Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

2.7 The Ecology of the Church

A Report of this depth and importance cannot be expected to deal with the whole ecology of the Church for which it is written but the following are notes on some of the topics which ought to have been taken into account, if only briefly:

a) Heritage, Architecture and Accessibility

As has already been noted, the Church of England enjoys all the disadvantages but none of the advantages of being an established church. The most striking feature of this imbalance is the Church's obligation to maintain a huge stock of listed buildings on behalf of the whole community with income from its own worshipping base plus the proceeds of special capital appeals. Although the climate of assessment is becoming more favourable, this still leads to situations where those who have no active stake in a church, such as heritage organisations, may block what the paying parishioners and their incumbent wish to achieve in order to fulfil the Mission purposes of the Church and such bodies may even insist on expenditure to maintain an architectural heritage which may hamper mission. Although this is a topic for separate discussion, the Church should campaign to have its obligation to mission legally recognised as over-riding all other considerations, just as the charitable objects of a charity are legally secured against external interference with trustees.

If parish communities were not so weighed down by finance and maintenance they might have greater human and financial resources for mission; and for this reason the question of the Church's externally imposed heritage obligations must be tackled as a matter of urgency. Considering that for the past eight years we have had an overtly Christian Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, remarkably little progress has been made in this direction.

The heritage obligation also complicates the issue of access. Many of our churches appear to be grim fortresses: they have forbidding exteriors and they look as if they are impenetrable, even secret. Yet to amend external architecture to make a church more welcoming by, for example, replacing a forbidding Victorian porch with a glass porch that allows outsiders to look down the nave to the altar, is a long drawn out business that may end in failure and, what is worse, that failure may be brought about by a Diocesan Advisory Committee function paid for by the petitioners.

Given all these negative factors involved in the perception of architecture and the problems of re-structuring for welcome and mission, it is not surprising that the Report seeks a completely different remedy, that is to take the church out to the people because they will not come to church; but, as has been pointed out earlier, at its best, Eucharistic fellowship within a church setting offers the best for all believers. While the Report could not have been expected to handle these issues in detail it ought to have asked a fundamental question: is the proposed emphasis on fresh expressions simply a strategy for evading legacy issues in the drive for growth? Is this, in other words, analogous to the prime minister, worn down by domestic difficulties, turning to foreign policy for an easy success. Even if the answer is negative to the specific question, the issue of the fitness for purpose of our stock of church buildings requires a radical reappraisal in the context of our missionary purposes.

b) Simplicity and Obscurantism

A church based on a canon of scripture completed almost two millennia ago in foreign languages of non Roman script is bound to face problems of accessibility and transparency. That initial problem has been compounded by 1500 years of Western Christian tradition onto which has been superimposed the legalistic paraphernalia of English legal custom and practice. We have now reached such a stage of ambiguity and complexity that we cannot even easily talk to each other.

Underlying these questions is one fundamental issue which we need to address in order to be publicly credible; is our accumulated Scripture, tradition and practice so integral to our mission that we must preserve it at all costs and, this being so, are we offering an inferior experience of church to those who do not access this richness? Conversely, if the answer to that question is that the experience we are offering is not inferior, what does that say about our accumulated baggage?

As a worshipping community we are all more or less comfortable with the idea of metaphor; so comfortable that we hardly think it necessary to mention the fact that we quite effortlessly blend metaphor with literal understanding. If we are to be good missionaries we must be much clearer when we are talking about God to distinguish between the theology of the real and living God, the way that God has been understood by human beings in metaphor, the difference between Scripture as theology and Scripture as history or science; and the difference between Scripture as a specific set of documents with general implications and a set of documents with moral relevance peculiar to their times. We will certainly disagree about some of these issues but as long as we are humble enough to explain our difficulties those to whom we take the Word will understand us much better than if we use obscurantist language to evade the central issues. To be simple is not to be facile. Except when he was asked to interpret the Jewish Law, Jesus is portrayed as speaking very simply.

c) Communication and Mission

One of the most puzzling aspects of the Report, given its serious concern about television and the Internet, is its failure to integrate the use of the electronic media as part of an integrated mission strategy.

Our culture up until multi channel television and the birth of the Internet has been one of broadcasting consumption. We have come to think of broadcasting as a rarefied industry which we can criticise but not join. We largely rely on intermediaries to produce 'Religious broadcasting' which we regard as insufficient or unsatisfactory; and yet, in the age of multi channel television, digital and community radio, we retain this 20th Century stance. We are beginning to wake up to the Internet but our web sites largely reflect our internal concerns, packed as they are with Minutes, Reports and other governance material.

If we are to be successful at creating a mission-spaced Church then multi media broadcasting and publishing must be an important tool. One of the bonus attractions of this opportunity is that, unlike traditional book and periodical publishing, digital information publishing will force us to be simple and direct.

d) Fertility and Growth

Finally in this Section, there is one stark question which must be asked even if it cannot immediately be answered. How much of our seed is fertile?

My immediate answer to this question is that we have failed to make a full transition from being a compulsory to volunteer church, from being a prudential to an affirming church, from being a church of fear to a church of love. To borrow, for the very last time, the horticultural metaphor on which the Report is based, we must use our God-given intelligence to develop a Christian strain which accords with our present understanding of the love of Jesus for and in our world. As the church we will want to grow many kinds of flower to provide the whole beauty of the garden; but beauty in man's world is not achieved through passivity, through allowing anything and everything to grow so that the strongest, coarsest plants survive.

The planting cannot wait until we have put everything in order in our own garden; but if mission is to succeed in generating fresh expressions of church the home gardeners will need to work a great deal harder.