Graham Cray on the Christianity Podcast

Thursday, 22 March, 2012

Graham Cray speaks to Martin Saunders and Ruth Dickinson about fresh expressions, women bishops and whirlpools, in episode 2 of the Christianity Podcast.

Duration: 35:37   | Download Download mp3


Voiceover: Hello and welcome to the Christianity podcast.

Martin Saunders: Hello and welcome to the Christianity podcast. My name is Martin Saunders and I am the culture columnist for Christianity Magazine but also I am the one around here who has some radio training. I'm joined by the much more important Ruth Dickinson.

Ruth Dickinson: I love that intro, thank you Martin, the much more important Ruth Dickinson, editor of Christianity Magazine and noble sidekick to Martin Saunders. We've got a brilliant guest today for our second ever podcast, we've just been talking off-air about your many many job titles which I could repeat but it might take ten minutes. So, Bishop Graham Cray, hello and thanks for joining us.

Graham Cray: It's a pleasure to be with you.

Ruth Dickinson: Maybe just run through your most impressive job title for us.

Graham Cray: Ok, I'm the Archbishops' Missioner, I'm the Missioner for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and in that job I lead a team called Fresh Expressions which is about helping churches plant churches unlike the ones they've got already to reach people they're not reaching now.

Ruth Dickinson: Fantastic, well thanks so much for joining us and there's lots that we want to talk to you about, not least the feature that you've written in this month's Christianity Magazine. But can we start with fresh expressions. Most people will be familiar with the term now I think, but maybe just talk to us a little bit about how fresh expressions has developed since it began.

Graham Cray: Sure, I mean we created the term as far as we know in the report for the Church of England called Mission-shaped Church, every Church of England vicar makes a promise that they will take the faith that's in the Scriptures and the creeds and proclaim it afresh in this generation. And what we were saying and are still saying is that to re-evangelise this nation we need to plant some congregations and churches that embody that message afresh in the actual circumstances and contexts of the people we're trying to reach.

Ruth Dickinson: And so you end up with all sorts of exciting-looking churches don't you.

Graham Cray: Oh yes, the vital point is that there is no standard model, this isn't the sixty-minute anything, this is a practice of listening to God and the context in which he's placed you or to which he sends you, building relationships and helping a form of Christian church – often a new congregation of an existing church in a different time, place and style – come into being, that lives out the Christian gospel for them. And what's staggered us really is the scale of it and the pace of it. Clearly there were imaginative church plants before we published in 2004, but we now know there's 1,000 fresh expressions of church in the Methodist Church, all sorts of different models, about 26,000 people involved, there's another 1,000 in the Church of England, again with the variety of models though a good half of them are around children and young people and there's about 40,000 people involved in that. So 66,000 according to the official count and that's just two denominations.

Martin Saunders: Those are amazing statistics. What do the bulk of those congregations as it were look like? Because presumably – we've heard about skate church and surf church and things like that but presumably most of them don't look like that. So what do the… what does your average fresh expression look like – if such a thing exists?

Ruth Dickinson: Or is there no such thing?

Graham Cray: Well by definition there's no such thing but when we ask the question we identify eight or nine models and I won't take you through them all but Messy Church, or interactive gatherings for parents and young children, is probably the largest. A lot of people are using a café church style, either creating a café environment in a hall or even within a Costa or Nero or something of that sort. A lot of people using a cell methodology so that it's small groups of new believers meeting in homes and then gathering once a month – one of my favourites is in deep rural Norfolk where the vicar has six parishes, seven grade one listed buildings and a cell church and her cell church is a bigger congregation and has children, young people and so on. A serious attempt to use non-religious buildings and create an appropriate environment – and lots of others. The models are meant to feed your imagination so you can imagine things differently from you're used to, but then the vital thing is listen to God in the context – what form of church will actually help people become disciples of Jesus here.

Ruth Dickinson: Is it because… do we have fresh expressions because the traditional church has failed?

