(CEN) A last word, but not the end of the chapter

Saturday, 7 January, 2012

A new year and a time for taking stock. Bishop Graham Cray, Archbishops' Missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team, glances back at what has gone before and looks to the future in 2013 and beyond.

The Fresh Expressions national day conference, in late 2012, was a special time in many ways. Following the missionary Spirit – going forward with fresh expressions' gave us the opportunity to thank Archbishop Rowan for championing our cause. It also provided a place for him to give his last word to us while in office.

His address offered much to reflect on but he used the occasion in particular to reassert his conviction that

the church gets renewed from the edges, not the middle

and that fresh expressions were evidence of that renewal through mission.

He went on to reflect on the 'extraordinary life stories' which had been shared with him as he visited different fresh expressions of church.

For me one of the greatest privileges is the experience of sitting down and listening to how people got there. Someone who has rediscovered or discovered for the first time, Christian commitment, in all the turmoil in personal lives. Somehow, out of all that has come an act of trust, a willingness to belong, and to bring that story into the community.

He then took us on a journey into the heart of being the church.

There's a quiet revolution in how we're thinking the word church,

he said. From the beginning of the Christian mission the gospel, and so the church, was about belonging.

That we should belong together as a human family with him,

turning from our own inadequate ways of belonging, that actually exclude.

Why should people still be interested in the church? Because the church is what speaks to us about the possibility that all human beings can belong together by the grace and acceptance of God, if they'd only just... turn round, repent and believe, turn round and trust, 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 (of church) is... belonging being created. People who thought they didn't matter, they weren't welcome, are discovering that they are; suddenly finding there's a challenge about community that only the Christian vision or the Christian community can help them with.

It was essential to understand 'why the church matters', because otherwise 'we won't grasp the opportunities' when God has given us 'any number of open doors'.

This was a last word, but no means the end of the chapter. In a poignant moment, the Archbishop was prayed for by the President of the Methodist Conference, Mark Wakelin; Moderator of the URC General Assembly, Val Morrison; and a group of young adults from re:generation, a Methodist fresh expression of church in Romford. The baton was passing from one generation to another.

Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church, had been in discussion with the Archbishop on behalf of the Methodist Church right at the beginning of the Fresh Expressions story, ensuring that the initiative would always be ecumenical. The Archbishop commented how

we've learned in this process that God does not pay denominational subscriptions.

Looking to the future, Martyn acknowledged that

fresh expressions have rescued the church in numerical decline... and the introspection and desperation that come about from that.

He added,

I don't buy the narrative that fresh expressions is simply a knee-jerk reaction to how you get more bums on seats, rather I see it as an impulse of the missionary Spirit that rescues is from the introspection of certain kinds of ecclesial thinking.

He also called for an 'evolving and real theological narrative' which addressed the inherited church and fresh expressions in equal terms.

We must move in the future, at a level of proper theological engagement, from the approach of some people, that the whole of inherited church is all right, to be defended without question, and anything that is seen in their eyes to detract from that needs to be held up to the light every five minutes or uprooted every two years to see whether or not it is growing. Or indeed, to be knocked around the head to be asked if it can still stand up straight!

Fresh Expressions is to continue its work well beyond 2014. New ecumenical partners are joining. Longer standing ones are identifying the work that is needed and the international network is expanding. The team will continue to network pioneers, gather learning, publish stories, and provide the training needed across the country.

As the Archbishop said,

God is giving us any number of opportunities.

The challenge for the future is not so much the scale of the task, great though that is, but being open to all the

occasions when we have the extraordinary privilege of being invited into people's lives, into their needs, their hopes and bring their 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 so doing made the whole creation new.

This distinctive chapter of the mission of God through the church in our land has many more pages waiting to be written.

You can watch and listen to full video and audio clips from all the contributors to Following the missionary Spirit.


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