Friday, 5 March, 2010

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

Duration: 36:24   | Download Download mp3


Rowan Williams: Thank you all for your enthusiasm and your commitment to this vision. It's wonderful to be here and to be able to spend this time with you during today.

I have been given a very wide brief in speaking about the maturity, or process of maturing for fresh expressions – both I think at the level of personal discipleship and at the level of institutional ownership and acceptance. I'm glad to have the opportunity of speaking about this theme because it's one which, of course, is intrinsic to the literature of the New Testament. We are to grow, so we read in the letter to the Ephesians, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

We are to grow up into Christ. Paul speaks elsewhere of his work being 'until Christ is formed in you.' And you can multiply these images, these phrases; all of them focusing on the same thing. Discipleship is growth, the way and the end are Christ shaped. The way is Christ shaped because he has cleared that path and you live into the space that he has cleared for you. The goal is Christ shaped because at the end of the day what God wants to do with us is to show Christ like-ness, to show his own Christ like-ness in our lives and our words.

So if I've got one over-arching theme for what I'm going to be saying this morning, it's that phrase I used a moment ago – moving into the space that is opened up by Jesus Christ – that's the shape of our Christian life, and that I believe is the great preoccupation of text after text in the New Testament. I believe this is worth emphasising because it's really rather important as fresh expressions gets more successful, more widely known, more active and innovative, it's very important to remember that fresh expressions is not first and foremost about capturing a new market for a product. It's not even about signing up membership in an organisation, it's about transformation; the transformation of human beings into Christ like-ness and the transformation of the whole Church into a more open, imaginative and courageous style of living.

Fresh expressions ought to be, and I hope and pray is, part of the Church's way of pushing back against static, infantilising forms of religious belief; pushing back against trivialisation, against the shrinkage of faith and discipleship to boring and manageable dimensions. The Church has 2,000 years of experience of doing this but it's not too late to start trying to do better on the assumption which  I very much hold to - that for all we know we're still the Early Church, we might well think that there's lots to grow into and lot's ahead to discover and of course one of the difficult and unwelcome messages that sometimes we have to take on board in the fresh expressions' world is that static and infantilising styles of discipleship are not just the preserve of traditional Church.

So if we begin with the model that I think the whole fresh expressions' world has very much taken to its heart of what the Church is, let's see where we get.

That model which I believe fresh expressions-style people have taken on is that the Church is fundamentally what happens when Jesus Christ is around. Before it's anything else - before its structure, an institution, a hierarchy, a system; it's simply what happens; and I like to say sometimes – though this is not a terribly precise a way of putting it – that Church is a verb before it's a noun because ecclesia in the Greek (I have to show my credentials at some point) is a word that simply means a calling together. What calls? Who calls? Jesus. When he calls, this is what happens and if we have to stick a label on it, we call it Church.

Now that sense of Church is what emerges under the pressure of Jesus' presence, sort of squeezed into existence in the world by the sheer energy and force of Christ being around, that then has to be filled out because the pressure and the presence of Jesus Christ is not something which simply leaves a thumbprint on the world and then withdraws; it's a pressure and presence which then makes itself at home in the community that's called - hence we speak of the body of Christ.

The community that is drawn together, called, summoned into being by the pressure of Christ's presence, is then the community that takes the responsibility for living out that presence and that pressure so that others are called. The Church you might almost say, is an echo chamber for the divine Word; the eternal Word that is spoken by the Father in heaven from all eternity to all eternity resounds in us, sounds from the hollow of our being, calling and calling again and again and so it goes on, the infinite echo chamber of the divine Word.

So Christ needs to be audible and visible, and that is why we speak of the Church as a place where people grow, and grow into the stature of the fullness of Christ. The point of the community is not to treasure a memory, not even to revere a personality; it is to be changed by the Spirit so that that Word is heard again and again.

And yes once again the Church has succumbed so often to those temptations, a community held together by a memory – the late, lamented and distinguished Jesus of Nazareth. And if I may just fire a sidelong swipe, sadly a lot of our thinking about Holy Communion has been a memorial meeting for the late, lamented, distinguished Jesus of Nazareth. But I could say more of that later on.

