The world and the church

Friday, 7 June, 2013

Associate Missioner and leader of the Moot community, Ian Mobsby, responds to the book For the Parish, defending contextual mission and ministry from a sacramental point of view.

This talk was given as part of a Wakefield Diocese Bishops Clergy Day at Wakefield Cathedral in May 2013, on a fresh expressions response to the book, For the Parish.

Duration: 17:50   | Download Download mp3


Ian Mobsby: I've entitled this paper 'the world and the church'. So what is the response of practitioners involved with the fresh expressions initiative in response to the book For the Parish? Well, we start with a quote from Dave Tomlinson, the vicar of West Holloway in the East End: 'The gap between critical approaches to Christianity and the simplistic spirituality promoted in lots of churches lies at the heart of so much disillusionment of Christianity today. Many long for an expression of the Christian faith that reconciles heart and head, that offers a positive engaging spirituality which is also committed to grappling honestly with difficult and painful questions, which longs to make the world a better place.'

For the Parish has raised a healthy debate which has in places bordered on a rant between the supporters of the Mission-shaped Church report, the book Church for Every Context versus the book For the Parish. Broadly speaking this has been marked by those whose sensibilities and theological understanding start at different places. Between those who start with the context of the world, mission and the kingdom of God against those who begin with being the people of God, the ecclesial body of Christ, the Church. This divide has been characterised by the instinctive reaction whether to be conservative or progressive in response to the challenging and increasing post-secular situation the church finds itself in. Further, this division has become a gaping wound exacerbated by different Church of England traditions where an either-or binary has been created between the two great theologies of the Christian faith. Redemptive versus incarnational theologies.

The generous challenge I think we have to face today is to intentionally explore how we avoid the over-simplicity and violence of dualistic thinking and establish together how we do mission and be the church, holding on to both redemptive and incarnational theologies. This is a massive task requiring the church to be joined up and there is no one answer but it is urgent. How do we define what is important? How do we rally the depth we seek in the Anglican Christian faith regarding being the church and engage in informed mission practice without defining ourselves in opposition with those we do not agree with.

In the recent history of the Church of England we have not been good at non-dualistic thinking where both the low protestant evangelical and the high sacramental catholic traditions have both defined themselves in hostile reactionary difference. The health of our church, theological thinking, prayer, worship and mission depends on us avoiding dualism with a focus on Christ's new commandment to love the Body of Christ in a unity that accepts diversity, with a church that is in the world but not of it. In fact you could argue that the great commandment, the highest point of Jesus's teaching, has to be the ultimate non-dualistic calling or vocation for Christians. To love and worship God and love your neighbour no matter who they are and how they offend you in the context of the world.

A church that defines itself in opposition to the world and rejecting the need for mission, and this includes contemporary culture which is not a Godless void, is not living out its 'sentness' through the apostolic nature of the Church in obedience to God's missio dei. As Harvey states, 'Christian communities have to learn with the problems and possibilities posed by life in the outside world. But of more importance, any attempt on the part of the Church to withdraw from the world would be in fact a denial of its mission.'

At the same time we do need the more mission-minded not to dumb down on the marks of the Church and the importance of its sacramentality and worship. We do need to be authentically Anglican. If we do dumb down on the tradition then we must realise that this will effectively impoverish our mission. We do need to enable and train ordained pioneer ministers and others to be custodians of the worship traditions of the church and this includes an earthy and grounded understanding of the sacraments and sacramental practice.

The increasing numbers of the de- and never-churched are a call for church to be much deeper, relevant and spiritually nourishing and our mission in the world as the arena of the kingdom of God requires us to be culturally relevant and true to the faith. This task is important: as this recent research shows, the majority of people in the country are either completely non-churched or de-churched which requires a focus on mission to the world. In some places as many as 80% of the local population are de- or un-churched. This requires our focus and attention. And in this next slide, an in-depth study in Kendal shows that we really need to face up to the challenge of an unchurched culture that in some places is increasingly interested in spirituality rather than religion. If you look at these statistics we're looking at in ten years a change in population of around 6-8% percent and we're talking about a change from religion to spirituality of around 300%. This is extremely significant.

