Friday, 5 March, 2010

Martyn Atkins addresses the Changing the Landscape event, exploring growth to spiritual maturity and the long-term future of the fresh expressions movement.

Duration: 17:29   | Download Download mp3


Martyn Atkins: Delighted to be with you and to share this exciting day as the General Secretary of the Methodist Church, forgive me if I talk out of that context. It's the one I know best, rather than any claim to exclusivism. But I think I also speak as somebody who is an incurable supporter of fresh expressions, not always because they appeal to my natural inclinations, but because God seems to have laid on my heart the fact that, precisely because they are fresh and they are unusual, they need more vociferous support than other models of church which seem to manage quite well without that kind of support. So that's the pattern of my life.

Graham, thank you for that welcome. Partnering the Church of England in the Fresh Expressions initiative in phase 1 and now in phase 2, and even more exciting now that the United Reformed Church and Roberta have joined us as a welcome partner, is incredibly symbolically and substantially important to Methodism. It is, as you've said, a means of embodying the covenant relationship between our churches in a particularly apt model of ecumenism for today. But in the wider sense of being committed not simply to the Fresh Expressions initiative, but fresh expressions small f small e, I guess it's a means whereby the Methodist movement reminds itself that it is a movement committed to discipleship, it fits for us. It allows us to express our Methodist ecclesiology, which is essentially missional. It provides us with encouragement and an open door to do what we feel God would best have us do, that is namely to seek authentic culturally-sensitive and apt ways of, to use a phrase of John Wesley, offering Christ. And creating, almost accidentally out of that process, Christian communities that enable disciples to come into being in any time and place. So it's entirely right, almost impossible that the Methodist Church would not continue to commit itself to Fresh Expressions capital F capital E, and fresh expression small f small e.

Now this day explores some of the longer-term implications of a commitment and I want to take a different tack to that magnificent overview of Archbishop Rowan and look, if you look, organisationally and systemically but I hope no less spiritually, about some of the implications of that as we face the mid-term future. But before I do that I want to focus on, if you like, the acid test of all church, in my mind, before going on to identify some of the implications of that. When asked what my own hopes and goals for fresh expressions are, over the next few years, I've replied with one sentence. That what is largely thought of today as exotic, will tomorrow become increasingly indigenous. And if they're technical words, put another way by a Yorkshireman, that what is currently still thought of as special will become normal. Because I believe the Fresh Expressions initiative receives and participates in the urge of the missionary Spirit, so that we can believe that what we currently call fresh expressions of church, including some expressions of church that we haven't come across yet, if you follow me, will soon simply be called church. And that the mixed economy that we seek and that we need will gloriously become how it is, rather than simply how we'd like it to be. But the acid tests for fresh expressions are the same as for any other expression of a Christian grouping. I focus on one, which is one I'm committed to myself. Christian churches are God's intended vehicles, which enable human beings to worship, love and serve God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and enable them to live out their lives as Christ chooses in culturally appropriate ways and means. In short, they're about the business of making, shaping Christian disciples today.

One of my favourite books on mission when I lectured on that for several years was written many years ago now but – and will have been read by many many people in this room – Vincent Donovan's great book Christianity Rediscovered, where he realises as an almost failed Catholic missionary who has followed the rulebook to the letter for several years and is just about to return to the Eastern Seaboard with his tail between his legs to give it one last try. And he sets out almost like a pilgrimage to learn and live among the Masai people. And realises that as he listens and interprets as much as he speaks, and discerns how the Spirit is already abroad in the work of the Masai, rather than the older model of missionary that he's incarnated, that something wonderful happens. If you read the book, passage after passage, I'm always blown away by that lovely story he tells a third of the way through the book about the Masai act of reconciliation, whereby if families fall apart you prepare special food, and both families prepare it and bring it to the middle of the community and offer food and eat it before them and everybody in the community claps, and in his inimitable way he writes at the end of that, 'a new testament of forgiveness is brought about by the exchange of holy food, what can one say'.

Now my point is that. We cannot go on listening to such stories and have the movers and not really heed them in our own context. We can't go on vaunting the incultured incarnational models of Christian engagement in our books and in our lectures and then reject them as an apt model of being Christians in our own culture today. You see the God-given genius of Christianity is as... has reminded us, its very translatability. And as our inherited expressions of church and patterns of worship and service, so deeply loved by so many of us, sadly appeal and seem to nourish fewer and fewer of our neighbours, then Vincent Donovan's challenge becomes ever more cogent. That what has been regarded as an appropriate incultured mission model somewhere else and for someone else needs to become ever more fully the way in which we live out our faith ourselves.

And those of us in leadership roles, and by that I include everybody in this room, and those with influence and responsibilities in our churches, whether local or national, need to continue to ensure that this missiological commitment, so vaunted and effective elsewhere in a multiplicity of ways, continues to be a reality among us. And one expression of that is a commitment to fresh expressions. Otherwise, as was sometimes the case in the old mission societies, we live with one rule for the mission field which is always somewhere else, and quite another for the home church which is just down the street. If our culture, if the content of Mission-shaped Church and sources like it tell us anything today, then it's this. And these things must be held together. That we now live in a mission field, whereas once we thought we didn't. That we are playing away from home when we thought we were always at home and appointed the referee, and we always got the penalty. Yet we also live in a world which has been redeemed by Christ, and in which the Holy Spirit is abroad and going before, so we should neither be despondent, nor overly surprised, at what happens. And fresh expressions are therefore precisely that – they're expressions of a missionary Godhead, refusing to give up the work of redeeming all things in Christ, and still using Christ's bride the Church, flawed and broken though it is, as the key vehicle for that divine aim.