Graham Cray: No, it's not failed. The world has changed and the traditional ways of doing things which are still really important can, if you like, no longer reach the whole of the mission field. Archbishop Rowan Williams has got an expression the mixed economy church: that there's one economy, it's not two separate worlds, it's not the real economy and the black economy or something like that, it's one economy in which there's historic ways of working – which are vital, I mean there's wonderful numbers around Back to Church Sunday, and that's about getting people back to historic church and historic church being that bit more welcoming and aware of them. But we need to do the new and the old together.

Martin Saunders: And you were talking off-air about the fact that it isn't a para-church initiative – you described it as a partnership between denominations and agencies. You also said that you didn't actually feel that para-church was a thing. Can you unpack that a little bit?

Graham Cray: Yeah, sure.

Ruth Dickinson: That was in Martin's language – I think you said theologically you don't believe in the para-church.

Graham Cray: Yes, I did. Let me explain first of all, Fresh Expressions is not another mission agency, it's a partnership of – I will give you the list because somebody will be upset if I leave them out – the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, the Congregational Federation and very soon the Church of Scotland, in partnership with the Church Mission Society, the Church Army, Anglican Church Planting Initiatives and 24-7 Prayer. So we are denominations, mission agencies and a prayer movement, acting together on behalf of all of those to equip all of those to do the sort of work that we're doing and to provide them with some resources. But I think all this language that says there's church and there's para-church, I think is biblical nonsense. What's happened is that the church historically has outsourced certain bits of mission which are perhaps over-challenging and set up special organisations and treated those as they're not church. Now I much prefer to think that there's the church in all sorts of different modes. There's the church in local congregational form, but it was as much the church when Paul and a whole band of missionaries arrived somewhere – there's some technical church growth language for that which I won't trouble the listeners with – but church as the missionary band taking the gospel into the new context is as much an expression of church – which is why I like that word so much, it says none of this is the whole church, all of it is an expression of church – that is validly church. And Archbishop Rowan once said that if Christ is the embodiment of God – that's Colossian: in him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and it's a present tense not a past tense – and the church is his body on earth, then no single expression of church can ever fully express Christ, and we need them all.

Ruth Dickinson: Can we talk a little bit about the local church – a lot of our readers obviously are local church leaders or very active in their local church – and the piece you've written in this month's Christianity Magazine looks at some of the issues around maintaining the local church versus getting out and doing mission and there's some really interesting phrases that you use like, you know, the church being a whirlpool versus it being a launchpad and this kind of thing. So just talk to us a little bit about I think specifically this issue of church members, you know, spending so much of their time and energy maintaining the 'beast' rather than getting out there and evangelising.

Graham Cray: OK, deliberately in the article I've been a bit provocative and if I remember rightly I'll start by saying that I think most people in… most Christians in Britain have never encountered the church as Jesus actually means it to be. That's I think for a number of reasons if I can approach it this way. The first being for centuries we've had church the people were expected to come to. So getting people to come wasn't the issue, keeping it running so that there was something for them to come to was. And as Christendom has faded – I think it's John Finney who said it's disappearing like the smile on the Cheshire Cat's face – I mean a third of the population of England has never had any connection with any church of any denomination in their lifetime, including as children.

Ruth Dickinson: That's a terrifying statistic.

Graham Cray: Yes it is, and actually that's an adult statistic. Were you to add the up to 15s, you're heading for half the population I think. So we have more and more people who have no assumptions whatsoever they should come to church and presume that people who do, do it because they prefer it to Sainsbury's on a Sunday morning. So what used to be an appropriate way of using our resources – let's really keep this going and make it really good so there's something worth people joining and staying when they come – has suddenly become maintaining something which, particularly if churches are relatively small, and most are, by the time you've got the building and all the programmes and everything like this and the giving, people's energy and time is exhausted. To support one another they then have hopefully networks of small groups which are mainly for fellowship and sustaining one another and tragically some things are missing. If you were talking to, say, Mark Greene from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity rather than me, he'd be saying when is the workplace mentioned in church? How does church equip people for their daily lives? And we actually know… the research on people who've given up on church – and that's about a third of the adult population as well – say that one of many reasons is nothing that happened on Sunday bore any connection with what my challenges were for the rest of my life. So we've got to turn it inside out as it were.

