Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition: Ancient Faith, Future Mission

Croft, Steven & Mobsby, Ian (eds)
Canterbury Press (2009)
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Because of the generally non-Sacramental tone of the pivotal Mission-Shaped Church (2004) report, it was generally assumed that the "Fresh Expressions" movement was almost exclusively "Evangelical". This collection of essays shows how the catholic, sacramental tradition to some extent has and can more fully contribute to the movement.

  1. In his address to the Fresh Expressions National Pilgrimage (2008) Dr. Rowan Williams, as eloquently as only he can, makes the case for a catholic and sacramental contribution: "... good news isn't particularly good if it isn't the whole truth for the whole person." Aspects of catholicity which should contribute to evangelisation are: non verbal aspects of encounter with God; sacramental action as a necessary way of proclaiming the Word; the need to see Christian life as evolutionary; adhering to the rhythms of the Church's year; the recognition that faith is communal as well as individual. All of these attributes are deeply Biblical. "Evangelicals are rightly passionate about the supremacy of grace and the fact that we are not saved by human effort; Catholics affirm that for this to go on being real for us, we need, not just better communication strategies, more lively language, or more up-to-the-minute activities, important though these are, but practises - baptism and Eucharist, where Scripture truly becomes contemporary happening - that anchor us in the fleshliness of the Word who became human, in the story of the time he took and takes to bring us home to his Father, in the awareness of our  need for each other."

  2. Sue Wallace describes an evolving outreach to clubbers in York, under the patronage of Steven Croft, culminating in multimedia worship with its foundation in the Eucharist, drawing on a huge variety of musical and text resources but firmly anchored in tradition.

  3. From a USA perspective, Brian McLaren sees the UK as "pivotal to Christian mission in the world" because we, unlike the USA, confront postmodernism and colonialism with global sensitivities which his country lacks. Recent Anglican tensions are a sign not of failure but are the labour pains of a global church. This "verse-parsing, stone-casting, fault-finding spirit" does not lead to greater purity or beauty but to "ugly schism." Anglicans prefer the "beautiful holiness of God" expressed in worship to doctrinal packaging. In this, the Celtic tradition of anti-Roman chauvinism has been particularly important and the postmodern transition equally involves "resistance to a dominating elite"; God's truth and beauty cannot be separated. There are two kinds of catholicity, colonial and inclusive. The ancient church valued diversity far above elitism and this has been the Anglican tradition. Likewise apostolic can mean narrow succession or broad mission and fresh expressions encapsulates the latter. The only option is to develop new wine skins before the old ones give out so that the old wine can be transferred.

  4. As if to challenge McLaren, Paige Blair describes a u2charist (lovely title) service that started in a small town in Maine and went global, linking the music of U2, the Sacrament and the Millennium Development Goals.

  5. Steven Croft begins by arguing that the mapping of fresh expression enthusiasts as evangelical, 'Gamaliels' as middle of the road and opponents as catholic, is wrong. He says that the movement is "inherently sacramental" (although it certainly wasn't when he authored in his famous report in 2004 - KC) but, he says: "I have not found anyone in the last five years arguing that we can or should attempt to be the church without the sacraments", which is, I think, an encouraging corrective. The catholic tradition offers:

    • The missio Dei perspective "join in what God is already doing" (John Taylor);
    • Incarnational theology revived by the Oxford Movement which led to mission in deprived areas; and
    • The formation of disciples in community.

    It is time for "Gamaliel to come off the fence".

  6. Ian Adams and Ian Mobsby describe a "New Monasticism" grounded in the pre-modern but owing much to the Catholic Workers Movement. Created to tackle the ills of consumerism - mental illness, addiction, loneliness and unhappiness - this incarnational, global, "techno-consumptive-mysticism" converts people from "spiritual tourists to co-travelling Christian pilgrims through the practice of radical love, hospitality and action". It is an "outward-facing, missional movement which takes the dual course of the "walled garden" and the open road. The approach summarised is: "You want to follow Christ, not look back". One community has re-worked poverty, chastity and obedience with simplicity, purity and accountability. Such communities: "continue the development of a living tradition of pioneering, risk-taking mission that draws deeply on a catholic and contemplative tradition that can be traced right back to the desert mothers and fathers."

  7. Stephen Cottrell has five starting points:

    • If you have an eight O’clock mass you already acknowledge that you have two worshipping communities in one building;
    • The needs of the world are the raison d’être of the Church which must first ask how it can serve and be a blessing to its community;
    • Every church started as a plant;
    • The week day Eucharist is not a 'top-up' but in a "complete expression of church" should include welcome, nurture, hospitality, teaching and sacramental ministry;
    • Every encounter with Christ takes its own shape where its sacramentality is integral not cultural.