But also that sense that we're here to revere, adore a personality, the Lord Jesus, without ever asking how that Lordship not only shapes our lives but comes alive in us. That's what the work of the Spirit does because St Paul says the Spirit gives us the courage to pray as Jesus prayed and that's the foundation of all the rest of the transformation. So the point of there being a community called together is that we grow in Christ-like habit and Christ-like act so that the Word is heard again and the invitation continues…an invitation into new creation, into new humanity – a freedom to love, a devotion to one another as well as to the Lord, a sense of absolute involvement with one another – such that the neighbour's good and the neighbour's life is my good and my life – even the neighbour who doesn't yet believe. A sense of implication with one another, being tied up in one another, an absolute dependence on God as Father which strangely and wonderfully leads into an absolute confidence and authority in our dealings with the world, an at home-ness with the self and with God that comes from the sense of sin forgiven and liberty restored. All of that's the effect of Christ but also the presence of Christ - the Christ who is absolutely free to love, the Christ who is absolutely given into the lives of his friends, the Christ who is – without qualification – dependent on the Father so that he has authority, a liberty, to make a difference in the world; a Christ entirely at home with who he is because he's at home in the presence of his eternal Father.

It's an extraordinary picture; humanity living like that is a new humanity indeed, a new creation, a revolutionary kind of human life. That is what we're here for. And here to realise that, not by hard work, head banging, furrowing of brows and adoption of endless strategies; we're here to realise it, first and foremost by being lovingly and gratefully in the presence of the one who's made the difference.

Well, all of that is, I hope and trust, familiar territory in the sense that that's – at whatever level we articulate it – that's why we think it matters to be a Christian. It matters to be a Christian so that the liberation that has been given to us, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, echoes, resounds and invites again in turn so that the world may live and be free, a world locked up in a lack of love, a failure of mutuality and a sense of common interest – you don't need much elaboration of that point I think, a world which is both neurotically obsessed with control, panicky about losing control and also profoundly helpless when it comes to making a difference. You can go right down the list and measure the kind of crises of humanity that we see around us against what is on offer in the fellowship of Jesus Christ.

But now come some of the practical questions and some of the ones which I think today we'll need to be looking at today because another thing that comes through rather clearly in what St Paul has to say is it takes time to be a Christian. There are things that instantly make sense and make a difference and there are things that rather slowly, and sometimes rather painfully, find their way into your mind and heart and push the shape of them around a bit as time goes on.

It takes time, both for individuals and for groups, so to say a word very briefly about how that impacts on the life of the group.

I'll say something which I think will be very familiar to very many of you in this room. Fresh expressions is not a quick fix. It's not an instant solution to the Church's problems of membership and support, or whatever – it's not a quick fix for the issues and needs of those involved. And that means, of course, that it's quite a risky territory to be in. It takes time. It would be very nice to think that a fresh expression of church (nice from some people's point of view),was something that was well on its way to becoming 'ordinary' church; that within a fairly manageable timeframe you would  be paying parish share and electing churchwardens and the Kingdom would have come. And you will know all too well that fresh expressions doesn't work that way; that some groups and some initiatives are short-term: they arise, they do perhaps what God wants them to do and then perhaps for whatever reason they stop, they fade, or people decide to stop.

And it's quite difficult to think, 'Well that's alright really, perhaps they've done what God wants them to do and that's OK.' There may be groups which, having started in one way, turn into something slightly different which may be a bit nearer to, or a bit further away from, the conventional life of inherited church. And that's alright. And there may be some groups that find their way into the spectrum of inherited church bringing creative newness into the organic life of a local parish or congregation merging into that - again having done the job that God asked them to do.

And I think the message to inherited church and its leadership – people like Bishops, and Archbishops, and Moderators, and Chairs and Superintendents and so forth – the message is, 'This will take the time it takes; don't rush it and don't force new styles and new experiments into excessively tight short-term models.'

Many of you will know from another area of our social experience, the terrible curse of an imposed rhythm of time. I'm thinking of all of those community regeneration projects that work on three-year funding regimes which means that you spend about two thirds of a three year grant putting together your application for the next grant. That's not a good model, either in community regeneration – which again I could say a great deal – or in the church. There has to be a patience, a respect, that allows God's work to unfold in the way that is right and it's a message also to those involved in the world of fresh expressions to beware of messianic fantasies, a sense that at last you've got it and, brackets, they haven't; to beware of those very varied but very powerful forces within us and around us that will pull us back from that necessary patience before what God is doing and if we can find together, inherited and emergent church; if we can find together ways of maturing and cultivating that kind of patience – well and good.

And that patience involves mutual respect and mutual accountability. It's not a respect from the point of view of inherited church and its leadership, simply says, 'Well, go off and do what seems right, and don't call us' – that won't do. But equally it mustn't be a kind of intense, anxious 'have you got there yet?' needling which shrinks possibilities and seeks to prescribe outcomes.

So one of the things which I think we have discovered in a big way in the last few years is just that sheer variety of timescales and outcomes that is inherent in the world of fresh expressions; and I simply want to say it's alright.

