The fantasy cycle and fresh expressions – 2 (Ben Edson)

Ben EdsonBen Edson completes his look at the fantasy cycle and fresh expressions. You can read part 1 here.

I have previously considered the Anticipation, Dream and Frustration elements in a framework called the fantasy cycle of: AnticipationDreamFrustrationNightmareDeath wish. Now I'm looking at the remaining stages in relation to fresh expressions of church.


The nightmare doesn't necessarily lead to death wish. The cycle is still breakable and death is not predestined. Nightmare comes on the back of frustration and I think it is a stage that we need to go through.

It's hard to qualify what makes for a nightmare. My experience was that it involved a variety of factors until, one day, the realisation hit me that things were tough. There may have been suspicions about it for a while, but all of a sudden you're firefighting and those hopeful dreams seem so far away. I feel the nightmare is the hardest stage to break because usually there will be associated pastoral crises that need dealing with as well. 

It's not simply a case of re-ordering, as that only serves to paper over the cracks. It's doing the hard work with your community that exposes you to the brokenness of the cross. It's the time that you cry with people in their brokenness and your brokenness; it's the time that you realise that it's not all easy. Yet, perhaps the hardest thing about this stage is that you still get the 'tourists': those looking to see the dream and not finding it.

Death wish

I'm all for death – I think that it can be liberating for a fresh expression – but we should not assume that death means there will be a resurrection. Death is death.

My leaving Sanctus1 involved the death of my life in that community, yet the community carries on – the community is bigger than the pioneer

I also think that the death wish may be something that different people go through at different times, in part depending on their role within the community. For example, my leaving Sanctus1 involved the death of my life in that community – yet the community carries on. The community is bigger than the pioneer. The death wish was individual rather than corporate; the danger is making a personal death wish corporate.

However, there is also a time when a personal death wish needs to be worked through for the sake of the community; a time when we put our struggles and frustrations to one side as we're in a different place to the rest of the community. If we don't, we'll drag the community down with us.

When the death wish is corporate I think that is when it needs to die. The cycle has come to a close and the community ceases to be. Death is death.

At risk of repeating myself, I think that the cycle can be broken but the key piece of discernment is when to break that cycle and what to move into afterwards.

The fantasy cycle and fresh expressions – 1 (Ben Edson)

Ben EdsonBen Edson begins a look at the fantasy cycle and fresh expressions.

Recently I've been thinking about life cycle and fresh expressions of church, with specific reference to a framework called the fantasy cycle. The cycle (though not very cyclical at all) is: AnticipationDreamFrustrationNightmareDeath wish.


I think there is the danger that we front-load with anticipation. Typically, a person, if training to be an Ordained Pioneer Minister, will do two or three years of theological training before they actually start something. This is all about anticipation; they're dreaming about what will be and what will happen … anticipating. At the same time, a permission giver is dreaming up possibilities. Anticipating.

One obvious problem with this is that when the pioneer arrives they are immediately in a goldfish bowl of their own expectancy and the local expectancies. When I was first employed as a pioneer in the city centre of Manchester, there was no Mission-shaped Church, no Fresh Expressions and no expectations! Just realistic hopes.

If the community is indigenous, then this anticipation is part of the formation of the church, happening as it does in the birthing community. If anticipation is part of the cycle, then I think that it should be done in context. It is a time of dreaming in community and of working out the possibilities, but it is predominantly about trying to live that anticipated dream.


The dream stage is not when you're dreaming about all the possibilities; it's when you're living the dream. The fresh expression is flourishing; there is energy and excitement about what the future holds and all that you seem to touch turns to gold. Please note … it doesn't last!

The problem with the dream stage is that it creates unrealistic expectations as to what the fresh expression will be like in the long term

However, the problem with the dream stage is that it creates unrealistic expectations as to what the fresh expression will be like in the long term. People start to think that it will always be like this, always be easy, and hence when things change – as they will – the memory of what has been becomes a powerful comparison to the present. The dream is an unsustainable phase; it attracts the consumer rather than the disciple and hence the dream needs to be a phase of high cost discipleship.


I think it's no surprise that Frustration comes straight after Dream. In many ways the dream opens our eyes to the possibility of what could be, perhaps in a somewhat utopian way, but nevertheless once the eyes have been opened there is no turning back. Frustrations come because the dream will not last for ever, and hence I think that the first point of learning is to let people know that!

