Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

2.6 Sacramentality

It was the practice of the 16th and 17th Century missionaries in Latin America to preach the Cross and only thereafter to bring people into the environs of the physical church. There were sound sociological reasons for this and the transition was challenging but the strategy was sound: preach the love of Jesus and His sacrifice; nurture a basic, theoretical response to that love in such ideas as the return of love and the offer of service; nurture the response with Word and Sacrament; and deepen commitment through on-going teaching, preaching, Pastoral care and Eucharistic nourishment.

There are two fundamental reasons why any mission must have Sacramental initiation and nourishment constituted in the two Dominical Sacraments as its goal: first, Sacraments are the source of special grace which Christians need in their lifelong quest to remain faithful; secondly, Christianity without Sacramentality runs the grave danger of unincarnational dualism.

As has already been noted, the Report is occasionally equivocal on the role of Sacramentality in fresh expressions. Looking at the evidence, the Report's sacramental stance is weak, particularly when its source is Anglican. There is very little space given in its commentary to the role of Baptism; there are equivocal references to the role of the Eucharist; none of the case histories, except for those involving the Roman Catholic Church, are Sacramental and this only draws one mild warning.  The Recommendations make no reference to the purposes of fresh expressions and do not specify Baptism or Eucharist as part of the minimum requirements for fresh expressions which are sponsored by the Church of England.

The lack of a clear sacramental focus of the Report must call into question the extent to which ecumenical initiatives can be successful.  As it stands, the Reports perspective is hardly likely to command ecumenical support from the Roman Catholic Church except where the Anglican input is as a ‘junior partner’.  There is, of course, a much stronger possibility of Ecumenical initiatives between the Church of England and denominations to which the Eucharist is not central but it is legitimate to ask to what extent a Eucharistic church should mobilise human and financial resources to pioneer initiatives which do not have a Sacramental goal.

This rather pallid vision of fresh expressions leads naturally to the question: why plant? Are we simply trying to increase the number of nominal Christians who receive The Word in some way without Sacrament? Are we asking people who lead difficult and complex lives, either resulting from poverty or from affluence, to commence a Christian life without Baptism and sustain it without Eucharist? Are we saying that we can really promise a full Christian life outside the Sacraments when we ourselves could not even imagine our own Christian lives without our initial rite of membership and our shared fellowship in Eucharist?

The Report offers a vision of Christian witness which to Anglicans at least must seem threadbare. The case histories and the whole superstructure which surrounds them paints a picture of intense pastoral commitment, a call to witness and thanks, witness through the Word and through collective worship, all admirable attributes for any fresh expression; but these conditions are necessary but not sufficient. What the Report lacks is a route from the initial commitment to something deeper; and it also lacks a physical route from the bleakness of many places where fresh expressions are founded, to the fold of the Parish Church. All of us would be prepared to worship in temporary accommodation on a temporary basis but we are morally obliged to offer to others what we want for ourselves.

The explanation offered for the fresh expressions strategy is that many of the unchurched find Christianity forbidding and mystifying and that the de-churched found the experience alienating. In both cases the strategy of catering for them in situ is inadequate. In respect to members of network churches, we can expect that they will be quicker to establish strong links with geographical entities, collectively and individually; assertive people are better able to know what they want which is a necessary precondition for having it. Where fresh expressions are working with less assertive and less decided people it is part of their duty to offer a vision of the place from which they have been sent. Any other strategy is patronising and creates two-tier Anglicanism; we may all want a mission-spaced church but we do not want a prefab-shaped church. This is not to say that some of the Report's criticisms of traditional church are not valid but the remedy is to put right what is wrong rather than to leave things as they are at the parish level and confine new converts to a sporadic expression of church.

