Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

1.1 Changing Contexts

The first Chapter of the Report opens with a somewhat defensive analysis of why Sunday is no longer 'special':

There are two additional factors that are not Sunday specific but which should be noted here:

This is a formidable list of major disincentives to church attendance (and there is more to come) but, without wishing to anticipate what follows, there are two immediate and connected matters of interest: first, if Sunday has become such a problematic day, might it not be sensible to offer a wider variety of organised worship on days other than Sunday as a less radical option to setting up fresh expressions of church? Secondly, in spite of these various new burdens imposed because of mobility and working, people on average still find 20 hours per week for watching television and that has to be time that is available for re-allocation; and the fact that it has not been allocated for church attendance only partly reflects the lack of weekday options. It also begs the question of whether mission should not be advanced precisely through instead of in competition with television, a point to which I will return in Part Two Section 7C.

A more fundamental issue is that if we are so fragmented a society, why have we not cohered around church? The primary reasons put forward for this are:


Networks have not replaced but have relegated neighbourhoods. This, the Report judiciously implies, is not in itself a bad thing because, it notes by inference, poor people feel themselves to be geographically trapped by a lack of networking and mobility primarily enjoyed through car ownership. The Report does not note that one of the first commodities to which increased wealth is usually dedicated is privacy; "Community" as a social value and a means of social organisation, is most frequently wished on the poor by those who have escaped its rigours. In this respect, the analysis of networking anticipates the analysis of consumerism; part of the flight from geographical community to networking is a desire to pick and choose friends, acquaintances and one's personal level of commitment and intensity; this might be termed 'people shopping'.

At this point the Report rashly equates human networks and the Internet. What it is trying to show is that human interaction in networks can be compared with data transactions in the non hierarchical internet domain. It is not quite clear whether the authors regret that nobody controls the internet but the tone is contradictory and uncritical; if the authors value network, in spite of the danger of its replacing community with consumerism, then that acceptance necessarily includes the non-hierarchical nature of the phenomenon. This ambivalence is simply a foretaste of a wider issue, namely, to what extent is hierarchy ecclesiologically foundational, an issue which will be dealt with in Part Two Section 5.

In alluding to the Internet, as with the allusion to television, there is no hint of digital mission, another issue for Part Two (Section 7C).

A lack of mobility, the Report  continues, is now a social indicator; people who cannot move feel stuck, so that the Church, in thinking about planting, has to remember its mission to the poor. So it must; but it might think more seriously of alleviating poverty through its own means and using its social influence to leverage public sector change. Faith in the City (Church House Publishing, 1985) was a remarkable document but, sadly, part of its impact was attributable to the general impression that the Church of England is not deeply concerned (at least on its home ground) with social justice, an impression given some weight in the discussion of Base Ecclesiastical Communities in Chapter 4.

At this point, the Report builds a bridge between networking and the loss of social capital through a timely reference to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2000). Communities are being re-formed around networks and people are less inclined to make lasting commitments so, says the Report, we must engage with the first and resist the second. What we need, (to use my own terminology), is ecclesial capital but there is still a fundamental question which has already been posed in a slightly different form: how valuable is capital accumulated through consensual, consumer networks compared with capital accumulated through the love of neighbour encountered in a geographical community where opting out is not possible? Or, to put the question more radically, does the network have any real Christian value?

Churches, the Report concludes, must be planted in networks (a terrible piece of hybrid terminology) and to achieve this, they must exist across parish boundaries and perhaps even further. This is an obvious strategy for meeting the network problem and is, incidentally, likely to be most effective in the 'higher' social classes; but many of the unchurched who are neither networked, nor mobile, nor inclined to darken our doors, are the poor.

