Following the missionary Spirit: Rowan Williams

Tuesday, 27 November, 2012

Watch Rowan Williams' address from the Following the missionary Spirit event in London on 22nd November 2012.

Duration: 33:51   | Download Download video (flv) | Download Download video (wmv) | View on YouTube


Rowan Williams: It's a joy to be here and to have a chance of talking about missional opportunity. What I'm going to do is to say a few words about my own growth into some understanding of this and than a bit about what I think are the absolute basics in our approach to Scripture and our world that keep us going in that sense of mission.

And as I watched the DVD earlier on what struck me was, 'I've actually been to all these places' and every one of those brought back to mind the extraordinary life stories that I'd encountered there. And particularly important among them was Zac's Place (you probably noticed that in one of the straplines). Zac's Place in Swansea which was one of my first experiences of what we would now call fresh expressions before that name was born.

In the happy days when I lived in Newport, just up the road from where The Lab is based, in those days I came to feel – over the years - that God was dropping a series of very heavy hints to me as to where he wanted the church to go or rather where he was making the church happen and wanted the rest of the church to look. A great deal seemed to be going on around and while the mainstream Anglican presence in the diocese of Monmouth (where I was then working) was carrying on more or less all right - with only the average levels of decline - around it so much else seemed to be going on and something that I'd always believed in theory was quite clearly happening in practice. And what I’d always believed in theory was that the church gets renewed from the edges, not the middle. When you think of it, the world itself was renewed by Christ from the edges not the middle – there's nowhere more edgy than the Hill of Calvary you might say.

And the letter to the Hebrews talks about Christ going outside the city, outside the centre for things to begin to happen. And Zac's Place was just one of those new creations of God's grace that seemed to be springing up around.

And then somebody sent me in the post a copy of Mike Moynagh’s book - so it was very good to hear the namecheck this morning for Mike - and somebody else sent me a copy of an extraordinary little book by Robert Van De Weyer called Celtic Gifts which is all about rethinking what the church might look like in terms of orders and communities instead of parishes. And what with one thing and another, by the time I'd completed 10 years as Bishop in Newport, I was beginning to get a sense of God moving in from the edges towards the centre and putting a whole set of very large questions to us, 'How were we as the centre - the hierarchy, the traditional church - how were we going to respond to and enable generously and imaginatively more of what was happening around us under the grace and strength of God?'

And just as we were beginning to think those thoughts fairly systematically in the diocese of Monmouth, a funny thing happened to me on the way to London and I found myself projected onto a rather different kind of stage with a rather different kind of ministry - only this time the volume that dropped onto my desk was something called Mission-shaped Church and Bishop Graham will remember the conversation that we had, I think in Canterbury, very early on in my time when I started talking about what my priorities might be and I said, 'Well you know we've had this experience in the diocese where I've been working in Wales and maybe it's time to see if something like that could begin in the Church of England. And, it wasn't quite like this but, Graham more or less said, 'Here's one I made earlier', and Mission-shaped Church appeared and so we began to talk.

The next thing was the opportunity, through an amazingly generous and creative group of friends and supporters called the Lambeth Partners, some money being made available to pursue this as a national project and, lo and behold, Fresh Expressions as a movement was born with massive input from all sorts of people who so generously gave time and resource and energy. We were fortunate in finding Steve Croft, now Bishop of Sheffield, to lead the first phase of this project and then Bishop Graham taking over and being able to implement some of what his own great report on mission-shaped church had entailed. And although there are far, far too many people to thank by name in all that process it's perhaps worth just mentioning Norman Ivison's work on communications here as absolutely fundamental in getting the message out across the churches.

So, here we are, and – as the DVD we watched underlined - astonishing things have gone on. But I'm always inclined to want to push back a little bit further to the question of, 'Why are we doing this, why are we doing it this way? What is happening here that gives us a fuller, deeper sense of what the church itself really is?' Because I think that's part of what's going on, isn't it? There is a sort of quiet revolution in how we're thinking the word 'church' at the moment – a quiet revolution that is bringing us both back and forward you might say; back to the essential lineaments of the church as it appears in the New Testament; forward in the recognition that when we've begun to get that in focus, all kinds of things become possible.

There's an image that John Calvin used in the Reformation period that I like very much where he says that looking around you see 'stray and tattered vestiges whereby you may see that here lie churches half buried'. It's a picture of churches with their spires just poking out above the levels of drifting sand and Calvin says 'it's there but you need a great deal of wind to blow away the sand and reveal what's really there'. Churches half buried that need the wind of the Spirit to be revealed for what they really are.

So, missional opportunity... let's go right back to the beginnings of Christian mission; let's go back to the mission of God in Jesus Christ on earth. What's going on? What's happening there? Why is it and how is it that people respond to Jesus Christ?