The challenge is negotiating a pathway through the frustration that does not necessarily lead to death. We accomplished this a few times when I was with Sanctus1 by reinventing ourselves; this would happen through a change in group set-up or venue. This seemed to re-energise people and bring the Dream stage back. However, this was temporary and we still remained in the cycle, the real challenge being to break it and move into something more permanent.

I'm becoming more convinced that the way in which the cycle will be broken is by a process of aggregation with the wider church. It will be an aggregation process that involves both parties learning together so that the fresh expression of church can move out of this cycle and move towards something more permanent. In the Anglican Church, ways in which the fresh expression can break the cycle may involve a Bishop's Mission Order or paying into the parish share. Without this reference to something 'other', I think that the fresh expression may become too self-absorbed and concerned about reclaiming the dream.

Next week, Nightmare and Death wish

Managing provisionality in a fresh expression (Ben Edson)

Ben EdsonBen Edson explores how to manage provisionality in a fresh expression.

After eight years of pioneering and leading Sanctus1 in Manchester, I decided that it was the right time to hand the community over to a new leader. Three months ago I left Sanctus1 in the capable hands of Al Lowe and became the Diocese of Manchester's Fresh Expressions Missioner.

However, I continue to reflect on my experience of Sanctus1 and one area that I've been thinking about is provisionality. I was recently told that the city centre residential community of Manchester has an annual people turnover of 30% – almost the entire community changes in a three year period. This was something that I observed during my time with Sanctus1 – approximately every two years 50% of the community would change. People who had been part of the community for more than four years were a rarity.

This transience created a fragility as people moved in and moved out. New people bring new energy and new life, but losing more established people all the time is draining on established people within the community. It is hard when you build community with one group and then that community disappears around you and a new one forms. Comparisons are always made with what the previous community was like and memory can be rather utopian.

A further reflection is how draining it can be for people who have been part of the community for a number of years, when they are dealing with the same questions that they have dealt with a few years earlier. Questions of identity, faith, purpose, belonging, etc, that they wrestled with before are revisited. This is an important process for the current community, but slightly frustrating for those who have been part of the community for a number of years.

It's the tension of catering to the new people whilst nurturing patterns of spirituality that sustain those who are more established

It is also often the case that those who have been established for a number of years carry a lot of the responsibility of the community. When they do not see this level of commitment being shared by others, who are relatively new to the community, frustration can occur.

These are some of the challenges of church in a transient culture. I think that one answer is to develop a corporate patterning of spiritual life – patterns that allow for the instability of a transient context and church. I don't think that we got this right in Sanctus1. It's the tension of catering to the new people, the mission field, whilst nurturing patterns of spirituality that sustain those who are more established.

Called to the centre? (Ben Edson)

Ben EdsonBen Edson explores being called to the centre.

The rhetoric of this second phase of Fresh Expressions seems to place a large focus on embedding fresh expressions in the ordinary life of the traditional church. Fresh Expressions, as an institution, is moving towards the centre. My personal vocation has always been to the edges, and hence I personally react against this move towards the centre. It may be that the move towards the centre is correct for Fresh Expressions, but my question is whether this centripetal movement is missional suicide for fresh expressions. 

When I began ministry eight years ago, there was no Mission-shaped Church report, no Fresh Expressions, no mixed economy, no Ordained Pioneer Ministers, no Bishops' Mission Orders; it was an exciting time as we broke boundaries and defined church alongside the traditional pattern. In the past five years all these areas have been developed; many resources have been poured into them as the edges have been pulled towards the institutional centre. The edge is now neatly defined by its relationship to the centre rather than by those outside the church. Fresh Expressions is mainstream.

For many spiritual searchers and post-modern pilgrims, the mainstream nature of Fresh Expressions is deeply problematic. Many questions will be asked such as: 'Do I want to be part of a mainstream, hierarchical institution?' If the answer is no, then we will have failed in this part of the missional task and so, whilst I recognise the importance of the relationship to centre, it seems that we need to nurture the new emerging edges rather than the edges defined by the centre.


Just over 12 months ago Ben Edson became Vicar and Missioner to a parish in south Manchester. He had been in the city for 10 years, during which time he pioneered Sanctus1, a fresh expression of church and helped set up the Nexus arts café. Ben tells what has happened since his appointment to parish ministry.

