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.