell you that nobody will believe you if you tell them how you really feel and that, in any case, and that you really shouldn’t feel as you do, after all……And, the cruelest lie they tell you is that your life has no value, followed closely by ‘they would be better off without you.’ 

We need to be clear: anxiety and depression can lead us on the ugliest of all pilgrimages, the one from isolation to the grave.

The fact that I am not in the grave is the greatest miracle of all, for I have had periods of my life where death seemed the most favorable of outcomes. I have cried into my pillow every night a prayer of anguished pain: ‘Lord take this pain away, or don’t let me wake up tomorrow.’ This has been my sincerest, most heartfelt, and, thank God, seemingly unanswered prayer. I have also felt so, so, angry at God, for surely as a Christian I shouldn’t feel like this, should I?

Christianity, faith, liturgy sometimes doesn’t help, in fact it can make things a whole lot worse: ‘I shouldn’t feel like this.’ Hearing about the Fruit of the Spirit, or the fact that Jesus came to give life in all its abundance is a pretty hard message to receive when you feel in the pits, when just getting to a church has taken every vestige of residual energy, and when everyone else appears so on message, and when abundance can only be measured in terms of the ability to get through the liturgy without bursting into tears, or exploding in a fit of rage.

Going to church when you feel crushed by despair and shot through with anxiety can be just so hard, and so conflicting: ‘I shouldn’t, they don’t, and where for …….sake are you God. Will you just do something God-like? Make it all go away, or make me go away,’ has been my mental health lament. And, as I now know, it’s a pretty common lament.

Well I am still here, I haven’t (as yet) gone away, or been taken away, so something must have happened, something must have changed. So what is it that happened, and what role has the church played in my healing?

First and foremost the church has given me the gift of friendship. I have been fortunate to have had a very close friendship, with a wonderful man (Nick), who sadly died last year, whose own spirituality was hard won. I have other wonderful friends who know something of my back story and the sometimes grim realities of my daily pilgrimage.  They are my best counselors and they are all people who can, to some extent, say ‘me too.’ I now know, through the church, that others stand in solidarity with me, and I with them, and this helps. It helps dispel the great lies. Friendship is a subtle gift, but it’s a great and, I would say, miraculous gift. So, thank you to all my friends, those me-tooers that have been, and remain, fellow pilgrims.

Secondly, I have been forced, in the light of experience, to rethink the ministry of healing. Healing is, for me, no longer coterminous with cure and this is a really crucial point. Cure sets, for me, an impossible standard, and impossible standards make things a whole lot worse. Impossible standards render the ‘you’re not worth it…’re not good enough and they would be better off without you’ lines truly credible. Now I think of healing as fostering the possibility of living with, through and beyond anxiety, depression and fear (this is how we style our mental health liturgy). Framing healing in these terms has allowed me understand something of the abundance that Jesus offers. Framing healing in these terms seems and feels both pragmatic and realistic, and maybe that’s good enough?

As a parish priest I firmly believe that the church must take mental health seriously as part of our healing ministry. In fact I believe that the slow and attentive work of ministering into a context where poor mental health is on the rise is the most important, most challenging, and potentially most fruitful aspect of our healing ministry.

My advice (and I am sorry if this sounds pompous and presumptive) to any church interested in mental health ministry is to start by fostering a culture where the reality of anxiety, depression and fear are acknowledged, affirmed and normalized. Churches need to be hospitable not just to people but to the realities of the human condition. I would also encourage churches not to be too ambitious. We mustn’t over-promise. We mustn’t add to the burdens of already overburdened people. But, what we can do is pray. We can pray that those who suffer will be able to live with, through and beyond depression, anxiety and fear. Churches can be places of deep healing: communities that attend to the reality of life and places of friendship, solidarity and prayer.

Attention, friendship, solidarity and prayer, these four, can act as real antidotes to the lies of the ‘twin impostors.’

Without these four can there be any real healing?


Talking of giving thanks

I suspect that we all liked to be thanked. Somehow when we are thanked we feel valued. And, when we feel valued, we become creators of value. Gratitude and thankfulness are positively, missionally, contagious.