I hope that from our side, the hierarchical or administrative side, we properly learn the patience we need; and that from the fresh expressions side there's likewise a learning of patience, not wanting to foreclose, not wanting to hang onto things that have outlived their usefulness – so flexibility and the light touch are essential all round and I think that has been ever since fresh expressions began; one of the things that we've sought to embody in the way we do things – flexibility, lightness of touch, or to put it more positively, a willingness to be gladly surprised by what God gets up to in the Church.

Taking time though isn't just about how groups and communities settle, and find their way in relation to inherited forms of church and community. It's also very deeply about each one of us in our discipleship.

And I sometimes think that one of the failings of a lot of Western Christianity in the last 50 years, whether it's conservative or liberal by label – useless labels as we all know; one of the failings has been a kind of unwillingness to think about the time it takes to be a Christian. What we need to go on challenging ourselves so that we become more deeply rooted, what we need in terms of familiarity with the Bible with some of the traditional rhythms and patterns of prayer; with the wisdom of others. What do we need to put our roots down more deeply, more firmly?

We speak sometimes about discipling people, a horrible word actually for a great thing because it's a wonderful thing to be a disciple; it's a terrible thing to do to the English language! But what's wonderful about being a disciple and learning to be a disciple is that it's learning to be a learner because that's what a disciple is. And who do we learn from? Well, we know who we learn from; we learn from the One who is our teacher. As Jesus in Matthew's Gospel reminds us, 'Don't go round wanting to be called teachers; there's only One that matters.'

So the time taking is about finding those things that not only keep us faithful, going round the motions, but enlarge our world. All the time because grace is different, all the time we're tempted to domesticate grace and to shrink the range of the newness of God and so the practice of the Christian centuries, immersion in Scripture and the Psalms, the experience – both of ecstasy and of quiet in prayer – so many Christians have explored and spelled these things out.  That's anchorage in God and also a reminder of the newness, the difference, the strangeness of being a disciple. It's where things like the shape of the Christian year come in because that simply means, year after year, the story of God's act in Jesus Christ is celebrated for us and in us so that once again we are taken through the story that shapes everything for us. And I've really not much patience with those who sit light to the Church's year; it is an extraordinary experience to be taken through that story time after time, every time finding something fresh because you've never got to the end of it.

And as we approach Holy Week and Easter, this year as each year, I have to say my heart both lifts and sinks; it lifts at the sense that once again we're going into the re-enacting of the story that made all difference; my heart sinks because I know the exposure, nakedness that that creates in a struggling, inadequate spirit like mine. But that's the rhythm by which we grow, both the going over the familiar stories and finding those stories taking us out into the deep like the apostles on the Sea of Galilee. And that process of growing requires us to know what stories we want to tell and share. Part of the reason we're here today is to share some of the stories but I think our growing is also a growing into an awareness of the full resource of the Christian world through the ages in stories to share. It is an extraordinary fact and I take it as a great sign of God's leading and God's grace that, in the last 10 or 15 years, more and more people in the fresh expressions or emerging church world are finding that stories from the old mainstream, the inherited patterns, are coming alive in new ways.

Some of you may have seen a very remarkable American by John (Ian) Morgan Cron, about St Francis. Anybody come across this? It's a novel about a highly successful pastor of a new church in New England, Americans tell me that new churches in New England are rather like hens' teeth; that it's one of the most evangelistically resistant bits of the United States but that's another story. The point is that this is someone who has come to the end of his resource in this brilliantly successful new church, he's got all the people there and they're doing the rounds, they're doing lots of exciting things with young people and a little bit of community service and people keep coming – and they've managed to build a new car park and important things like that – and the pastor is suddenly brought up short by having to deal with a drug-addicted, single mother whose child dies in an accident. And he realises that everything so far has been on the surface really, that he hasn't grown into the capacity that allows him to feel with this mother, to be with her as she needs to be loved by Christ and that something is deeply lacking.

So he preaches a sermon about his sense of emptiness and doubt, has a very, very difficult time with his church committee who suggest that he needs some time off – preferably as far off as possible. He happens to have a relative who's a Franciscan friar in Italy and he rings him up and says, 'Can I come and stay?' And he takes off for Assisi, and the rest of the novel is mostly about his gradual discovery of an earlier generation of fresh expressions in the life of St Francis. And it's a story which takes him to a new level; he doesn't decide he wants to become a Catholic and a Franciscan friar but he does decide that something about the Franciscan vision is a bit of what's lacking in the very smooth and successful world he's come from. And he's got to start again. So he goes back and preaches another sermon to his congregation which is received no more enthusiastically than his earlier one. And the book ends with him and the single mother we've heard about at the beginning of the book whose child died, and one or two others, sharing some pasta in a sitting room and thinking, 'Well, where do we go with the church now? What are the priorities that would really take us to another level where we've grown into an ability to hear and sense the difficult depths of human experience in a way that the brilliant success of the last round didn't quite manage?'