It is frequently remarked in the context of fresh expressions that those of an Evangelical turn of witness are more enthusiastic about planting; if this is so, then those who are Sacramentally committed must be bound in to the outreach process so that they are on hand to work with pioneers to deepen the commitment that the pioneers have so bravely secured. This must be the particular duty of Catholics within the mission context; rather than being indifferent, or even turning away, Catholics must learn to work within the missionary framework to see that there is a viable pilgrimage route, spiritual and physical, from initial mission to Sacramental completeness. Sacramentality is not an easy idea but without it the Word will be like that which fell on stoney ground or amongst the thistles, it may well sprout luxuriantly for a time but will lack the underlying nourishment or it will be persistent but risk being choked by the cares of this world.

A further problem with non Sacramental Christianity is its tendency away from an incarnational perspective and towards a narrowly Cross-based dualism. Jesus is our channel to the Father not only in his intermediary intercession but also in the concreteness of his earthly life. That concreteness, that aspect of salvation history which fuses the divine with the human, which makes His death and Resurrection an irreversible (or, as the traditional language puts it, a once-for-all) salvific guarantee is continuously, historically, manifested in His corporate Church and in every Member of it in the initiation of Baptism and the fellowship of the Eucharist. Sacramentality is the supreme incarnational manifestation in every post resurrection life; and as children of the Resurrection, Sacramentality is the focus of our living in the Church.

In summary, we need to take the Report further, not only in the Measure but also in working out the ways in which those who are called to Christ may be sustained by Him through His Sacraments so that all may live in Him and He in us.

This raises questions of competence. It is already proper for Baptism to be administered by the laity in the case of an emergency but the need for this initiation is necessarily limited as it is a once-for-all process which ought naturally to be within the competence of a person ordained within the threefold Ministry. The more crucial issue, referring to the quote from Acts at the head of this Section, concerns the breaking of bread.

For Anglicans, the Dominical Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is an essential part of their spiritual life. Its understanding and role have changed through time and it is now fair to say that there has never been a time in the whole history of  the Church when the Eucharist has been so central, at least in terms of its position in the pattern of worship and the access of the laity to it. A Eucharistic church must therefore be lively to the need for the people of God to take part in it. The irony is that as the centrality of the Eucharist has increased, the number of those deemed competent to Preside has fallen. In some dioceses this perception has led to the ordination of women as priests and also to the recognition of other forms of priestly ministry such as NSM and OLM. The longer term strategy, however, might be to mirror at the Parish level the proposal made above for the episcopacy. It may be time to consider grouping churches so that team members can specialise. There is certainly strong evidence that the traditional parish priest finds it difficult to undertake the huge variety of roles and tasks which are required. A specific case would be the need for timely communication and the mobilisation of lay resources. Currently each Parish produces its own newsletter and print-out of liturgical material; hundreds of clergy are downloading roughly the same hymns (to match the Common Lectionary) at the same time. Just as there could be liturgical specialists in Parish groups, so there could be specialists in pastoral care, mission, work with children or work with deprived communities. Within this framework, one or more persons would be responsible for Sacramental instruction and delivery in general and the availability of the Eucharist in particular. As with the planting and traditional manifestations of church, there is a gap between the Alpha Course and Confirmation courses which needs to be filled by Priests and lay leaders.

In the case of Bishops and Priests this is not a plea for the division of labour which occurs in a factory where there is a single conveyor belt, it is a plea for foundation generalists who are encouraged to specialise in different priority areas. If this could be achieved then the role of Priests in mission would be clearly defined, properly supervised, anchored in a team and would offer career prospects. the Report notes, in addition to the lack of career prospects for those involved in planting, that there are problems in assembling the appropriate mix of skills in launching a new missionary enterprise. The failure of analysis is in thinking that a fresh expression necessarily needs a new, autonomous resource who possesses the very same weaknesses as the parish-based generalists who do not feel equipped for mission. If a collaborative approach were to be adopted based on team work amongst specialists, this would not only improve the quality of pastoral care and basic teaching which the Report properly commends but it would also under-write the Sacramentality of the missionary enterprise.