There are so many people we need to feel thankful for in our churches but, for some reason, we frequently seem reluctant to express our gratitude.

St. Paul, in Ephesians 1, 15 -end, commends the ministry of thanksgiving: ‘I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers,’ (verse 16). As I was reading this passage and digesting Bishop Helen-Anne Hartley’s excellent reflection on it (in Reflections for Daily Prayer) I was struck by the way that St. Paul links gratitude with prayer.

Can we be truly grateful separate from prayer? Just a thought.

I was further struck by the way that St. Paul seems to suggest that art (or do I mean craft) of giving thanks relates to mission, evangelism and revelation, for his prayer is that those for whom he is expressing gratitude will be  given ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation,’ (verse 17).

It feels as though St. Paul might be saying that a community where gratitude, appreciation and thanksgiving are the norm will, through the work of the Spirit, be a hospitable, wise, and revelatory community; a community that points beyond the immediate and obvious to a greater and liberating truth; a community that does so simply by being its very best self.

Could gratitude and thanksgiving be not only the essence of prayer but also the very stuff of mission and evangelism?

True gratitude and deep thankfulness aren’t cheap graces, but costly graces. They are virtues that need to be crafted in the midst of the joys and irritations of ordinary life and through the disciplined rhythms of Christian life. If we rely on spontaneity and affection our gratitude may be just a tad shallow; our mission and evangelism trite and ineffectual.  Maybe the difficult journey into real gratitude and deep thanks can only be eased through prayer? Again, just a thought.

We also need prayer to help us cope with the pain of unrequited rejection. I am always struck by the fact that nine out of ten lepers didn’t come back to thank Jesus for their healing (Luke 17, 11-19), but one did. We perhaps need to let go of any notions that thanksgiving is a guarantor of success. We mustn’t make thanksgiving a mere strategy, but instead trust in the process. After all one out of ten really isn’t that bad!

The Church, which is the Body of Christ, needs to be a community of thanksgiving and not simply for our own sake but for the sake of the world, for when we give thanks for all that we have been given, and for all the saints who we encounter on our pilgrimage through life, we add missional value; we help shape the sort of communities to which people might just want to belong, and that, it seems to me, resides right at the heart of mission and evangelism.

So thank you to all who sing and play, decorate and administrate, fetch and carry, wash and dry, read and pray. May you do all that you do with gratitude in your hearts. May we all be blessed with ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation.’ 






Talking of sacramental mission (and worship)

I have just spent a wonderful, inspiring, challenging and, yes, just occasionally irritating (get over yourself Andrew) few days at the On Fire Mission.

For me On Fire represents an opportunity to get away to be bathed in sacramental, mystical, and charismatic renewal in the company of an eclectic and endlessly interesting group of fellow pilgrims.

At On Fire I found myself telling my story, or my conversion story, several times. Put in more evangelical terms I gave my ‘testimony.’ I think it’s important to tell our stories (or give our testimonies) as a means of encouragement for others and to remind ourselves of the wonderfully interweaving components of our own journey. Telling our stories also challenges assumptions; assumptions about mission, evangelism, worship and conversion (to name just a few!)

So here goes, with a little bit of testimony:

I didn’t go to church as a child, although I did go to Christian schools. These schools played a massive part in bringing me to faith (thank you). At school I learnt the great stories of the faith. I also learnt to say my prayers.  At school I found out about Jesus and in some ways I encountered Jesus. These schools set me on my journey.

My first experience of going to church with my mum was in 1980 or 1981, I can’t remember which, but I do remember being incredibly, fantastically, excited about the prospect of going to church. My excitement had been gestating for 365 days; an entire year. And, how I loved my first church service. In fact, truth be told, it was at that service where I fully knew, in the imagination of my heart, that Jesus Christ is Lord and that when we worship he, ‘the Lord,’ truly ‘is here.’

I can’t remember the sermon although I could have a good stab at guessing the readings and the hymns, for my first service was Midnight Mass and the venue was the parish church in Marlow. It was at and through this service that I was able to start my journey into the mystery of faith.’ I firmly believe that it was at this service that the idea that one day I might stand behind the altar was planted in my heart.

