Fresh Expressions of Church and the Kingdom of God – Review

Fresh Expressions of Church and The Kingdom of God edited by Graham Cray, Aaron Kennedy and Ian Mobsby is the third book in the Ancient Faith, Future Mission series. As with the other books in this series it is a collection of essays which mixes the theological reflections of practitioners with more academic theological writings on the subject.

Within it the authors are seeking to demonstrate that both ecclesiology and missiology are important and that the tension which sometimes exists between those focusing on Church and those for whom the Kingdom of God is primary is important to recognise but actually based upon a false dichotomy. The volume seeks to explore at how the Church is engaging with mission through fresh expressions.

The book is coming from a predominantly Anglican perspective and some of the debates about fresh expressions of church it refers to have to be seen as occurring within that denominational context. This Anglican dominance is apparent from the introduction onwards where reference is being made to the parish system before talking about the divisions between “high” and “low” church and the way the binary nature of the debate around fresh expressions has developed around the 2004 Mission Shaped Ministry report in particular. The list of contributors to this volume also demonstrates why one would expect it to be weighted in favour of this ecclesiastical perspective. However, most of the time this Anglican underpinning to the text is more implicit than explicit and it is a book which can be commended as an interesting, and at times useful read for anybody to engage with whatever their background.

Chapter I by Archbishop Rowan Williams is clearer and more accessible than some of his academic writings. Within the middle of this chapter he poses three questions which he says need to be carefully thought about “at least as a basis for honest and faithful discipleship.” These questions are:

  • How does the community enable its members to grow in prayer as to enter more fully into the ventral mystery of Christ’s relationship with his Father?
  • Can the community point to something in its collective life that makes a contribution to wider society which would not be made if there were no Christian presence around?
  • How far does the community encourage and enable its members to teach and learn from one another.[i]

Towards the end of his chapter he also talks about the role of communion and sacramentality. The point he effectively makes is that whatever the form of Christian community there are some common themes which they need to be thinking about and engaging with and that fresh expressions as with more traditional forms of Church sometimes make mistakes.

Chapter 2 Communities of the Kingdom by Bishop Graham Cray begins by outlining two competing critiques which have emerged in regards to the Mission Shaped Ministry report one of which basically says it’s too church based whilst the other says it gets in the way of what the Church should be doing. He says that his chapter is not looking to refute the critiques, but it can certainly be seen as responding to them. It can be seen in some ways as a continuation of what it seems he, (as a co-editor), has written for the introduction to the book.

Central to his chapter is discussion of ‘fresh expressions journey’ which he says has five key stages: listening, serving, forming community, evangelism and disciple-making (Jesus as king) and evolving worship.

Chapter 3 by Richard Sudworth who is a pioneer curate in Birmingham is a chapter of two halves. It begins in a very academic way taking the style of an journal paper examining the terminology of fresh expressions and context they emerge in through a mini-literature review. The second half draws on his own experience in Birmingham and tells the story of what his church is doing in the local context and why. This latter part of the chapter, which is can been seen as a good example of theological reflection is by far the stronger and more readable part.

Chapter 4 by Paul Kennedy which focuses on refresh@winnall is quite an in-depth theological reflection on the context in which the writer has been working within which the early church concepts of ekklesia and oikos are explored. It is probably the strongest example of theological reflection within the text.

Nadia Boltz Weber talks about her Denver based congregation “Saints and Sinners” within chapter 5. She gives examples of different activities which take place and through them explores them the complexity of what it means when we talk of being ‘church’. Within this she implicitly talks about the ecumenical aspect as well as the insider/ outsider divide which is often talked about but which in practice is hard to define. This chapter is complemented in many ways by the other chapters looking at North American experience. In Chapter 10 in which Andy Freeman theologically reflects on a visit to the 24-7 prayer movement and their boiler room in Vancouver. Mike Angell talks about the university chaplaincy he has been part of within chapter 11.

The strongest bit of academic theology comes from chapter 6 which is written by prominent theologian Phyllis Tickle. She looks at historical context (both of the early church and the more recent Pentecostal revival) to show how fresh expressions and the wider Emergance strand of Christianity have developed. She then outlines why these can cause the tensions between ecclesiology and the kingdom of God which the book is focusing upon.

Chapter 7 telling the story of CFC, an organisation in Northern Ireland, is the first of two which explicitly refers to addiction and working with those struggling with addiction. This is the most evangelical chapter within the book, and is an interesting case study. It contrasts well with Clare Catford’s chapter 14 ‘Addicted in the City’ which explores the variety of addictions which exist and some of the reasons behind them. She makes the point  we need to “take seriously the addictions we all carry, before seeking to save others.”[ii]

Chapter 8 which contains Diana Greenfield’s experience of working in Glastonbury and the surrounding area is an interesting read which gives one picture of what it means to be a minister today. Another, contrasting, sketch is drawn by Sam Wells a CofE vicar who describes his experience of working in a deprived area of Norwich in chapter 15. Toby Wright’s brief reflection on his experience of being a parish priest in Peckham (chapter 13) also fits into this aspect of the text.

Lincoln Harvey is another academic, as well a vicar, and his chapter (9) is an interesting defence of the whole of the mixed economy and plea for people to move beyond the polarisation which has characterised many of the debates.

Damian Feeney’s contribution in chapter 12 sits slightly at odds with the other contributions, although complementing them. He looks, firstly, at the themes from much more of a ‘high’ church position discussing the way Roman Catholic social justice has and must influence some of the thinking on fresh expressions within other parts of the Church (universal). The chapter then moves on to examining the Corrymela Community as an example of good practice. What he implicitly does here, but which is never fully developed, is look at the place of the models of community which grew firstly out of the Edwardian era, but which were developed further in from the late 1960’s to the mid 1980’s. The influence of these groups including the Iona Community, Methodist Diaconal Order and others and the ways that they share characteristics with but still have unique elements which make them distinct from fresh expressions and new monastic communities is something which I think would make an interesting future study for somebody.

Overall a useful contribution to an expanding body of theological work in this area which isn’t a bad read either.

[i] page 4

[ii] page 159

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