I believe really passionately that what the gospel shows us is Jesus connecting again and again with people who don't think they belong. The gospels are deeply, profoundly, about belonging. People sometimes draw that contrast, don't they, between belonging and believing and I think it's helpful in some ways but I don't want to overdo it. Nonetheless, reading the stories in the gospel, I think the message that comes through most clearly is that Jesus speaks to, reaches out to people who don't think they belong. They're not part of the chosen people or they are part of the chosen people and things have gone badly wrong and they no longer feel welcome.

And when Jesus utters his call to repent, to turn around it's not so much a great finger-wagging imperative that says, 'Be sorry, be very sorry' Like 'be afraid, be very afraid'. It's more like someone tapping you on the shoulder and saying, 'turn around', you're not looking where it's really happening. If you could turn around you would see that you do belong, turn around and you would see that you are welcome. Look at me, trust me, believe me, says Jesus and belonging begins to happen.

That's how, not only the group of the first disciples but those people that we're told 'put their faith, their trust in Jesus and the gospels'; that's how it happens. And when the first Christian missionaries go out into the Roman world, they too seem to relate in that kind of way. They tap people on the shoulder and say, 'look around, don't look at the Roman Empire, don't look at the great complicated anxious systems of religious obsessiveness that are going on around you, just look at Jesus, look at the one that went right out to the edge – and beyond – for you. And then you'll understand that belonging is possible.

Here is a God who, in Jesus, has absolutely no interest in being confined by our own ways of belonging together. He wants to break open all of them so that we can belong together as a human family with him so, tap on the shoulder, turn around, repent, change your mind, look somewhere else and who knows what will happen.

That's why in the early generations of the church, the people who heard this and heard it gladly were exactly as in the ministry of Jesus the people who were constantly being told that they weren't welcome or that they didn’t belong. When, in the second Christian century, critics of the church write about why the Christian church is such a sad and contemptible thing, they emphasise the fact that Christian communities take in the people that nobody wants. They're full of slaves and women and children and all these people who don't really matter – they're not really supposed to belong – and it was a perfectly serious complaint in the Roman world. Here was this body of people who were not only apparently telling people who didn't belong that they did, who are not only welcoming people that nobody else wanted to welcome but who were somehow creating a system, a network of belonging that didn't just map onto any class or race or political power. And right at the very end of the period, when Christianity was illegal and persecuted, you actually have in a neighbouring kingdom to the Roman Empire you have a Christian bishop being killed by the government there because there are Christians on both sides of the frontier and therefore a Christian bishop is bound to be a spy or a traitor. If you don't belong in the ways the world sees it, you're dangerous. And one of the things that is still obstinately true about Christianity – even where it goes into the most extraordinary distortions and forgettings of itself -one of the things that obstinately true is that it doesn't just settle down, mapping its own frame of belonging onto the belonging of a class or a nation or a language group or whatever. We've not always been brilliant at it but we've never just settled down with that; somebody has always got up and tapped us on the shoulder and said, 'just a moment, aren't you looking in the wrong direction again?'

And whether it's Francis of Assisi or a Martin Luther King or whoever, that tap on the shoulder, 'hang about, haven't you just begun to look back? Come on, turn around, look somewhere else, look to Christ.' That's kept on happening.

Now that I think is where we're starting in thinking about fresh expressions of church, we're asking the question, 'Why should church be interesting to anyone?' Long pause. Think of something in a moment! Well if church is just a hobby, if church is a spectator sport where you come and watch people wearing rather strange clothes doing strange things on one morning of the week well all right it may get a small public of eccentric and rather sad characters but why really should I bother? It's a caricature of course but if we're trying to answer the question why should anybody be interested we really have to get right away from the frame of thinking this is an interesting hobby or this is an eccentric specialism, we need to get back to that missional opportunity that has to do with belonging. Do we or don't we live in a world where belonging is still an issue? It's still just as much of an issue I would say as in the first Christian century, as much of an issue as it was in Galilee in AD30ish.

We still live in a world where people want to make other people unwelcome, where people panic about strangers, where people like to stay within the comfort zone of those who are like them. We still live in a world where it's genuinely an issue, 'what is the firm basis on which we can regard every other human being as like us?'

Secular apologists and philosophers talk as though human rights and human dignity were just one of those obvious, self-evident things that any sensible person would believe automatically. Sadly they don't. You need something more robust than just 'every sensible person believes this'. You need, I would say, a sense that humanity comes from the hand of God, made in the image of God, made for one another, made in such a way that we can't be ourselves without one another – made for community. We need that deeply robust, biblical vision of what human beings are about in order to meet the challenge of the various kinds of violence and rivalry and oppression and fear and prejudice that characterise our world. Belonging is still an issue as much as it was then in Galilee and Jerusalem, as much as it was in the Roman Empire, as much as it's been throughout Christian history.