So how then can we live as Christian disciples today and not commit ourselves to the long haul of a accompanying the missionary Spirit in that venture. Our calling is not to play fast and loose with the family silver, but it's neither simply to polish it and put it in a cupboard. It's to respond anew at cost to ourselves to enable human beings to worship, love and serve God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and live out their lives as Christian disciples in authentic ways today.

Now what do we need in the longer term in order for exotic things to become more indigenous? We need first, and this might seem a strange but it's a proper one, we need first abroad in all our churches of every expression, a spiritual mentality of sacrifice and a sense of proper ownership. I remember vividly when I was serving as President of Conference, going to Shetland and staying there with a couple in the 70s. I did an afternoon on fresh expressions in Lerwick, and as we drove home in the car there was a strange silence, and eventually it was broken by Zena, who said to me I'm really disappointed with this afternoon. I felt mortified, I said what have I done. She said, you've told us that the idea of painting our room green and putting a pool table in isn't going to bring the kids off the streets into our church. I said I'm really sorry about that, but I don't think that's going to happen. And she forgave me, but over breakfast the next day something wonderful happened. We were sat there and she had a conversation with her husband, with me clearly listening – there were three of us round the table. She said Donald? Aye. She said if our children – and I'd learned by now that they had three children, all grown – if our children wanted something and couldn't do it for themselves, and we had the resources to help them, then we would, wouldn't we? Aye. Well the way I see it, we've had church as we'd like it for all our lives, and it might well be that we have to lay that down in order for somebody else to find what it's been and given us. And in the words of another musical, shows my age, I sat there and I thought by George she's got it.

Because effectively it is that strange revelation of the Spirit that the Church is not ours to keep, and therefore in a sense the patronage and the loyalty that's built up throughout lives of service needs constantly to be in a dialogue with who's is whose and what is what's.

But as I close and signal annoyingly and frustratingly for some of you, what are the other systemic and organisational needs. Well I mention a few almost in sentence form, although they could fill our day. We will need as we face the future even better mechanisms of recognising God's call to ministry in those who have become disciples in fresh expressions of church, and are offering for lifelong service and ministry in the church. Those who feel that they're pioneers can't be unchallenged or formed and they certainly can't be left as some little discrete group in planet Zod, having no real connection with the rest of the mixed economy. But neither must they be compelled to imitate or be shaped into classical forms of Christian ministry and leadership, that's not why God called them. The challenges of how such called people are properly used and deployed, which makes them neither mavericks nor martyrs, is a crucial business and we've got to find our way through that. Similarly we need to take with the utmost seriousness the selection and appointment of those who take leadership roles in our church in regional or local or trans-local levels, because who is strategically positioned in an ecumenical fresh expressions context is becoming ever-more important. We've got to become far bolder in asserting that the self-motived autonomous new congregation is not the only, or possibly I think even the best, model for discipleship and mission today. Now I'm speaking as a Methodist remember. But the collection, the potential of the collection of ecclesial groupings becoming a network, Methodists call it a Connexion, which both affirms and enables a proper element and degree of autonomy but also involves and requires mutual accountability, mutual care, shared resources, which permits strategic mission to take place with some sense of an overview within an encouraging rather than disabling framework of proven practices and disciplines, is a wonderfully fertile model for the future. Connectedness in diversity, not simply glorious independence, will serve us in the mid-term.

Thirdly, or fourthly is it, in a time of decreasing resources, whether of people or finance, we've got to resist the temptation to continue to resource what we've long had without asking serious questions of it, and then immediately withdrawing support in tight times from things which are just coming to be. The church cannot be a place where last in, first out is the rule. The famous statement of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, has got to guide our use of our resources, which are finite and in some places declining. The church is the only institution remember, he wrote, that exists for the benefit of those who don't belong to it. Consequently we must face the sharp challenge that those expressions of Christian church that do not appear to enable groups of human beings to worship, love and serve God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and live out their life as Christ their Lord would choose as authentic disciples, cannot continue to automatically expect or command the lion's share of the resources of an official organisation. The church, whatever else it is, is not the self-preservation society.

We must continue to find ways to release assets therefore, whether they're plants or people, for mission, and use them in new apt ways. The rainy days that we've hoarded for in many of our churches are well and truly here – look at the field you walked across as you got here. And we must learn the lessons of mission thinkers who influenced Vincent Donovan, people like Roland Allen who adapted the work of Henry Venn and reminded his readers in a curiously contemporary way even today, that young churches, wherever they are and whatever they're like, must become self-governing, self-financing and self-reproducing as quickly as possible. And therefore he argued for a light touch, but most of all to trust the Holy Spirit. And that meant not promoting anarchy, but equally it meant that somehow a nanny state was the wrong state.

Now my time's gone, but in recent years the Methodist Church has through a number of things, our calling, our priorities, more recently something called regrouping for mission, and very recently a conference called holiness and risk, re-asserted and re-ignited in its own heart and mentality, its commitment to be a mission movement, a disciple movement for today. We're learning that that's not a peripheral activity, it's a core one. It's not optional, it's mandatory. Whether thought as an initiative, or not, we will continue to commit ourselves to creating Christian churches that enable groups of human beings to worship, love and serve God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live out their lives as Christ, their Lord, chooses, as disciples of Jesus Christ, today. And that will include us. Thank you.


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