Abiding in the 'old, new and being renewed' (Nick Baines)

Monday, 11 March, 2013

Nick Baines explores abiding in the 'old, new and being renewed'.

I sometimes wonder if it is a general human thing or just a Christian thing that we think in terms of 'either-or' rather than 'both-and'. Fresh expressions assumes that there are other expressions of church – not all of which are to be thought of as 'stale'. Alternative worship assumes there is something to be alternative to – and the need for an alternative need not imply that the original is wrong. In both these cases the language/terminology, whilst not of itself problematic, can evoke assumptions that are unhelpful.

In his Lent book, Abiding, Professor Ben Quash rightly draws attention to the importance of place and the Christian vocation to commit to particular place. Behind this lies a reality that has shaped the Anglican vocation in particular and which some people feel is in danger of being lost too easily. Bishop John Inge, among others, has worked on the importance of space and place for identity and Christian mission – trying to recover for the contemporary age an awareness of and commitment to location and physical community on the part of the Christian church.

The Anglican bit is simply that we organize territorially in a way that tries to ensure Christian presence in places where others have left. Until recently Bradford Cathedral was the only place of Christian worship within the inner ring road of Bradford. The visual landscape and the presence of people in a building in a place still count for a huge amount in terms of measurable commitment to a city and community. In some of our deprived areas the church is the only public space left – and the church the only body of non-professional people to remain engaged with otherwise potentially forgotten people.

Being visibly present in a particular place is a commitment that we must not lose.

However, that does not imply that such a commitment represents the totality of Anglican or Christian service. There has never been a time when the 'static' did not need the development of new forms or communities of worship or mission. And although I have been annoyed many times by pioneer ministry candidates telling me that they want to do the exciting stuff of church without the boring bits, I still affirm that our societies need both traditional and fresh communities of worship and belonging – and do not need such communities to be involved in some 'either-or' competition.

I want to ask some sharp questions of fresh expressions when hearing the language used. But, the same scrutiny needs to be applied to traditional churches, especially where challenges are being avoided, future development ignored and assumptions about future existence being made without regard for reality.

If I want my critique of mission-shaped church taken seriously (that it assumes a middle-class church and world where networking might transcend locality… and pays no attention to the deprived communities where people are condemned to a particular place), then I also have to critique a parish system that props up unviable churches and buildings for fear of addressing the complexity of change.

The world needs a church that is old, new and being renewed.

About the author: 

Rt Revd Nick Baines is Bishop of Bradford.


When the Anglican Church was faced with the question of where do we go from here? The Lambert Conference of 1966 to present has not given the fullest attention to Pioneer Mission Ministry. I support the view and concept of using the conventions of reason, scripture and tradition as the doctrine of retaining Anglican principles. When will the ACC and CoE see and value the needs of making and offering roles for laity and Lay appointed and commissioned Deacons to move into the community and serve those who need and desire it most? I have advocated this for over 5 years and yet only a few and committed Clergy and Bishops are hearing the call to enact and enable.

If you care to send me more questions and views, I would only happily present to you and FE how to guide and direct this in all parts of our Anglican community. RM Weeks,

How do we define an "unviable" church? How do we define an unviable building, in light of the visual landscape and the effect the presence of a building can have (when occupied by people)?

I worry that concerns about financial viability could exacerbate the abandonment of deprived areas...

The idea that pioneering doesn't have any boring bits made me chuckle as I had just emptied the rubbish and finished filing accounts for our small missional community! That is clearly facile and also ignores the truth that God is to be found in the 'ordinary' just as much as in the big moments of worship.

I am sorry you have had such a sorry experience of pioneers. Many of the ones I know are working in local settings, involved in outreach and service to people who might consider themlseves beyond the reach of traditional church. We work with people who are perhaps homeless, in debt, struggling to raise their children or other tough issues. The local NHS mental health team refer people to us who have come out of hospital following a failed suicide attempt. This is painstaking and often painful journeying, but God is at work in it and many people come to faith, get baptised/confirmed etc and continue towards wholeness. Discipleship is hard and slow but has moments of beauty and illumination too. This is church that is local, connected, transformative, and collaborative with the local parish team. It is not network based for "people like me".

The other thing I think needs to be mentioned is that many parish churches are now gathered congregations, either deliberately or due to the 'consumer choice' that affects everyone these days. In our local area all the churches of every denomination are mainly full of white, middle aged, middle class people. There are all kinds of ways in which this presents 'hurdles' for 'other' people to get in and feel welcome and accepted. Churches are not culturally neutral, even in the parish system, and a bit of thought about how to help people - even as simply as providing verbal cues about what is going to happen next, when to stand up and sit down etc would help.

Each of the parts of the church has strengths and weaknesses, and if we all allowed space to honour one anothers' strengths instead of feeling threatened by different gifts and charisms, we would be able to work together to really cover the wide needs of each area and bring transformation.

To pick up on a point from the previous comment, many fresh expressions are deliberately set up in areas of deprivation, in a prophetic sense of 'relocating to the abandoned places of empire' as Shane Claiborne puts it, alongside the many churches in urban priority areas who do amazing work.

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