Wednesday, 10 November 2010

All FX’d Up

Well let’s be fair, at least Giles Fraser says what he thinks even if it is complete tosh. In his weekly Church Times column last week Canon Fraser wrote the following:
the whole Fresh Expressions movement is nothing less than a threat to the integrity of the parish structure of the Church of England.
In the article Giles gives fresh expression to his prejudices:
I have always disliked the cringe-making trendiness of Fresh Expres­sions. It feels like the teacher wanting to get down with the kids. There is nothing so humiliating and embar­rass­ing as the attempt by older people to communicate in the com­plex grammar of youth culture; still worse, when it comes from ecclesi­astical civil servants working in Church House — which, I believe, is the true spiritual home of Fresh Expressions.
Why has Giles suddenly had the courage to put into print these long held opinions? He tells us that a new book has been published which backs up what he has always thought. The book is  For the Parish: A critique of Fresh Expressions (SCM, 2010) by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank. I’m delighted he’s found a book that backs up his gut reactions amongst the plethora of books which are much more positive on the subject. However, it does strike me that Giles is turning into a caricature, not unlike the Christian who hunts through the scriptures to find the one passage that seems to support their argument while rejecting everything else in the Bible.

Giles sees Fresh Expressions as an attack on the parish church model and rejects the fresh expressions ecclesiology because:
The Church must never be a series of special-interest groups that we might choose to join, as we might choose a club or gym. This is ecclesiology that has been mugged by the choice-is-everything ethos of late capitalism...
Well, excuse me if I don’t want to dress up in these trendy new fabrics. It is time to stick up for the traditional parish model.
The first thing I want to say about both the book and Giles’ article is that I welcome them. They show that Fresh Expressions is being taken seriously. The Fresh Expressions approach does need to be tested rigorously, its ecclesiological and theological foundations carefully examined and the practical outworking scrutinised. If Fresh Expressions is of the Holy Spirit then it should be robust enough to withstand both academic scrutiny and the lazy sneering of the uninformed.

However, I have always thought that a good scholar takes time to study and explore their subject before passing judgement. Giles tells us:
“Fresh Expressions encourages new forms of church for a fast-changing world,” it says on its website. “It is a way of describing the planting of new congregations which are different in ethos and style from the church which planted them.” The examples given are a surfer church on Polzeath beach, a eucharist for Goths in Cambridge, and a youth congregation based in a skate park.
This seems to be the extent of Giles’ research on the subject. I wonder how he would feel if I trotted out a critique of Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher Giles has studied in great depth, on the basis of a quick glance at Wikipedia. Has Giles actually bothered to visit these congregations, speak with their ministers, listen to the way in which lives have been transformed?

At the heart of Giles’ article is a disingenuous false premise; that Fresh Expressions is a threat to the traditional parish church model.  Citing the book he comments:
This book presents the choice before us thus: we either “embrace the historic mission to evangelize and serve the whole people of this country, or [we] decline into a sect”.
Anyone who has taken the briefest amount of time to read about Fresh Expressions knows that this is just not true. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, has spoken of the need for a ‘mixed economy’ to refer to fresh expressions and 'inherited' forms of church existing alongside each other, within the same denomination, in relationships of mutual respect and support.

As the quote selected by Giles from the website makes clear, many Fresh Expressions congregations have been planted by the local parish church. Has he spoken to the parish church clergy who had the missional vision and desire to reach out to those in their parishes who have been left untouched by ‘traditional’ church? These are people who take seriously their commitment to all in their parish, not just those who feel comfortable with a particular style of worship or model of being church.

Is Giles’ saying that to be part of the church all are required to buy into the particular cultural expressions of church that so many of our ‘traditional’ churches reflect? If the traditional parish church model is doing so well then why aren’t our churches packed out every Sunday? He accuses Fresh Expressions of being an ecclesiology ‘mugged by the choice-is-everything ethos of late capitalism’, but Giles seems to be recommending the command economy approach where everyone is forced to accept the one size fits all provision of the politburo.

There is another false assumption made in Giles’ article and it’s worth quoting again:
There is nothing so humiliating and embar­rass­ing as the attempt by older people to communicate in the com­plex grammar of youth culture.
Fresh Expressions is not just about youth. There are some very interesting developments amongst a whole range of age groups. The people who meet in a pub for a pint and Bible study, the elderly weight-watchers group that meets to ‘weigh and pray’ and the church that meets in the farmers market in Walthamstow. Giles criticises people trying to be trendy with the kids, he is in danger of coming across as the bar room bore pontificating about matters he neither knows nor understands.

I could go on but will finish with the official definition of Fresh Expressions:
A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.
It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.
It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.
What’s wrong with that Giles?

Update: Some interesting resources on this subject from Andy Goodliff h/t @maggidawn
This response to the Church Times article from practitioner Jeremy Fletcher


Revsimmy said...

Bravo Phil. I was alerted to Giles Fraser's article by David Keen's tweet yesterday, read the article and was as incensed as you and David appear to have been. I find Giles frustrating in that sometimes he hits the nail firmly on the head, while at other times (such as here) he just makes me want to scream.

To me you appear to have covered most of the bases on this one. I can't quite understand why some people have difficulty appreciating that mission in this country, as much as elsewhere, needs to be properly contextualised (or enculturated, if you prefer) by people who have taken the time and effort to familiarise themselves thoroughly with the culture of those among whom they minister, whether surfers or the elderly. One size (the traditional parish) no longer fits all, though it does fit some.

Anonymous said...

Giles' comments not only missrepresent Fresh Expressions (of which I am not particularly a supporter) but they also fail to understand the situation which the Parish model finds itself in.

In Llandaff diocese we have Parish Priests in charge of 4, sometimes 5 Parishes. Each church building crumbling, each comminty of believers crumbling more quickly.

This is not just an opportunity to promote an evangelical style of one-man-one-parish ministry; highchurchers fail to realise that many parishes are having to forego communion 3 Sundays a month.

The Parish system is dying.

which is a shame, but where neccissary we have an apt replacement, the Minster model.

This is the Church; come to us.

Each Church building then is free to develop daughter-branches, freshexpressions if it so chooses, so long as it is all tied into the corporate nature of Sunday Eucharist.

David Ould said...

What’s wrong with that Giles?

Indeed, nothing at all. I was recently at a presentation of some Fresh Expressions work and couldn't help turning to my neighbour and noting

"this is nothing special. Back in Sydney we just call this 'church'!" ;-)

Unknown said...

I agree entirely - and blogged in much the same way. My irritation was not the critique, but the unfair parody which Giles then set out to demolish. He's a better thinker than that.
My blog:

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. At least Giles has drawn attention and debate to the subject.

Jeremy, I've posted a link to your post on my blog.

maggi said...

Odd that a Cathedral Canon is willing to knock anything that is not "traditional parish". Does that include Cathedrals? (I like Giles, by the way, both in print and in real life, but this wasn't one of his better pieces)

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comment Maggi. I've never met Giles but sometimes he really hits the nail on the head with his Church Times column. This time he missed it by a mile.