Ruth Dickinson: So how do we start to do that? Because when I was reading your piece and I was thinking about various local churches that I know and you think but it's a massive job just to keep the thing running, you know, to make sure that something happens on a Sunday for the people that do come, to make sure there's worship leaders and tea and coffee and all the rest of it – and all the sort of hidden things – so how when you're that busy and that involved do you kind of stop and say actually we need to refocus this entire thing outwardly.

Graham Cray: Well I do know of one or two churches that have quite literally realised the only way to do it is to stop. And all programmes were put on hold, there was Sunday worship and there was some organised provision for children during Sunday worship, everything else stopped. And once a week as many as possible gathered to ask the question what does God really want us to do, what are we for. I think it's a that level of question. I don't think it's an issue of tinkering with doing less here so you can do more there, I think it's this fundamental question why are we here, who and what are we for. And the answer is we're here for the people who don't know Jesus, we're here for the people who need to be touched by his healing, his justice, his love, his compassion, his truth. And the whole thing is meant to be organised around their need, not our need. And there's something deeply Christian about that. Jesus again and again talks about denying yourself and losing yourself and that's the way you find yourself. So church for me will never satisfy me. I'll just become a more irritated consumer. But church for others, somehow I find myself. So I think churches should have small groups, but I think every small group should primarily have a mission task. And the mutual support and the gathering round the Scriptures comes through the challenges you get through having that mission task.

Ruth Dickinson: Do you think most people agree with you on this?

Graham Cray: Well obviously not because it's not what most churches look like! But I do think there is a… what lies behind fresh expressions and the fact that so many hundreds and hundreds of churches have decided we've got to do something like this is a realisation that something is wrong. Not literally very far from the studio here I had a meal with an Australian Archbishop and I won't try the accent but he said, I say to my people, more of the same just means less of the same. So you start with the mission calling, you start with the why don't they come, you start with the how do we reach them, but you end up with have we got to look at what the church is for, how its resources are used.

Ruth Dickinson: This is very brave and very exciting thinking, I'm enjoying this. What about the individuals in congregations who are kind of, I don't know, frustrated evangelists and who – they can see that the general model of the church that they're in isn't really working, but are there things that they can do individually to be better evangelists I guess.

Graham Cray: Well I don't think you start with individually. I think you start with groups who identify a call of God and have a common purpose. I will put in the advert, were you to look at our latest DVD expressions: making a difference, amongst the stories you'll find St George's Church in Deal, which is one of quite a number of churches that have an approach – they sometimes call it mid-sized communities, sometimes missional communities, sometimes clusters, it's all different names for the same thing – and St George's had to move out their building. Their building is the biggest auditorium in Deal because all the secondary schools are in Sandwich and there's no colleges or anything like that so they couldn't all stay together. So they spent the period before they were out of the building praying together, inviting lay people to identify bits of mission that they themselves would love to do – now that's really important, not what 'the church' – someone else – ought to do, but they would love to do. The clergy made it a discipline that they would not make any suggestion. To their surprise the ideas did not come from the ones they regarded as the usual suspects. The ideas came from people who just came and sat in the pew and were pleased to be fed but really weren't switched on by, dare I say it, the whirlpool. And they surfaced, I mean for an evangelical charismatic church… there's a missional community about the environment, there's a missional community inspired by L'Arche that works in a local adult home for people with serious disabilities, there's all sorts of different imaginative things and on the recording you'd hear the associate vicar say we've discovered 40 missional leaders we didn't know we had. And the importance of that story is not it being a big church story, but a little church could do that and have one or two missional communities, maybe just small group sized. And then you do it together. And I think if you're involved in something together it then makes you think I can actually be a bit braver, a little more willing to own my faith in my place of work or in my family or in my school where it's really difficult.