And he comes up, our pastor friend, with a number of principles about going to a new level. Five words. He thinks that a church that has taken on board Francis's radical newness would be one in which transcendence, community, beauty, dignity and meaning, were at work. It's a very stirring catalogue I think.

Transcendence. Real encounter with the Holy, an encounter which can battle and hurt because it's always enlarging, pushing the envelope. Transcendence.

Community. Growing out of that encounter with transcendence, what I called earlier a real mutuality, a real sense of being responsible with – and for – each other. And how all of that plays out in the Church's presence in the world.

Beauty. An unfashionable word as the writer and the teacher recognise. And yet, clearly a part of manifesting something about God's creation. In using it well, using it imaginatively, so that newness, radiance, is drawn out of people's experience and for the world around. There are many ways of doing that in Word and act.

Dignity. A passionate commitment to revere, not too strong a word, to revere the human face and the human spirit. Out of all that meaning, the sense that an individual life is held in an infinite context of meaningful, intelligent, loving action, which is God.

Transcendence, Community, Beauty, Dignity and Meaning; something that's discovered by one who's been in the emerging church word and has discovered it hasn't emerged far enough.

It's a challenging and disarming and delightful book and the vision behind it is I think a very one a serious one. It's written by someone who has ministered both in new congregations and rather traditional episcopal congregations in the United States. And I'd quite like more people to read it actually; that's why I mention it here.

Now if we're going to talk about those positive things we might just in passing mention some of the enemies of this. One distinguished English literary critic of the 20th century wrote a book called Enemies of Promise and it's tempting to write a book along the lines of enemies of renewal. There are many but I'll just mention three which seem to me to pull against the five principles I drew out of Cron's book.

Enemy number one is Entertainment. What people want, especially young people, is to be entertained. Keep them happy and give them a God who can be the object of their unreconstructed emotions and distract them endlessly from being left naked before God. Entertainment.

Sometimes I'm asked to speak to youth officers around the Church of England and the one consistent message I always want to give is please, please beware of seeking just to entertain. Our young people will not thank you for it and they're quite right not to.

Second enemy, problem-solving. O but surely the proclamation of the Good News solves our problems? Well, yes it does but it's going to take you a lifetime to work out how that happens and a lot of it is going to happen before you realise and none of it is going to happen according to your plan and timetable. If you think that this is about problem solving in the sense of plugging gaps, beware.

When St Paul was converted to Christianity, or rather converted to Jesus Christ, his problems were just beginning. The appearance to him of the wounded, risen, Lord identified with his suffering people was the most appalling revelation that St Paul could have encountered. Can you imagine? It is still I think very sobering to try and imagine what that encounter meant for Paul. Everything he had risked and suffered for and struggled for made nonsense in a moment, not surprising that he staggered into Damascus unable to open his eyes. Not problem solving but, again the new world, the new humanity. If we talk too much about problem solving and plugging gaps, we're in danger of putting an end to that lifelong task of listening and absorbing that is involved in growing into the space Christ has opened for us.

And the third enemy is, in a sense what both of those first two have in common, and that is trying to fit God around the edges of your identity, rather than letting Him re-make you from the inside out. Try to find a bit of space where God can comfortably sit; oh at last I have found a space where I can put that, not round the edges but from the heart. God renews us.

So if we want to grow and if we want the Church we belong to, to grow; those are three things we need to be looking at ourselves, testing for from time to time with some rigour and some care – not to throw cold water, smother with wet blankets what's going on but to keep ourselves to the real scope and the real depth of the vision we began with; the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, Christ being formed in us. If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, the echo chamber of the eternal Word. Speaking about the body of Christ, the church as the body of Christ, is speaking about the church as the place where Christ is visible and active. And that is a never exhausted project, never a box we tick, always the task ahead of us.

Difficult and exhilarating, taking us all the time out into the deep, both stretching us to breaking point and anchoring us more deeply than we can imagine so that we learn more and more day by day to pray Christ's prayer, not just ours, to echo Christ's voice, not just ours, to live from the circulation of Christ's sacrificial blood, not ours, to move to his heartbeat.

That, please God, is what the world of fresh expressions and the world of inherited church alike, and together, will seek to do or rather to let God do in them in the years ahead.


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