    The Oxford Movement was a theological and missiological breakthrough.

  8. Michael Volland describes the growth of Feig (a word without meaning), a new worshipping community using all the ancient resources of Gloucester Cathedral, with a modern twist.

  9. Philip Rodderick and Tessa Holland say that Creative Fire "draws together tradition and improvisation, conviviality and hiddenness, service and solitude. ... the body of the earth, the human body and a body of people gathered in the celebration of the presence of God, can be transparent to the grace and illumination of the Holy Spirit, just as is the body of Christ. Scripture and sacrament, spiritual ascesis and service all converge on the fulfilling of personhood as we recognise in each other 'not strangers but pilgrims'."

  10. Jonathan Clark, in calling for postmodernist sacramentality, challenges the "metaphysics of presence" where "... there is no problem with God being comprehended through actions that proceed directly from God as Cause. Cause and effect do not work when it is God we are talking about, because God is then tied into the world of our understanding."

    He cites Nathan Mitchell's postmodern objections to such metaphysics which:

    • Is impatient with process and likes closure;
    • Is against infinity;
    • Seeks the permanent underlying the transitory, reducing difference to sameness, becoming to being;
    • Cannot deal with anything outside causality;
    • Ties God to causality but reduces God to being relational to everything else;
    • Renders creation mechanical;
    • Dehumanises and makes our relationship with God abstract.

    As the church has become simpler (Vatican II, Common Worship), the world has become interested in the messy, the temporary and the complex. Post modernity and logo centrism are in conflict. Sacraments are supposed to be "the irruption of the divine into the mundane world" but the idea is cheapened by the modern idea that they are delivered on a production line. Radical orthodoxy (Pickstock) says that the modern mechanical and postmodern void must give way to the analogical, reverting to Aquinas. But postmodern sacramentalism might simply be about living with risk, about risking everything There might be a paradoxical space, an event which is neither presence nor absence: "... a holy and fearful place - the place of the Resurrection narrative at the end of Mark's Gospel. ... God comes to us through Christ in death and through departure as much as through presence" which brings out the centrality of kenosis (cf 1 Kings 17:8-16). Things only happen when you are completely empty. We must each undergo our own kenosis. There is a strong relationship between this postmodern approach and the Orthodox Mysterion.

  11. Richard Giles discusses church architecture in the catholic tradition and shows with examples from Huddersfield and Philadelphia how building and congregational renewal are symbiotic. "Exile" during refurbishment taught much about liturgy and music. "When (theology and architecture) stop talking to each other buildings become untouchable shrines, and the people who use them either prisoners or curators."

  12. Simon Rundell believes that our encounter with God in sacrament should be emotive not intellectual, more profound than the evangelical: "let me tell you a story about Jesus, Kids!" The Eucharist, far from being a barrier, provides a framework for a fresh expression.

  13. Carl Turner, recalling the link between the Oxford Movement and the new ritualists, calls for a link between liturgy and social action: "No amount of creative liturgy can fill the gap in people's lives caused by worry, poverty, disease, redundancy, debt or addiction; worship can only be truly transforming if it affects a change in our lives. ... The greatest test of any catholic fresh expression will be the transformative nature of its worship, whose authenticity is marked as much by the making of connections as by loyalty to any inheritance of faith and order." Because liturgy has to be authentic and connected, it has to be inclusive, but mainstream difficulties with blacks, women and gays will lead to fragmentation. The church is always tempted by acculturation - the ivory tower - rather than enculturation, e.g. baroque exuberance was, literally, marginal to the Tridentine Mass. Turner goes on to explore what is essential in the Mass with respect to presidency, elements and text; but, echoing Dr. Williams: "Some ambient music, a plethora of video screens, lots of candles and dry ice do not, on their own, make a church a 'fresh expression' any more than filling a building with shrines and incense makes those within it Anglo-Catholic." Concluding he Cites Gelineau: "Solemnities are vain, words are empty, music a waste of time and prayer useless and rites nothing but lies if they are not transfigured by justice and mercy".

  14. Karen Ward, founded of Anglimergent, a website whose core belief is that: "... Anglicanism (when released from modern strictures) is deeply resonate (sic) with the hungers people have for authentic community, intellectual honesty, deep tradition, ancient-future spiritual practice, and servanthood in the way of Jesus". (She might have meant "structures" - KC).

