For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions

Davison, Andrew & Milbank, Alison
SCM (2010)
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When it comes to "Fresh Expressions of Church" (FEs) and its iconic document, Mission-Shaped Church (MSC) (Church House Publishing, 2004) I have some form as a discussion of the C of E's strategy for growth constituted half of my Masters in systematic theology at King's, London (the other half was on the Roman Catholic growth strategy based on 'investment' in education).

I said then that the greatest weakness of the whole FE movement and its key document was that its proponents wished on others a form of religious observance which they would not accept for themselves, much in the same way that Mr. Bumble wished gruel on Oliver Twist. A chat over a coffee about Jesus just isn't the same as the richness of Word and Sacrament. What I did not say at the time, as it was not relevant to the thesis, is how shocked I was that such an eminent theologian as Rowan Williams should have put his name to and provided support for such a theologically inept collation.

But my withering castigations were nothing when put alongside this passionate and well-argued broadside for the Parish and against FE. Without giving the whole 'plot' away, Davison and Milbank set out six clear theses; that:

1 "The Church" which Jesus Christ founded as his gift to the whole world is a much greater concept than that of "church" which is not tied to Scripture.

2 Without "The Church" which is the body of Christ, it's difficult to know what "mission" is for, except, perhaps, for itself.

3 The "mediation" function generated by living in a mixed community in the parish is directly opposite to a pick-and-mix, consumerist "church" experience based on people who are all the same; the church is also the divinely established mediator between the faithful and God in Word and Sacrament and is identified by its practices: we are, after all, a prayer book, not a confessional, Church.

4 In regarding the structures and practices of the Church of England as an obstacle to "mission", FEs are certainly not Anglican and should not be sanctioned by the Church of England.

5 FEs and MSC are politically middle-class and quietist, steering clear of any calls for social justice.

6 MSC and its FEs assume that secularisation is complete and that the task of "church" is to stem numerical decline.

Personally, I found this to be an immensely bracing and even cheering book, particularly because of its emphasis on the absolute centrality of the Eucharist. I have actually visited some Fresh expressions and they strike me as pathetically thin and terribly prone to the cult of the personality; after all, without the whole mediation of the Church, who is to decide what the massive library called the Bible actually means? And who is qualified to be designing liturgies which are supposed to be superior to those developed through tradition?

So we are back where we started: I am all in favour of Christ's mission that "God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven" but that requires more than some inkling of "church", consumed along with your social and intellectual peers.

I end with a warning: it is supposed to be profoundly disloyal or even deeply destructive, to question this wrenching of the Church of England from its spiritual, moral and intellectual moorings from its but what MSC proposes and FEs seek to express is a change much more profound than any alternation of stance on the presenting issues of women and gay clergy and civil partnerships. While the Church's finest are knocking lumps out of each other over minor ethical issues, the Church of England is being destroyed from within by its own leadership, either actively or by the silence of the coward.