Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

1.2 The Story Since Breaking New Ground

Church planting as such began in the early 1980s; the first UK conference was held at Holy Trinity, Brompton in 1987; from 3 plantings in 1978 an annual figure of 40 was reached in 1990-92; at this peak the Brompton Conference of 1991 produced the most substantial work on the subject to come from the Church of England, Planting New Churches (George Carey et al, Eagle 1991). From 1985-91 25% of plants went across parish boundaries; and the overwhelming majority went ahead with diocesan approval but there was some complaint of invasion from incumbents. Thus in 1991 the House of Bishops established a Working Party which led to Breaking New Ground (Church House Publishing, 1994) Its main conclusions were:

"As a Report", says our Report, "It was primarily permission-giving not future-looking" but "... life moves on"(19). The trend is now towards 'non boundary' as opposed to 'cross boundary' churches to meet network needs.

"There were hopes in the early 1990's", the Report notes somewhat ambiguously,  "That church planting would continue to increase in quantity, but the reality has been an increase in diversity. ... The sheer variety of fresh expressions of church has been a welcome sign of continued spiritual creativity in the context of a rapidly changing mission climate” (20). Which raises the question of whether the authors would have settled for twice as many successful plants but with half of the diversity. There is some sense here at least of making a virtue of necessity.

A number of common themes have emerged since the 1994 Report:  “…

The first of these points cannot be gainsaid but the second and third are surely questionable because they invoke the analogous diversity of the Trinity and God's creation to support a highly specific missionary strategy; they might equally have said because God is one and His creation is one this legitimises the very opposite of diversity. The fourth point is legitimate but is not on the same level as the other five; it is a purely pragmatic observation. The fifth point is perfectly obvious, viewed from the standpoint of church history and current Catholic practice and so it smacks a little of point-scoring. The sixth point is incomprehensible, even without the oddity of "God daring". There is a great deal of ecclesiology to be derived from systematic theology and a great deal more to be derived from practical necessity and it is convenient when the conclusions of each are convergent but the conclusions from the latter should not automatically be attributed to the former.

A much more authentic note is struck with the lesson that in planting the objective must be to create and not to clone. There is, however, a danger - and it runs as an under-current throughout the whole Report - of citing adhesion to a core of beliefs as a sufficient condition for fresh expressions without reference to Sacramental integrity rather than liturgical uniformity, a dilution which is not helped by the incongruity of calling in aid Stuart Murray Williams, an Anabaptist who precisely fails to distinguish between these two phenomena. Yet, to be fair, the Report recognises this when it says: "To exclude either the theological essentials or the new mission context is to miss what is necessary for plants to take root and to lead to a contextualized church"(21).

After quoting some reasons for failed plantings, not least an understandable emphasis on the launch as opposed to the maturation, the Report proceeds to justify its own existence: "Breaking New Ground, in a climate that sought tidiness, used language with a certain innocent clarity: 'Church planting normally involves the establishing of a new congregation or worship centre and is to be encouraged as an important part of church growth.' Virtually every concept in that sentence is now challenged by the variety that has emerged"(22). To which it is reasonable to respond that it is better to have the language of innocent clarity than studied ambiguity; the essence of Anglicanism is its impartial embrace of Credal and Sacramental Christians whose differences are clear and respected, quite distinct from the current attempts, of which this Report is symptomatic, to coat the poison of polemic with the fudge of officialdom. After the rise of Methodism and the Oxford Movement, the Church of England quite rightly saw that to attempt to perpetuate Cranmerian pragmatism was an inadequate response to Evangelical and Catholic witness and so it came to understand the importance of respecting these two traditions rather than trying to absorb them into a 'centrist' compromise. That would have been wrong in itself - not least given the emphasis in this Report on diversity as a virtue in itself - but attempts to strike compromises that bring strong traditions into weak agreement only weakens the Church as whole.

Next, and much more critically, it has to be asked whether so much has actually changed in the past decade or whether the initial diagnosis in Breaking New Ground was radically wrong. The current Report does not question the initial diagnosis of Breaking New Ground and its only major difference over strategy is its support for an initial, uncluttered approach to Evangelism and its latitude in respect of how initial commitment can be transformed into some living notion of church, including a willingness to dispense with corporate worship and ordained Ministry as necessary to the concept. Some people ministering to a "Post-Christian" community, it says, would not regard worship as a proper starting point but that is quite different from saying it is not a legitimate end-point. Not surprisingly, then, it is critical of the ecclesiological caution of its predecessor. That caution sometimes spilled over into a kind of colonialism (my word) where the objective of planting seemed to be to win more adherents for the "Mother" church, often thought of as "Proper" Church. "It is as though the Church has ignored what most western people know: 'Since the Seventeenth Century more and more people have discovered, originally to their surprise, they could ignore God and the Church and yet be none the worse for it”(23). This quotation from David Bosch (Believing in The Future, Continuum 1995) is a very quotable quote and it surely deserves a place somewhere in every post-Christian analysis but Bosch is not specifically referring to attendance at physical churches. There is no evidence that people in the 17th Century found their places of worship alienating. there is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence that atheists did not find themselves materially disadvantaged by their turning away from God but that word "Materially", is surely the point. The Report then goes on to use an analogy from physics to elucidate the post-Christian situation, pointing out that magnets do not attract non ferrous material which only serves to put the Bosch quotation even further out of context because whatever might be said of Europe up until the beginning of the 20th Century it was not post-Christian.

The Working Group for the Report commissioned research from the Dioceses to see what they thought about Church planting and the replies were overwhelmingly favourable with a contemporarily compulsory request for ongoing training. More surprising, in view of the Report's generally relaxed view of structure, was its disapprobation of poor record keeping and its urge for much more care in this respect. The wish to document and survey good (and bad) practice is commendable but the very act of writing formalises and curtails flexibility.

The Chapter then briefly summarises the denominational and global experiences of church planting in which the really interesting point is the change in emphasis from inter denominational to "post-Denominational" enterprises which it seems to support in spite of its earlier condemnation of 'faith shopping'; to be non-denominational, after all, is to be individualistically denominational, to opt for an even more pick-and-mix phenomenon than Anglicanism.

The Chapter closes with its own summary of what it thinks has changed during the last decade; there has been a switch in emphasis from asking how churches should be planted to asking why they should; we have moved from methodology to ecclesiology; we can no longer avoid asking the question: "What is Church?"