    She claims that: "As the original third way ... in Christianity, and as a diverse, multi-cultural and global communion, Anglicanism is uniquely poised to engage the imaginations of emerging generations and all spiritual seekers in today's world." She describes the establishment of a missionary anchorite community in Seattle following Turner's statement of the link between liturgy and mission.

  15. Phyllis Tickle begins by outlining a history of Judaeo-Christian upheaval every 500 years or so: the foundation of the Jewish monarchy; Babylonian exile; Jesus; the fall of Rome and the Council of Chalcedon; the Great Schism; and the Reformation; And (you've guessed - KC) we're in the throes of another such in the "Great Emergence". In each of these Christian manifestations, Christianity has survived and grown, with its theology becoming deeper; and in each case the crux has been authority. She sees this as "ancient-future" coined by Robert Webber and referred to by Karen Ward. According to Webber, we are "racing towards the Third Century" and according to Tickle, Anglicanism is the only authentic link to it: "Whether one dates Anglicanism from the First Century CE, from the coming to Britain of Augustine, from the Synod of Whitby, or from Henry VIII, it makes little practical difference on the street. ... What matters, ... in relation to the Great Emergence, ... is ... (Celtic) music; ...". The great Emergence is turning to the ancient practises of "... tithing, fasting and the sacred meal, ... fixed-hour prayer, sabbath-keeping, the observance of the liturgical calendar, and pilgrimage."

  16. In concluding, Abbot Stuart Burns reminds us that mission is 'god's work, not ours; and although there is a hunger for spirituality, the last place most people would look is a parish church. And he gives Dr. Williams the last word: "Joy is where God happens. Wherever there is joy there will be fresh expressions of God's love made flesh."

Dr. Williams address is truly inspiring and might well have taken up all the space occupied by the ensuing summary but it is only fair to represent the heterogeneous and frequently fragmented Fresh Expressions movement in its own diverse language and manifestations. As you would expect, there is solid, common sense from the two editors and Stephen Cottrell and an excellent integrative contribution from Carl Turner. There is much to enjoy and learn in essays about experiments in liturgy by Sue Wallace, Paige Blair, Michael Volland, Richard Giles and Simon Rundell; and Ian Adams and Ian Mobsby, Philip Rodderick and Tessa Holland shed light on new forms of Christian communalism.

but the only real piece of theological exploration, which is a necessary precondition for a lasting revolution given coherence in a genuine movement, is Jonathan Clark's exploration of the encounter with postmodernism even if, as in my case, you don't accept that postmodernism is coherent in itself nor that it will inevitably triumph. My rejection of it rests not on any clapped-out theory of enlightenment-based, rational, mechanical modernism but on the necessity of corporate language as a precondition for taking mystery, or anything else, seriously. What we need, as Clark himself suggests, is a recapturing of the idea of language about God as analogous.

Karen Ward and others sense this by appealing to the medieval or even to the church of the Fathers; but how this can be realised amid postmodern technobabble still needs much greater exploration, not least if you're one of the book's contributors creating it. It is difficult to see the parallels between postmodernism and Christendom before the Reformation, a case, I fancy, of the similarities overwhelmed by the differences but the attempt to align the future with a golden age is recursive in all history, not least that of Christianity.

Karen Ward's claims for Anglicanism - I write days after the implosion of the Primates' meeting in Dublin - are preposterously over-blown, even compared with the generously extravagant assessment of Brian McLaren; and Phyllis Tickle's historical schema does not stand up to scrutiny. Apart from the obvious observation that other traumatic events might have been introduced, notably the Exodus in the Jewish tradition and the shift from neo Platonism to Aristotle reflected respectively in the theologies of Augustine and Aquinas, the key transition date during the Roman Empire was the 'conversion' of Constantine in 312, the supposed Great Schism was only formalised in 1054 after a quarter of a millennium of argument (the first record of the filioque crisis appears in the 790s) and to put the supposed "Great Emergence" alongside any of these is, to say the least, premature.

For all that, the centrality of the sacramental and its symbiosis with social action are points well made and correct an imbalance for which catholic reticence over fresh expressions during the past decade is largely to blame. mission-Shaped Church was deeply flawed from this perspective but I suppose we were so relived to have got it into our system that we were prepared to be indulgent but, as I remarked in my Masters' thesis on the report, I would want newly evangelised, previously unchurched people to have what I want; and nothing less. There's too much counting and a hankering after deliverables and, I'm afraid not a little self indulgence and wishful thinking that conflates the possible with the actual. A lot more mystery please. Send for Jonathan Clark!