Why should people be interested in the church? Because the church is what speaks to us of the possibility that all human beings can belong together by the grace and acceptance of God if they'll only just accept that tap on the shoulder, turn around, repent and believe, turn around and trust – in plain English; look somewhere else, look to the generosity of the God who created and redeemed you, look into the face of the stranger in a completely new way.

So what we've been looking at and thinking about in terms of fresh expressions, what we've seen in the DVD today, what all of us here know at first hand in so many different contexts is belonging being created - people who thought they didn't matter, they weren't welcome, discovering that they are – whether it's parents and children in Messy Church, whether it's those remarkable characters in Chesterfield with the dreadlocks, whether it's people suffering from various kinds of mental health challenges which exclude them or push them away or whether it's just the average British citizen who has never believed that church is anything other than a funny hobby suddenly finding there's a challenge about belonging, a challenge about community that only the Christian vision and the Christian community can help them with.

Now most of us will have had the experience I think of listening to somebody talking about their need for community, talking about their need to belong and you want to say, 'Come along to church' and something uncomfortable nags at me and I say, 'Actually, if I want them to learn about universal community and the values of the Kingdom and so forth I need to be rather careful which church I steer them to.' And fresh expressions is, in large part, a response to that.

What if we allowed the real deep needs of people searching, hungering, for belonging, what if we allow that to set the agenda? It doesn't mean that we let the world, rather than God, set the agenda. It's more like the world prompting us to get back in touch with God's most fundamental agenda as revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now in the last few minutes I've said critical things about the mainstream church but without that steady faithful presence, of course nothing else would be possible, that's why the answer to our challenges is not – as has been said so many times – is not to rip up the tradition and the practice of the inherited, mainstream church. Of course it's patchy, of course sometimes it's dull, of course sometimes it forgets what it's about – give it time and a lot of fresh expressions will probably be like that as well. Human nature, alas, draws us away again and again and again from the face of Jesus Christ and the radical challenge of the Good News. That's how it is. Get used to it, that's why we're sinners in need of grace, but that's another story.

We do need the reservoir of faithfulness through the centuries; we do need the experience of others who've tried to look into the face of Christ throughout the ages. And when many years ago we first began to think systematically about this in Wales, I can remember the conference in Abergavenny in Monmouthshire where the now almost global phrase 'mixed economy church' first came to birth. In a wrap-up session at the end of a conference about how we were going to respond to all this.

Mixed economy, well it's a phrase that has its weaknesses and I've almost tired of hearing it and some people have said they prefer to talk about a mixed ecology church which I rather like but I think the point is a valid one.

In order to bring to bear the fullest possible resources to the task of creating new kinds of belonging and welcoming, we need to be aware of the fact that other people have read the Bible before us, said their prayers before us, worked with one another and prayed with one another before us and we would be mad to ignore what they have found, heard and seen.

And the constant interplay between the steady, faithful, ongoing, apostolic life of the church and the edgy and exploratory and new life that we see in some of the communities we've been thinking about this morning, that interplay is a vital part of the health and wellbeing of the Christian church. It's part ideally of that wonderful sense which the Christian church has at its best that no one of us and no one group of us can do it all.

We can hear that sometimes as a bit depressing because, 'wouldn't it be nice if I could do it all? Or we could do it all?' Or we can hear it as good news, 'If I can't, I know someone who can.' God gives us one another in the church because none of us can do it on our own. You know, theology 101. So when it comes to what you might call the cultural diversity of the church, that's part of what God is saying to us. No one of you can do it all on your own, you can't – this group, this individual, this denomination – you can't sort this alone. You haven't got the resources and that's fine; that's perfectly all right because resources are spread around lavishly and unpredictably. And the wisdom and discernment of the church is always to see what resources you need, for what situation, where from and to keep your eyes open, roving all the time, to see where resources are being offered to you. And of course when it comes to the kind of congregation that, again we've been looking at in Chesterfield, in Zac's Place in the other congregations that we heard about, when it comes to those we realise that mysteriously and wonderfully the resources we hadn't spotted are in the people themselves, the people who bring their needs, their uncertainties, their half-formed vision of God and give it into the community, give it into a group working together, praying together, to discover something of the newness of God in Christ.

For me one of the greatest privileges and discoveries of these last years when visiting fresh expressions is simply the experience of sitting down and listening to how people got there and thinking what a wealth, what an extraordinary wealth of experience we're talking about – someone who has come to, rediscovered, discovered for the first time Christian commitment, trust and belonging in the middle of all of that – all of the turmoil, confusion, the suffering, the chaos in personal lives and health and all the rest of it. Somehow out of all that has come an act of trust, a willingness to belong, and to bring that story into the group, the community, that's how God enriches, that's how God enlarges us – not by giving us another number to enter on the form so to speak but by giving us a life of faith and trust, richness and creativity.

