Blog from General Synod July 2019: Celebrating the growth of church on the margins
“Could it be that the ending of our powerful status as a key institution governing the hearts and minds of millions of people who have little personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, is a good thing, which we should embrace?”
These are the words the Bishop of Leicester, lead Bishop for lay ministry in the Church of England, who has posted on his Facebook page from General Synod in York. The Rt Revd Martyn Snow was responding to an item about fresh expressions of Church and you can read his full blog post below:
The strange irony of General Synod debating fresh expressions of church, straight after a ‘business as usual’ budget presentation.
I believe fervently that the Fresh Expressions movement is the single most significant development in the church in this country for decades. Having talked for many years about the importance of evangelism and the ‘re-conversion of our nation’, this predominantly lay movement, has quietly got on with the task. Eschewing the big events, mass publicity and big spending of some initiatives, the movement is teaching us about what Pope Francis calls ‘The Church’s Missionary Transformation’. This wonderfully ambiguous phrase – is the church the agent of the transformation of others or is it the subject of transformation – leads me to suggest that there are three specific lessons for the wider church.
Firstly, this is predominantly a lay movement. Fresh expressions of church offer us a living model of what can happen when God’s people are set free to be leaders in mission, when clergy and lay work in partnership, with a genuine sharing of gifts and true mutuality. Clergy are set free to be enablers of others – lay people are set free to use their God-given gifts, and their experience in networks outside the church. Both are needed.
At a time when the church is being forced to recognise the very damaging effects of clericalism – where a culture of deference has contributed to abuse, and difficulties in the reporting of abuse, and the poor response to the reporting of abuse – our recognition of lay ministry needs to be more than a patronising, ‘isn’t that interesting’. We simply must find ways of learning from fresh expressions and enabling their approach to ministry to shape that of the wider church.
And secondly, I would invite us to notice how the principle of contextualisation also opens our eyes to new insights. Contextual mission lies at the heart of the Fresh Expressions movement and ‘The Church’s Missionary Transformation’ is a helpful title for a church reflecting on what it means to be a Christian presence in every community.
As the missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin reminded us, there is no such thing as a pure gospel – there is only a gospel enfleshed in culture and context – the gospel has to be embodied in a cultural context. And Andrew Walls, historian of Christian missions, writes “Divinity is translated into humanity, but into specific humanity, at home in specific segments of social reality. If the incarnation of the Son represents a divine act of translation, it is a prelude to repeated acts of re-translation.”
I put it to you that one of the most critical tasks facing us today, if we are to be a Christian presence in every community, is to learn again what it means to re- translate the gospel into every context and every culture that is now part of our wonderfully diverse nation. And as we translate, so we are transformed, or we might want to say, converted.
Finally, I would also note that the Fresh Expressions movement is teaching us about fragility and vulnerability. Most fresh expressions of church receive almost no funding. Most Pioneers receive little formal training beyond mentoring and coaching from other Pioneers. As a result, a fair proportion of fresh expressions of church only last a few years. But their very fragility and vulnerability is an important corrective in the Church of England.
There is a slight irony to the way the General Synod debate on Fresh Expressions followed straight after the Archbishops’ Council budget presentation. We welcomed the news of additional money from the Church Commissioners which will allow us to spend ever increasing amounts on exciting mission initiatives and training new clergy – all good. But there are some us, including bishops like me, who want to ask whether all this money is blinding us to what God is doing at this moment in our history. Could it be that the move of the church to the margins of society is a move of God? Could it be that the ending of our powerful status as a key institution governing the hearts and minds of millions of people who have little personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, is a good thing, which we should embrace?
Fifteen years after the Mission Shaped Church report, it is right that we should pause to thank God for this truly wonderful move of Gods Spirit. We should celebrate it – and I am actually quite pleased that Synod was being asked to do little else but notice it, celebrate it and bless it – countless Christian disciples getting on with mission in their local communities, in their own networks, growing faith with children, ‘turning up the volume’ about BAME inclusion, avoiding clericalism, operating within the simplest of legislative structures, often working ecumenically, with almost no money spent on training, support or deployment. Yes, we should celebrate the beginnings of ‘The Church’s Missionary Transformation’.