Fresh Expressions – and great expectations? Paul Kent explores Mission Initiatives

Throughout the history of the Church of England, stirrings have arisen spontaneously from within, and from time to time, to respond to the pressures of the world at large. In the present circumstances of growing secularization of society in the United Kingdom, the Church encounters progressive problems in presenting its message to a public often ill-informed and unresponsive to the spiritual. Secular considerations, if not secular values, appear to be becoming the general norm. It is understandable that in such a world, fresh ways of supporting the traditional Church and reaching out to the sceptical and indifferent should be explored.

In the last ten years, a number of new concepts have crept into common use. We are urged to think of ourselves as a ‘mission-shaped Church’ generating ‘mission initiatives’, and to be an ’emerging Church with ‘fresh expressions’. It is therefore timely to try to discover what these concepts involve, how they operate and what implications they may entail for Anglican belief and practice and in parish life.

More recently – mid-2006 – all this has gained more momentum as draft measures are now being considered by the Revision Committee of the General Synod with a view to giving recognition to these mission ventures, but without strictly defined parameters; only a ‘light touch’ is to be applied.

Principles and objectives

To arrive at an impartial assessment of the possible value of these ventures is scarcely achievable at this stage on account of the lack of definition of the terms in use, the fluidity of the operating conditions and the sheer profusion of ideas. This article thus deals with matters still in a formative stage.

Overall, it is largely agreed that the object of these mission ventures is that of introducing the Christian message, broadly stated, to non-churchgoers wherever they may be found. It is envisaged that this can be achieved by a wide diversity of social devices, complementary to traditional church and parish life.

The Cray Report, published in 2004, entitled Mission Shaped Church, drew attention to ageing church congregations, failing parishes, a growing public ignorance in times of falling moral standards, a decline in understanding of religious issues and an upsurge in drugs, drink, crime and yob culture.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has appealed for the Church of the twenty-first century to become a ‘mixed economy’ -‘We need traditional churches alongside many different expressions of church.’ This appeal rang a bell not only in some Anglican circles but also amongst some nonconformists, and especially the Methodists.

In essence, in earlier years there have already been attempts at mission ventures. It is arguable that the YMCA and YWCA church planting, the Alpha course and the Sheffield ‘9 o’clock gathering were all such. Now, in a bid to coordinate the present ventures of Mission Initiatives or Fresh Expressions nationally, the Reverend Dr Steven Croft has been appointed as Archbishops’ Missioner to advise and oversee progress.

Mission action

In general, Fresh Expressions takes the form of gathering lay people together in groups with a leader (who may be a trained lay person or an ordained priest) and of meeting where people are (not necessarily on church premises, though this is not excluded). Meetings can take place on a regular basis, for example, in cafes, public houses (at times after hours), working people’s clubs or private homes.

The content of meetings may have a theme around what most interests the group, whether it be sport, discussion, eating together or just socializing – in fact, almost anything provided that it is friendly, welcoming and has a Christian flavour. It is assumed that opportunities will be made for meditation, prayer and questioning.

With such a widespread coverage and informality, it is foreseeable that a network of regular gatherings will arise, drawn from members of the public of all or every sort, transcending parish boundaries and even diocesan lines, without dependence on the parish structure or its clergy. It is to be hoped nevertheless that there would be constructive cooperation between parishes and groups.

The openness of Fresh Expressions groups must be a characteristic feature; it is not intended that groups should foster particular ecclesiologies such as fundamentalists, charismatics, the born-again or the liturgically-minded, but rather that they be available to any who want to know or who recognize a need. This is not without hazard in just producing a ‘feel-good factor’ in a sort of Christian club-land.

It remains to be discovered what may be the educational role of Fresh Expressions. This may be achievable less by formal instruction than by personal contacts and shared experiences. For the ventures to have lasting effect in serving the uninformed public, some transmission of Christian principles will be essential.

‘How Anglican is all this?’ one might ask. It appears that though Fresh Expressions are not to be regarded as recruiting drives to fill empty pews in empty churches, some connection with the sacramental life of the Church – especially baptism, the Eucharist and other channels of grace – must evolve. Christian living may come before belief, but both living and belief are encompassed fully within the Church community.

Fresh Expressions: organization

It is clear that much will depend on the personalities of the leaders and on their training, as well as on the support which they receive from the dioceses. One current proposal allows for a one-year part-time course for groups of potential leaders, from parishes (and possibly from Methodist circuits) which will include two Saturdays, a residential weekend, ten evening sessions and home study. It is hoped to start this at various centres early in 2007.

Group leaders, it is envisaged, will be appointed, and their activities regulated by the bishops. Notwithstanding the ‘light touch’ and informality of these astonishingly diverse mission ventures, some degree of oversight cannot be avoided, lest inappropriate situations were to arise. What would happen if the mission-shaped Church turns pear-shaped and if Fresh Expressions stale?, one might enquire.

At the ground roots

In the face of all these generalities, it may be relevant to enquire how groups actually operate on the ground. In these early days, there is comparatively little detailed information available and such as there is should not be taken as typical.

Mission Initiatives are already in being, and the leaders of two in the Oxford area have kindly provided some details. The first group, operating in an urban area, meets in a variety of places on a weekly basis for an evening meal, discussion and prayer. The attendance is between 20 and 35, with an age range of 20 to 30. The leaders salary (a three-year appointment) comes from the diocese and his living accommodation is rented by the group.

The second group, also in an urban area, meets in a school with an average weekly attendance of about 60 of all ages. This group appears to attract, in particular, newcomers to the area, and the lonely. The activities include a meal (usually breakfast), Bible study (with a special programme for children) and prayer, all open for discussion and questions. This group appears to function more like an adult Sunday school, one might think.

Few groups seem to function in precisely the same way and none may be considered typical. This is well illustrated by a DVD entitled Expressions 1. Stories of Church for a Changing Culture [Church House Publishing] and in a newssheet, ^Expressions, from the same publishers. Up and down England, engagingly-entitled groups are to be found – for example, ‘LegacyX5’ (Benfleet), ‘Bl’ (Birmingham), ‘Sanctus’ (Manchester), ‘Maybe’ (Oxford), ‘Messy church’ (Portsmouth) and ‘Church in the Kitchen’ (Oxford).

Long-term considerations

To bring about effective and lasting strengthening of the Church, it would appear essential for mission ventures of the sort described to allow for growth in outlook and cooperation with all types of tradition in the Church of England. Some groups may be destined only to have a butterfly existence before passing away or transmuting into some other form, some think. Other groups may seek some form of continuity in a more defined form. It would be thought questionable if groups became so self-sufficient and self-providing as to hive off into yet other inward-turned affairs, and in these respects also much will depend on bishops and leading diocesan figures and how many of them will actively participate in mission group activities.

Apart from parishes and their clergy, Fresh Expressions or Mission Initiatives have wider implications for those such as churchwardens and patrons. The existence of a supra-parochial mission initiative may well create difficulties for patrons in filling vacant benefices. The role of mission ventures may well be different in rural areas in contrast to highly urbanized districts, especially where there may be extensive ethnic minorities.

In other ways, the Church of the twenty-first century is assailed by the insidious influence of clever and plausible militant atheists. The Emerging Church sees itself as an advancing influence borne through history and destined for the future. Militant atheism modulates its case to meet the technology, materialism and social condition of the present, and in as few as fifty years hence, the socio-material world will be very different – a world away from today.

Overall, mission ventures may provide a challenge to the Church to regain standing in public life and reawaken the spiritual dimension in ordinary individuals.