Ruth Dickinson: Just give us the DVD name and website again.

Graham Cray: OK, well the DVD has got 28 stories on it so you get three hours' worth from all over the UK and our partner denominations, it's called expressions: making a difference and you'll find details of that on our website

Ruth Dickinson: There you go, your media officer will be delighted with you.

Graham Cray: She would also want me to say that there's a book coming out called Fresh! by Andrew Roberts our head of training and a couple of others and another one by Mike Moynagh our head of research called Church for Every Context and they're both appearing via SCM this year.

Ruth Dickinson: Fantastic, extra brownie points to you there Graham I think.

Martin Saunders: Now at the risk of wanting to draw a little bit more controversy out of you, you are obviously employed by the Church of England. Just based on what you've just been saying, is there a case that says the church is being somewhat held back by all this old architecture that surround is. You know so many churches are just struggling to keep their roof mended or whatever, do we actually need to shed some of that stuff?

Graham Cray: No I don't think we do, because from eight years' experience of being a bishop in the more rural half of Kent, all you do is cause huge offence. The actual costs of what you might think of as mothballing a church are very expensive indeed because you've got to get it up to standard before it's mothballed, you can't just walk away from it. So there's a national issue: the Church of England is responsible for 60% of the nation's grade one listed buildings. They have to be looked after properly according to all the laws about heritage but they're looked after by volunteers who don't have to come and don't have to give. So I actually think there's a structural injustice. There's lots of imaginative things you can do, I mean any parish church that hasn't worked out that a toilet, a place to have coffee and decent heating are essential for continuing life has not yet faced reality or is in serious financial difficulty. No we need both and. It's extraordinary I found in Kent the number of people whose Saturday or Sunday leisure pursuit is visiting historic churches. I get irritated when I visit a church and find that there's wonderful literature about Saint Digsby Blogsworth whose tomb is to the side and there's nothing about why it's in the shape of a cross and what that table is at the front and what is that book on the eagle up there and so on. We've really got to learn… because heritage is such a big deal and tourism is such a big deal, we've got to learn to use heritage as a vehicle for teaching the gospel and reconnecting people to Britain's Christian history as well.

Martin Saunders: And there is a sense as well, you talk about maybe sometimes needing to move out of the ancient space, but also there's a time for bringing people back into what is a reverent space.

Graham Cray: Yes absolutely, and it's all both and.

[Interlude: Christianity Magazine plug]

Ruth Dickinson: We can't get a bishop in to our studio without asking you about the whole women bishops debate, one of the big things that's been in the national news of recent months. What's your take on this whole debate and where you see it going?

Graham Cray: OK, well I'll make my own stance clear first. I've for years had a tea towel that says a woman's place is in the house and it's purple and it says of bishops at the bottom. My wife is a priest, I ordained my wife priest, I did not make the decision that she should be ordained – that would have been completely out of order – but as in Canterbury diocese the priests those days were ordained in their parishes rather than one bishop sitting and watch while the other one does it, so it was slightly strange to have her standing in front of me and me sitting in my full Gandalf outfit and I have to ask her will you order your life and that of your household according to the way of Christ and I'm thinking there's only me and the cat left… So I'm passionately committed to what I regard as the biblical view, that all roles in the church re subject to God's call and gifting and that gender is not an issue. I recognise that there are cultures in the world as there were in the New Testament world that put some practical limits on that but they are reality limits, they are not what is possible now, just as slavery is undermined in the New Testament but people still have to be taught how to cope with it, so a degree of patriarchy is there in the New Testament, I believe it's a consequence of the fall not something from God's creation order, but if you believe that and you see the gifting and call of God on women… I'm involved with the Church of England's vocation processes about pioneers and I see women as well as men who are called to be ordained pioneers and we're checking out their call and wish to confirm it. It's also true that the vast majority of the Church of England wants this. There are two practical problems about legislating for it, one is simply we have a parliamentary system and you need a two thirds majority in all three houses of the general synod so you've got to get way over a majority for it to be passed. And that exists to protect minorities actually, so that's not a bad thing, it just admits it's a high hurdle. But we do not wish to push out of the church those who don't agree. I'm quite clear that what I've said about the Bible is not for instance what all evangelicals have historically believed down the centuries and therefore I've got to respect those who disagree with me. And particularly our high church colleagues, it's not so much the evangelicals who disagree with me, the high church for whom proper apostolic succession makes a bishop and only a man can be a bishop and therefore every man ordained by a woman bishop wasn't a priest because she wasn't a bishop – that's for them a nightmare scenario. And we've been negotiating a way in which their conscience could be respected, but the women still be bishops rather than bishops except for the ones that don't like them being bishops. And we have gone through endless schemes on this and around the time I'm talking to you there's a significant debate going on and there'll be a final vote in July. I think it's vital for the church and its integrity that we do this, but it's equally vital for the church and its integrity that we treat those whose consciences cannot agree with the same respect.