And all of that of course is a reminder why it's very important that Fresh Expressions has been an ecumenical venture from the beginning. I'm really delighted that here today are friends from the Methodist, the United Reformed Church and really delighted that so many other Christian families and bodies have joined in this work because it's been very important for the Church of England to realise that not even it can do it all on its own. And after the events of this week, what the Church of England can and can't do is a sore point for a good many people I think!

But we've learned in this process that God does not pay denominational subscriptions, that God constantly wishes to nudge us and jolt us and surprise us by the way we find to work together and the history of Fresh Expressions has been no exception to that. But I think if we think that through a bit then the missional opportunity is also something to do with showing to the world our own freedom and willingness to work together in mutual dependence. You see I really don't think that we are being really effectively missional if we bear down on the problems of the world saying, 'Right, we've got it all here. Don't listen to them. Don't listen to them. We've got the solution'. But if Christians can come saying, 'Well here we are, sort of leaning on one another, lurching around a bit, but we think that maybe together in our diversity we can find something to say to your diversity,' I think that's rather a good message to give the world. Again a missional moment because it reminds the world around us of the risks and the dangers of being so preoccupied about what we can do and what we can't do that we're unable to receive graciously God's gifts at the hands of one another.

There have been many surprises in the evolution of Fresh Expressions so far and I daresay Graham would agree that perhaps the biggest surprise has been the international enthusiasm. When all this was launched we thought, didn't we, that essentially we were talking about the UK and all of a sudden we found ourselves doing something that the rest of the world deeply and enthusiastically wanted to know about. And that's meant discovering all sorts of new alliances and coalitions and networks of support, all sorts of new ways of weaving the web of mission worldwide. But it does seem that by the grace of God we in this country, in our Christian practice and exploration, we were given by God a gift of identifying a need and an opportunity worldwide and I'm really rather overwhelmed that we were given that gift and have been able to share it with people in such diverse cultural situations as you've already heard. That's a wonderful part of what God has given through this project.

Martyn will have things to say shortly about where we're going next but it seemed to me that one way of framing that discussion would just be to think through a little bit what it is all about in terms of doing what Calvin prayed might happen, let God's Spirit – the wind of God’s Spirit blow away some of the sand that obscures those vestiges of half buried churches. I believe that in 40, 50 years time the church is going to look dramatically different and that dramatic difference will not be a matter of it being smaller than it is now. I rather like to think the contrary. It certainly won't be smaller. But I do think it will be a great deal more diverse; a great deal more in need of skilful conversation and relationship building and trust building. And I think that by the grace of God that can happen.

And I think it will also be a church with what I think of as a sort of a polyphony of different sorts of rhythm. Often when I talk to people about the future of the church they speak about that, the rhythms we work with. We've tended to take for granted haven't we that the rhythm is Sunday morning; the rhythm is a nice steady week by week one. But what's happening now as I see it is on the one hand people really getting much more enthusiastic about the rhythms of daily worship and a rule of life as part of rediscovering their faith and all that goes with the new monasticism as people call it. That's one level. And at the other level, the other end of the spectrum, an interest in how rhythms of much larger, much more expansive events at longer intervals – how that can nourish and feed and sustain the energy and imagination of people.

And just as in a musical score, you know have the fat white notes that take longer and the little black ones that are shorter and more closely spaced so I think in the church of the future we're going to have to get used to those different sorts of rhythm and that's wonderful because of course the polyphony that emerges from that, the extraordinary tensions and resolutions and excitements of complex music; that's a wonderful testimony to what the church really is and what God wants to do with the church. And I think that's probably what we're looking to in the next few decades and I daresay Martyn will have a bit to say about the possibilities of that when he speaks later on.

But there we are, that's a bit of how I came to think about the church freshly with lots of prompts from what God was doing around me, this extraordinary succession of visionary books landing on my desk; it's how we – by God's grace once again found, amazingly, the right people, the right sponsors, the right staff at the right moment in recent years. And just a touch of why I think this matters to us in terms of opportunity because unless we have some sense of why the church matters we won’t grasp the opportunities. We'll see the opportunities in the wrong way, we'll see them as market opportunities or the imperative to promote our product or intensely polish up what we're already doing but the real missional opportunities are simply rediscovering who we are in the encounter with people's need to belong, people's need to turn around and recover a sense of common humanity under God. Those are the true opportunities and I believe God has given us any number of open doors, any number of triggers and openings, occasions when we can have the extraordinary privilege of being invited into people's lives, into their needs, into their hopes and bring there this amazing vision of a universal belonging centred on the one who went from the centre of reality to the edge of human life and beyond. And in doing so made the whole creation new.

Thank you.


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