What I'm not hearing as I've read For the Parish and its supporters is just how things are stacked against the more mission-minded in this debate, for which the fresh expressions initiative has been a great liberation regarding permission, support and recognition. For too long, mission practice and the study of missiology have been seen as the poor illegitimate cousins to church parish pastoral practice and the study of ecclesiology. There needs to be a rebalance of this imbalance of power and influence which we can trace as the vestiges of the privilege of Christendom. If we learn anything from the Oxford movement, and please hear from me that I think it is a good example of a movement that brought a freshness and renewal in the church, it is from the stories of just how hard it was then, and is now, to be listened to and taken seriously regarding mission and wanting to do something new. Listen to the many voices who in the Oxford movement in the 19th century could not get adequate permission to refound religious communities for the many who felt called to the renewal of the vocation of the religious life, led by an obviously mission-minded Holy Spirit.

Luckily for us the powers could not hold back the floodgates of God's intentions. It was the arrogance and the lack of a generous ecclesiology and missiology of parish priests, archdeacons and bishops of the Church of England that made this so difficult then and in some places now.

As we take inspiration from the Oxford movement, let's be frank that the church then was bold and understood what it meant to be involved in apostolic mission, the gathering and the sending into the world of the people of God. Let us remember there have always been two streams of church within the wider catholic tradition, both in the east and west. The first stream being of diocese, deaneries, parishes and priests alongside the second stream of communities of the religious life, monks, nuns and friars as well as small missional communities. We remember that in the Church of England that it was the Oxford movement that after 500 years of absence healthily put these two streams back into the church. We would like to affirm here that the fresh expressions initiative has attempted to encourage mission within these two streams enabling parishes to recover a role in engaging in mission, as well as affirming new ecclesial mission initiatives. Bishops' Mission Orders are one such innovation that again draws on the tradition of the religious life and it is hoped that they will enrich the dioceses and deaneries as Anglican expressions of the local church, where the bishop is the point of unity in diversity.

There are good examples where this innovation has helped dioceses and bishops to again engage in missional thinking and practice. Nothing is more exciting and envisioning than when bishops take informed and prayerful risks and share a prophetic wisdom. We so need theological, informed, passionate and prophetic bishop pastors, rather than all the pressure on them to be administrative chief executives.

Julie Gittoes, Canon at Guildford Cathedral, in response to For the Parish, has written about the important metaphor of the wandering church. Of the people of God on a pilgrimage carefully walking in the world. This demonstrates the importance of a new metology and trinitary ecclesiology and missiology where mission then is oriented towards prayerful discernment of God's involvement in the world and for the church then to catch up with what God is already doing. This is an important corrective to the church as static institution which counters the triumphalist and at times idolatrous understanding of the church. God will do what God will do in and outside of the church and will not be controlled by us. Such metaphors bring the church alive as a dynamic and living body or event, shifting back from impersonal institution to lively ecclesiastical community.

Dr Brutus Green, a curate at a liberal catholic parish has written about the important reaffirmation of Augustine's solarium where the church has a humble and loving connection to the world. As Brutus hints, there is much in our post-secular contemporary culture that is hungry and searching for transcendence, the question remains as to whether the church is willing to engage in the ordinary lives of people who will not go to their parish church because they find it inaccessible and alien. This is a crucial pursuit as contemporary society is increasingly interested in spirituality rather than religion through our increasingly market society. As they work by Haye and Hunt shows we find ourselves in a culture that increasingly seeks for meaning and spirituality whilst distrusting church, where church has a pervading negative stereotype of being angry, judgmental and controlling.

The statistics of Haye and Hunt show us that between 1987 and the year 2000, on all indexes, there has been a renewed interested in experiential spirituality, not unlike pre-modern moods of seeking, now renewed in a post-secular context. The fresh expressions initiative is founded on the notion that the church is gathered and sent into the world. Building ecclesial communities out of contextual mission that will grow into the full sacramental marks of the church as demonstrated in the full fresh expressions definition. It begins with incarnational theology that takes people to redemptive theology, an approach common to mendicant friars and monastic monks as well as current pioneer ministers. This definition seeks to challenge some of the mistakes of the church planting movement which at times has taken a group from an existing worshipping community from one church and dumping it in another which does not listen or respond to context or cultural need which then just spreads out Christians through the commodification of religion rather than promoting real contextual mission to the de- and un-churched. In its place, fresh expressions offers another methodology that begins with contextual listening and relational mission, responding in loving service that builds communities that are not yet Christian and then grow into the faith as they evolve and mature and in so doing develop into the full sacramental marks of the church.