Ruth Dickinson: And do you think overall the national coverage of the debate has been fair? Do you think it's been a good advert for the Church of England or not the Church of England at its best?

Graham Cray: Oh it's some and some. I was a member of the general synod for quite a long time and the standard of debate is higher and the whole way of dealing with difference massively more respectful than in the Houses of Parliament. And when occasionally there has been one of these key debates televised I think actually people are impressed by the way we do our business. There is inevitably politicking and things that are less good and sometimes the reporting is accurate and sometimes it's distorted. Frankly some of it is mischievous.

Ruth Dickinson: You surprise me!

Graham Cray: It will shock you that I might suggest that some journalists have an agenda as well as some church leaders.

Martin Saunders: Now you are a strange person, if you don't mind me saying so.

Graham Cray: Well I did look in the mirror this morning and think so…

Martin Saunders: But in terms of the diversity of your involvement in different things, so you were one of the… you were the original chair of Greenbelt?

Graham Cray: No, I was the second chair, I chaired it for four years, ran the seminar programme for eight, I've been more than twenty times.

Martin Saunders: You were the second chair of the Greenbelt Festival, you are the chair of Soul Survivor and you are involved currently in this year's Spring Harvest Festival as well. That's quite a broad portfolio in terms of what we… we can't call them para-church any more, these festivals that happen. That's quite a wide spectrum, most people tend to fall into sort of one camp or another. How do you manage to maintain this position across all?

Graham Cray: There's two threads to it. One is about renewal, one is about mission and the fact that if those two are separated, we're in trouble. Renewal for its own sake becomes spiritual self-indulgence and self-deception I think in the long run, mission without the renewing power of the Spirit is dry and hard and makes you bitter or manipulative or something goes wrong. So if I believe what I do, and as I've written in the article we've talked about, about the church being for the mission of God in the world – of course it's for God, but that means being for what God wants it to do and has done through his son – then you've got to seek the renewal of the church and you've got to aid the church in mission. I've always engaged with culture, I found Christ through what's now called Urban Saints as a little boy, I keep telling God I'm too old for youth work and he tells me I'll stop when he says I can, I think I stay on because I make Pilavachi look young… So who would not want the next generation of young people in the church to be equipped by God not to have to make the mistakes my generation has made and to see them bringing their friends to the Lord? Who would not want to help Christians to think about and engage with culture to bring the gospel to it and then God to prove he has a sense of humour and made me a bishop and that gives me a chief pastor leadership in the church around some of these issues.

Ruth Dickinson: Does it… it does give you quite a unique birds-eye view of the church in the UK I would say, involvement in these different things, do you see… I mean from where I am as editor of Christianity Magazine, I often see, you know, political kind of factions and camps and we don't trust these people, they're too conservative, they're too liberal, they're too charismatic, they're not charismatic enough… do you see more friendship or more of that overall?