Having weathered a period of turmoil, the authors turn with obvious relish to an attack on consumerism: "Where previous generations found their identity in what they produced, we now find our identity in what we consume" (9), an undeniable antithesis of great penetration and force. In addition, there has been a fundamental change in the way we view major social dynamics, with a radical switch from the imperative of progress to the hegemony of choice; again, a very sharp piece of analysis but one which begs questions about the extent to which the authors regret the trend or simply the inequality in taking advantage of it, an issue faced squarely in the first Chapter of Rowan Williams' Lost Icons (Continuum, 2003) which deals comprehensively and magisterially (though unnecessarily tortuously) with the concept of consumer choice and why it is so often false. This climate tends, the Report says, to make religion more a matter of choice than culture and, it goes on, spoiling its point through exaggeration, this means that people think of shopping and truth in the same way. This is difficult territory for the sociologist of religion because of the way in which concepts change their meaning through time; and there are very strong additional and complicating elements in the role of statutory compulsion, hierarchical authority, social conformity and the fear of hell fire in church attendance almost up to the present day. Are people, in other words, less interested in the notion of inner spirituality and the nature of truth or are they simply under less pressure to work out their spiritual strategy in a building called a church? I will return to these issues in Part Two, Section One.  However, says the Report, leaving these questions unasked, we must make a distinction between the economic model of the consumer society and the idolatry of consumerism, although it is not clear why this must be so and there are very strong arguments for its not being so. The economic model of the consumer society has been constructed consciously by political and economic decisions to be what it is and part of that construction relies upon generating demand that people previously did not perceive and then meeting it. Currently the United Kingdom economy depends upon the deliberate generation of consumer activity as a matter of public policy and as the core of competitive consumer strategy to increase expenditure even if this increases consumer debt; and there is even a strong argument in the public domain that consumer debt is, in itself, desirable at a given point in the economic cycle. If people, as the Report implies, are shallow enough to confuse truth with shopping then their idolatry, as such, has been cynically engineered and not self-realised. There is a strong argument that the Church should be much more worried about the construction of the model as the result of deliberate, communal political choice in the face of clear, more socially just alternatives, than it is in the individual frailties of those who suffer envy through media saturation and the ability to compare their miserable lot with the comfortable majority. (As I write, that 'retail genius' Philip Green has awarded himself an annual salary of £1.2 billion which is in itself excessive but what ought to be of more concern is that he will pay no tax).

So, as church, the Report continues with its spurious antithesis, we must be in the consumer society but not in favour of consumerism.

At this point the authors really begin to enjoy themselves with a typically pithy, if ugly, quote from Gabriel and Lang's, The Unmanageable Consumer (Sage 1999): "Pleasure lies at the heart of consumerism. It finds in consumerism a unique champion which promises to liberate it from its bondage to sin, duty and morality as well as ties to faith, spirituality and redemption. Consumerism proclaims pleasure not merely as the right of every individual but also as every individual's obligation to him or her self. ... The pursuit of pleasure, untarnished by guilt or shame, becomes the new image of the good life"(10). This is easy virtue at its worst; the key attributes of pleasure should not be guilt and shame. What truly tarnishes pleasure is excess, disproportionateness, callousness and the indifference to others less well favoured. Unless, of course, what the authors are really saying is that pleasure in itself must always be aware in its self-enjoyment of guilt and shame. This is dangerously dualist but it appears to arise not out of doctrinal distortion but out of sloppy thinking. The quote was too tempting to be tempered; it might itself be a metaphor for the dangers of self indulgent pleasure!

Finally, the Chapter turns to post Christendom, the decline of organised religion and its hinterland culture. The Christian story is no longer at the heart of the nation. In the 20th Century Sunday School attendance dropped from 55% to 4%, depriving the young of any clear grasp of Christian essentials. The Report then links this phenomenon with faith consumerism and choice. In this context the Church of England has been particularly badly hit because it has based its strategy on geographical ubiquity with the implicit and sometimes explicit message "come to us". Our society is largely second or third generation pagan once again so we cannot ask people to recall long lost or revive dormant faith. We are in a critical missionary situation.

But, says the Report with what sounds more like obligatory optimism than a conclusion at the end of a  logical process: "A changing culture constitutes a call from God ... the Gospel much be proclaimed afresh within ... different structures. They present a moment of opportunity"(13).

Then, almost out of the blue, in by far the finest, most authentic, simply written passage in the Chapter, the authors  very rightly say, making up much lost ground: "... This is also a moment for repentance. We have allowed our culture and the Church to drift apart, without our noticing." It is not the irrelevance of Jesus that has caused the decline but: "The failure of the Church to respond fast enough to an evolving culture, to a changing spiritual climate, and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit"(13-14).

It is difficult to resist the temptation to look at past failings, and for the church historian it is almost a reflex (see Rowan Williams: Why Study the Past?, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005), but the authors might have found a paragraph in which to recount the Church's failure to meet the challenge of the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless, in spite of its many failings, the great virtue of the Report is its determination to make positive proposals while society is being gripped ever more tightly in the bonds of materialism.

The proposals it makes in penitence grow out of more than two decades of church planting, or what we will come to call fresh expressions of church, and that is the subject of Chapter Two.