I haven’t blogged in a while. My marriage broke down a few years ago and its hard to regain perspective. Life is ok again now, but mainly is still day to day and based around good daily habits and practices for living well in the midst of curacy, pioneering and family life.
However a few glimmers of optimism have encouraged me this week. One was being back at CMS for the Research Conversations Day. I trained at CMS as an ordained pioneer minister and always found it a unique and resourcing place to call home. The sort of place where you don’t have to repeatedly explain yourself and what you’re about, and where you are loved as you are, your oddness seen as gift. Believe me, there are very few places on the planet where that happens! (And when your husband of 25 years has left, you are particularly susceptible to feeling blessed when anyone loves you as you are 🙂
I attended a workshop with Andy Freeman on pioneering ecclesiology that interested me and I’ve been pondering it ever since. The tension emerged quickly in the discussions around how much it is good for the established church to take on board and own what we are doing – in the sense that being co-opted may make us become tame and lose the edge of what is happening. But if we do not build bridges and disseminate what we are seeing on the ground, what we see the Spirit doing in and among people who are far away from inherited church, how will we bring good news and new methods and models? This debate has rumbled on since 2004 when the Mission Shaped Church report was launched and ‘fresh expressions of church’ was coined.
What encouraged me was:
a) how many people in the room were actively engaged in this tension – working on the ground, trying to protect the beautiful flames of hope they are seeing in their experimental and unusual settings, whilst being willing to share and engage with the wider church
b) that there were some ‘official’ folks in the room from Diocese’s and some parish priests – coming to engage and share rather than critique. It’s fantastic that CMS is a safe and welcoming space for this.
c) an ecclesiology of pioneering is developing and we were able to discuss it on shared ground
d) there is nowhere near the disdain and utter horror from the established church about what we are doing now that there was 10 years ago when I started out; in fact many more dioceses are trying to engage creatively and bless what we are seeing. The hierarchies of many dioceses are recognising that pioneers are catalysts for change aswell as interpreters of the times, and they bring resources, enthusiasm and skills that infect others. People like Richard Passmore are being appointed by dioceses, something truly unthinkable a few years ago.
Afterwards Andy and I had a brief chat about what we have seen shift over the years and reflected on how long the early church was emerging and forming before anyone wrote much about it, or its learning solidified into creed and practice. The early years after Christ, began with house churches and varied prayers and liturgies (see the Didache), fear of persecution, the destruction of the Temple and its fixed forms of worship, groups living in caves, the communal, almost monastic life of the Acts churches, the Councils of priests and theologians thrashing out doctrine and persecuting one another, the Creeds bringing an economy and summary of doctrine, and the building of churches and establishing of Christianity as a formal state religion under Constantine. Three hundred odd years of bedlam and discord, disagreement and shifts.
So its hardly surprising that what seems like another change of epoch in church life – the decline of Christendom and the emergence of what comes after, feels like a time of chaos and uncertainty, desperation and competing claims about “what works” [HTB church planting = ticking the box of short term improved big numbers?!] all guided by a slow steady work of the Spirit in the midst.
St Mellitus recently hosted a panel discussion on the parish and whether it had had its day. Alison Milbank, co-author of a book called For The Parish spoke about her book, which was at its time of publication a very important critique of pioneering. It joined a chorus of voices from Martyn Percy and others that interpreted pioneering as “cliquey”, forming networks of ‘people like me’ and failing to serve the wider community in the same way they interpreted the parish as doing. They also criticized the church for the 2004 Mission Shaped Church report for “only containing 19 pages of theology.” At the time these were very loud voices that held sway and their views lead to pioneers being buttonholed at every ecclesial gathering and on many blogs for trying to destroy the fabric of the parish system, which is perceived as inherent to the DNA of the Church of England.
What occurred to me during the St Mellitus discussion is how thin the arguments were of those in opposition – Alison Milbank explained that it wasn’t actually the substance of pioneering they were arguing against, just its terms and language! It didn’t seem that way to us on the ground at the time, but in hindsight it was simply an academic debate. Academics may argue about such things as etymology, terms and descriptors, and because they are clever people they are listened to and their ridicule may have some influence. But at the end of the day, they didn’t leave the building to come and see, or commission any serious research about the substance of what this new movement was about. They didn’t try to really listen and learn, hear the signs of the times and follow the wind of the Spirit, to try and see what God was actually up to in this. They didn’t take it seriously enough. And that gives me, and us, the last laugh really – because as we now know, what has happened on the ground is something spectacular and wondrous that has changed the church.
Fortuitously, the Church Army have commissioned serious research, which has shown that since the 2004 report, an equivalent of 60,000 new people who were previously ‘unchurched’ [apologies for the horrible phrase] have come to faith in new forms of church. From this we discover that these are mainly run by ‘lay lay’ people [apologies, horrible phrase] who have never been trained for leadership and are living out their call as disciples fully without any officialdom coming near them!
So for me it has been a week where I have had a glimpse of the fact that within the backdrop of a desperately declining established church, God has already shown a way forward, brought a new thing to bear that has picked up from the end of the old and is able to carry on the life of faith in our nation and elsewhere. The new model is strong and healthy, cheap to run, local and led by people who live a healthy life of faith and see this as a natural expression of their own love of Jesus. The tensions we experience are caused by the overlap of the two, and it will be a long overlap. It is so early in the new epoch that it is hard to gain enough perspective to reflect and therefore explain clearly what we are seeing and where it fits in the grand sweep of history.
But it does feel like a new Reformation, where the organisation and power goes from the large institutions back to the streets, to the coffee houses and community centres, from the academics to the housewives, where we are back in the hands of God, following, seeking, listening rather than theorizing and philosophising. We are back in place of following Jesus who simply says to us randomers “Come and see” when we ask where he is headed. It is a day of small things and a day of weak things, a day to embrace practical theology rather than academia because we are not seeking to own phenomena by labelling it.
How we relate to the institution is key at this point. We are none of us responsible for the shifting times and we must not lay blame. We will all grieve together for the losses and I hope choose to love our colleagues and fellow Christians in their pain. We don’t know what will be left – maybe Cathedrals will become hubs of our common heritage. The period of change is painful and confusing. But there will be moments when we as pioneers can share hope and invite people to come and see, that we have seen the future and it’s ok. It is different – there may be a homeless man with filthy fingers administering the chalice, and the singing might not be worthy of Evensong. But it is so authentic and recognisable as the Body of Christ and so full of joy inspite of the horror of the times, that it will become acceptable as a sacrifice of praise. Amen.