So how did I end up getting so excited about MidNight Mass, so excited that I nagged my mum, for a whole year, to take me?

The answer is staggering simple: the previous year, the year when it was deemed that I was old enough to stay up late and see Christmas in, I watched MidNight Mass on television and was mesmerized. I found it exciting, compelling and inviting. I just knew I had to go. I was neither baptised nor confirmed at the time. I had no knowledge of church rules, still less of church etiquette. I just had to go.

At my first MidNight Mass, I knew that the story was true.

St. Paul famously wrote that ‘for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,’ (1 Corinthians 11, 26).  At my first Eucharist, that Christmas night, the effect of participating in the Sacrament of the Eucharist  was to convince me of the truth; the truth that is  the ‘mystery of faith.’

I am in no way suggesting that the sacraments alone have the potential to convert hearts and minds, for it is clearly the case that a great many people, perhaps the majority of people, come to faith through nurture courses and other well-tested methods of mission and evangelism.

I also recognise that school and my mother played a hugely significant role in my journey; thank you. What I am suggesting, however, is that the church mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and that we should trust in the efficacy of the sacraments as converting ordinances in their own right, or do I mean rite?

Rites and sacraments are powerful, theologically authentic, time-honoured, and effective converting ordinances that we, the ‘body of Christ,’ should simply, perhaps naively,trust in.

Sometimes all we need to do is what we do, leaving the rest up to God.

‘Great is the mystery of faith.’

Talking about Thomas; realism, mission & evangelism.

I love the story of Doubting Thomas (John 20, 19 -end). In fact with each passing year I love it more.

Like many great stories it is multi layered and nuanced. Yes, it can be read straightforwardly but it can also be read playfully. Perhaps the facet of the story that grabs me most is, however, its sheer realism and pragmatism. John starts his account by telling us that ‘it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house of were locked for fear of the Jews.’ The apostles, it seems, were afraid; afraid of what might happen to them. Fear was a characteristic of the Apostolic Church. Fear, to my mind, remains a characteristic of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ What and who we are afraid of course varies from context to context and, sadly in many places the church continues to be persecuted but overall fear, I think, is endemic to the human and ecclesiological condition.

I am a fearful person, ministering in a fearful church.

Fear is often thought of as a negative characteristic and it can be if it leads to inaction (or wrong action). But, maybe fear can be a positive virtue if it leads to an acceptance of weakness, an openness to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the provision of peace? Perhaps the only way of overcoming fear is through the recognition of fear? Just a thought.

John’s telling of the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ has been instrumental to my understanding of mission and evangelism. It’s easy (and I think cheap) to criticize, or indeed mock, Thomas so, for me, the real challenge in the story is the invitation to cherish the ‘doubting’ Thomases amongst us. How many doubters are in our churches week, by week, by week? How good as a church are we at making and sustaining friendships with true doubters?  Does our ecclesiology, perhaps mistakenly, insist that ‘true’ faith is a prerequisite of church membership, that right belief must come first?

I would like to gently suggest that the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ challenges us to accept that hospitality, welcome and friendship are foundational to revelation, faith and belief. As church communities we mustn’t be too smug about that which has been revealed to us. We mustn’t pat ourselves on the back or set ourselves up on a pedestal because we believe. We must receive revelation as a gift and a grace; the unmerited work of God.

In John’s story it is clear that Jesus is the source of all revelation, and that the location for revelation is the community (the church, the ecclesial body). Jesus first reveals himself to the disciples, and then to Thomas. Those who had received the first revelation continued to offer Thomas friendship and a place of belonging, bearing with his atheistic ‘unless I see,’ creed, and look what happened: Jesus took the initiative and revealed Himself allowing Thomas to proclaim ‘my Lord and my God.’ 

Are our churches places of hospitality, friendship,inclusion and, in God’s own time, revelation?

Does the story of Doubting Thomas provide a realistic model for ecclesiology, mission and evangelism?