Graham Cray: There's both. There's a number of really encouraging signs. What I believe more than anything else is that when we try and get together because we know we're meant to be united, we know it's not meant to be like this, we get together with real difficulty because of our painful previous histories and competing, often rather exaggerated, convictions because of those painful histories. If I dare say it on air, porcupines making love is rather the way some of these attempts at unity… it's awkward, it's painful, it's try – don't try and it's much easier to be separate from people not meet them and know why they're wrong. What's happening around fresh expressions, what's happening through Hope08 and again now, what's happening through Street Pastors, what's happening I think through new opportunities for churches to act with Christian schools and chaplaincies and things like that, is that we are meeting round a common call to mission and a common sense of weakness, instead of gathering from our strengths we're saying the world has changed, the old things we used to do don't seem to be effective any more, therefore we've got to learn some new things. I did our monthly e-letter and the article went up on Churches Together in England's website and it's called 'better together, crazy apart'. But this is the easiest church unity on the road because it's unity in weakness for the sake of others.

Martin Saunders: Now we can't let you go without talking about one of your great passions which is music. And one of the talks you've often given at different festivals is about the last year in music and the different spiritual themes. So you will have given that last summer?

Graham Cray: I did.

Martin Saunders: And you'll be giving it possibly this summer as well.

Graham Cray: I will

Martin Saunders: So we're halfway between, can you tell us about some of the… can you give us a sneak preview of some of the trends you see in music at the moment?

Graham Cray: OK, I've not really done the work, but one of the things I did last year was to pick up different reflections on God. Ranging from Frank Turner's atheist sing along and there was something from the Kaiser Chiefs that was similar to what seemed to me to be quite deep longings for God. I mean I have a longstanding passion for Radiohead and Radiohead have described their music as expressing their wish that they were in a different place. For me it's Romans 8, it's the whole creation is in groaning, longing to be set free and that's expressed through the human stewards – and music does that in an extraordinary way. I always… Soul Survivor say the fingerprints of God are all over the music scene, there's people who are saying things that actually Christians believe and we should say amen even if we disagree with other things of their lifestyle or views. There are people who've been raised in the faith and may or may not be continuing the faith but the faith shapes what they do – I mean I'm sorry I'm talking more about the past than the future because this year's albums are only really beginning to roll. Maccabees' album is interesting but I've not got my head round it sufficiently to really talk about it. Leonard Cohen at 77, full of religious language as well with his combination of a Jew who's a Zen Buddhist and yet the Jewish language, the biblical language is there and that sort of longing is there. But the one that's most struck me, I'm going to fail to answer your question and go back two years, Corinne Bailey Rae's album The Sea. Someone who is a believer, had lost her husband in tragic circumstances and spent a year reflecting on it and then wrote the album – some of the songs she'd written before he died and they took on new meaning, some she wrote, and I… it's always difficult trying to tell someone else what a particular artist believes or is trying to do. And I deliberately disciplined myself to reports of what she had said in interviews in some of the more respectable journals and magazines and really hoped I got it right. As ever a whole bunch of teenagers talked to me at the end of the show because I start by saying I'm your worst nightmare, I am a sixty-something year old bishop who's going to talk to you about popular music and ten minutes later they know I know more about it than they do you see. And then there were two young adults, young women, one with a baby, waiting in the queue. And they came up and said we just want to thank you for what you said about Corinne. And I said well, thank you, I mean I really hope I got it right. You did, we're her sisters. I'm so, so pleased that I didn't know at the time. So you try and not hype it, you try and not say there's millions of Christians out there, but I mean that year I was talking about the Mumfords, I was talking about… - Marcus I remember when he was a very little boy – I was talking about Corinne, whereas last year was much more… there was less like that, but there was much more about aching and longing and believing and not believing and whatever is there I try and talk about.

Martin Saunders: It's a huge resource for churches to get their heads around.

Graham Cray: It is, yes.

Ruth Dickinson: Perhaps DJ Graham in a future role, what do you think!

Graham Cray: With somebody else doing the technology, yes!

Ruth Dickinson: Graham, thank you so much for joining us today, lots of provocative insights there. If you want to read Graham's article in Christianity Magazine go to our website where you can get a free copy, it's, and join me and Martin next time for a new guest.


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