One of the more contentious themes of For the Parish is the belief that if parishes did their job properly around mission there would be no need for fresh expressions and that of the post-liberal conviction that we don't need new tools and theology to face the challenges of the 21st century, we only need to get back to doing theology properly. I personally cannot disagree with these assumptions more strongly. There is a need to recognise the two streams I've just talked about. There have always been in the Church of England chaplains, extra-parochial places, a theology of presence at all levels of the country and the parish is part of this but is not all of this. There is a place for religious communities, Bishops' Mission Orders and the rise of a new gamut of small missional communities, including new monasticism, like the Moot community of which I am part in central London. In fact in some places, deaneries have recovered a sense of identity to become places where parishes can work together to work out the mission and ministry needs in their complex and increasingly fragmented locality to work out where the gaps are. Some have commissioned fresh expressions to work specifically with deaneries.

Now regarding the area of contextual theology which, for me, is crucial given the complexity of the real world. The conservatism of For the Parish concerns me because of the position I have stated being that we do not need new disciplines, we just need to do theology properly. It will never be an easy task to hold in tension church tradition, theology, the Bible, cultural change and the particular context you are theologising in without a commitment to non-dualism and the need for tools to assist us. For example the work of SB Bevans on Models of Contextual Theology is a crucial, thorough and joined up way to explore such a difficult task. His writing around the synthetic and transcendent models of contextual theology has much to say about authentic missional and evangelistic engagement with our increasingly post-modern and post-secular context. These new disciplines aim to be academically rigorous and seek to assist Christians engage in being church and doing mission practically.

Disciplines like Models of Contextual Theology also show the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. In our post-Christendom world we can no longer rely on not considering context more fully. This is not some liberal pursuit based on bad theology, as a proponent of radical orthodoxy once challenged me, these are tools that seek to empower effective engagement with the world, seeking not to be on the one hand imperialistic and colonialist and on the other not syncretic. I can honestly say that I would be unable to do my job as a priest missioner if I was unable to draw on the writing and thinking of contextual theology.

Whether we like it or not, the Spirit of God will blow where God wills and this will continue to call the church to face its calling in the context of the world. Outside of the bubble of comfortable church worship services we need to face the realities of our increasingly post-secular world where people distrust institutions, trust only their own judgement, celebrate diversity because it creates more choice, accept fragmentation, where people process information increasingly holistically and experientially rather than just on rational thought, where many are interested in what works rather than is true, and where people increasingly follow relational leaders. For the Parish compared the best parish with the worst ever fresh expression of church and this we believe is not a fair comparison. Many fresh expression missional communities are discovering the great treasures of the Anglican church and are growing into the sacramental, liturgical and prayer traditions that have sustained the church for centuries. However they also require experimentation and entrepreneurialism and new projects to bridge the gap between elements of contemporary society and the local church.

Rightly, fresh expressions that are Anglican need to be truly Anglican. They need to know and understand the Anglican tradition including the history of the Anglican divide. But additionally they need to go back much further and know about patristic theology that again helps us reimagine church in the contemporary, drawing on the ancient.

So where does that take us next? Well I want to finish with a quote from David Tacey that rightly unsettles me and it relates to what I believe to be a sign of God's work in the world in challenge to the church. 'What if it, the church, ignores the present challenge or does not care enough to take up a dialogue with the world. The yearning for sacredness, spiritual meaning, security and personal engagement with the Spirit are the primary needs and longings of the contemporary world. What is happening if the institutions of faith are so bound up with themselves and resistant to change that they cannot make some contribution to these needs. Our contemporary situation is full of ironies and paradoxes. Chiefly among these is that our secular society has given birth to a sense of the sacred and yet our sacred traditions are failing to recognise the spiritual potential.'

Thank you.


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