Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

2.5 Shape and Church

The fundamental flaw in the way that the Report wishes to achieve its Apostolic objective is that it is not conceptually radical enough to meet its brief. The very title of Mission-shaped, as opposed to mission-spaced, demonstrates a fundamental defensiveness.

The ideas of shape and space are fundamentally different: shape is very useful for providing structure and limitations to phenomena that need to be given structural definition; some phenomena have a natural or given shape but the root word provides both a noun and a verb and in the latter use the word has an actively creative, as opposed to a passive, meaning. The point of the Report, however, is that it wants to escape from structural definition, either given (in the sense of the noun) or created (in the sense of the verb).

Space, on the other hand is love's most obvious symptom; to love is to give space, to liberate, to enable. This idea is perhaps best summed up in Herbert McCabe's contrast between love and hierarchy God Still Matters (Continuum, 2002).

It might well be that the authors considered that their proposals were as far as they might reasonably go without risking a lack of consensus for forward progress; but their proposals coincide precisely with a crisis in Episcopal geometry brought about by the debate over women in the episcopate and gay clergy. This is precisely the time when the Church needs to consider larger dioceses with specialist subject, or sectoral, as opposed to geographical, suffragans.

The Report goes to great lengths to explain that fresh expressions should not abridge in any way the parochial system that we have enjoyed for so long. Yet there are severe limitations in the Parochial system. The Report mentions these primarily in the context of geographical fixity, liturgical inflexibility and the incumbent veto on development but there are others:

For all these reasons, and many which the Report affirms without drawing the logical conclusions, the emphasis on the geographical episcopate and, below it, the geographical parish, is far too well defended in the Report's conclusions. There is a quite proper concern with the need for the episcopate to retain its teaching authority and for there to be proper oversight and regulated worship but such assurances do not depend on quasi-feudal structures. The geographical system confines us to generalist Bishops who are supposed to be competent in a wide variety of areas. Authority, however, could be exercised through direct lines which are not geographical. It is one of the ironies of the Church of England that the number of its dioceses and Bishops have grown as transport has improved. We can take advantage of this historical excess in designating sector bishops in the context of the Measure, taking responsibility for such sectors as education, mission, pastoral care, worship and liturgy etc.

Finally in considering this topic, we have to ask whether the whole mission-shaped enterprise is not yet another Anglican device for avoiding fundamental reform, not only in the way we think about the episcopacy and the parish but also in the way we think about our position within the establishment, our collective view of the nature and role of authority and our general tendency to use bureaucratic uniformity to try to achieve a degree of doctrinal uniformity. Might we not be much better off with a doctrinal core and a great deal more latitude in how this is worked out, subject to a more well defined Episcopal oversight?

There is at least a hint here of those committed to fresh expressions quite naturally wanting to have their ecclesiological cake and eat it; they want the sanction, protection and career structure of the Church but they simultaneously want to have the kind of free hand that no incumbent Parish Priest, freehold and all, would never be allowed. If such a Priest proposed that Baptism would be an optional extra, that there would be no Eucharistic celebration and that he would feel quite comfortable being absent fort large portions of the worship in his church conducted by trained but unsupervised lay leaders, the immediate cry would be that this was a non Anglican expression of church. In the current state of controversy within the Church where means of dialogue seem to be forever weakening, exacerbating the tendency for individuals and groups to act ever more autonomously, it may well be that fresh expressions provide a relatively non controversial outlet for some who find the geographical church somewhat stifling. If this is true - and it is no bad thing in itself - we must be careful to distinguish who benefits. As in the question about willing volunteers, we need to establish that those receiving volunteer services are benefiting otherwise the service is an imposition. This is not to doubt that there are many who have a deeply felt Apostolic calling to fresh expressions but, as the next Section will point out, those expressions seem to be somewhat pallid.

This raises two issues which the Report does not face squarely: the first is whether a departure from parochial structures should in any way dilute Episcopal oversight. With a sectoral rather than wholly geographical episcopacy there is no reason why it should. Secondly, are we to understand that the unchurched and the de-churched will somehow thrive on a less nourishing diet of prayer, word and sacrament than those in the 'sending' churches? This is the question for the next Section.