My appointment to St James and Emmanuel, Didsbury, in 2011 meant that I was moving into a more settled expression of Church. I found this quite a challenging move as I asked myself questions such as was I selling out to the institution and how was my experience of pioneering innovative Christian communities going to impact on a more settled expression of church? Perhaps this was one of the reasons that I moved into this post, I'm of the firm belief that fresh expressions of church need to be fully integrated into the life of the Parish church community and I sensed an opportunity to do this.

Abide tables and kitchenI'm sure that many people will have read Ralph Winter's and George Lings' papers on sodal and modal expressions of church. The sodal and modal framework creates space to innovate within the existing structures and also highlight that innovation has always been part of the character of the church of God.

A few months into my appointment I found myself asking, 'How can we affirm the modal yet at the same time search for something more sodal within it?' So I started to search, I started to listen, I continued to pray.

We're a medium-sized church of four congregations. One of those congregations was struggling for a sense of identity and yet alongside this there was a desire for authentic community and a deeper life of commitment to God and to one another. Over the first few months of my appointment I worked with this congregation to listen to God and to one another and also to dream, to open our eyes, to envision and inspire about what we could become.

An early realisation was that the attractional model that had been operated on for so long would no longer work; it would mean be a slow and painful death. Yet, we also recognised that we wanted to be committed to one another in a common lifestyle, in mission and in prayer. And so we went away together to explore what we could be.

Six months on and 'Abide' is what has come into being. I'm never sure how to describe it, it's a community, it's missional, it has new monastic elements to it but I think that the reality is that it is ordinary people with ordinary lives, exploring and learning how to walk an extraordinary path together. We're not experts, we're certainly not spiritual gurus, we're just normal people trying to work it out.

We've found our sense of identity in three places:

  1. The Five Rhythms of Grace
  2. Gatherings
  3. Mission and Prayer

Five Rhythms of Grace

Abide logoThe Rhythms of Grace have been developed by the community of St Chad in Lichfield Diocese. We found them and liked them and so we've adopted them! We think that they encourage us to live as believers in the real world, not in some kind of holy huddle. The term, Rhythms of Grace, is taken from Eugene Peterson's translation of Matthew 11:28, 'Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace'.

The five rhythms are:

  1. By God's grace, I will seek to be transformed into the likeness of Christ;
  2. By God's grace, I will be open to the presence, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit;
  3. By God's grace, I will set aside time for prayer, worship and spiritual reading;
  4. By God's grace, I will endeavour to be a gracious presence in the world, serving others and working for justice in human relationships and social structures;
  5. By God's grace, I will sensitively share my faith with others: participating in God's mission both locally and globally.

These are not rules that dictate behaviour but a starting point to help us to understand who we are and what we need to do to grow as disciples of Christ. As our community takes shape these rhythms will provide the framework that some of us chose to live by.


As Abide we get together in a more organised capacity twice a month. On the second Tuesday, we have a shared meal in Emmanuel Church, Didsbury, where we encourage and support one another in our desire to become people rooted in God and grow in spiritual maturity.

On the fourth Sunday of each month, at 6.15pm – also at Emmanuel – we host a service which is pretty experimental in nature. It could be contemplative, a jazz mass, alternative worship or Taize but, quite simply, it's a space to experiment and to be.

Mission and Prayer

Abide group eatingFor us, mission and prayer go hand-in-hand. All we want to do is follow the example of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection; demonstrating and reflecting God's love. It's our aim to enable and encourage people to do this where they live and work.

At midday each day we encourage people who are part of Abide to recite the Lord's Prayer. We're grateful to the 24-7 Prayer movement as this is something that we borrowed from them. The whole idea of praying at 12noon is that it allows God to interrupt our day. Whether you're into a regular time of prayer or not, disciplining yourself to pray slap bang in the middle of the day means your mind turns to God, irrespective of how busy your day is.

So that is Abide. The journey started about a year ago but we've only just gone public. We think that we're in the process of discovering the sodal within the modal, and in this process of discovery we hope and pray that we become a community that helps to bring renewal to the modal.


Ben Edson shares the story of always-incomplete community building with Sanctus 1 in Manchester.

I recently gave a presentation to some Australian visitors about Sanctus1. When it came to the time for questions one of them asked: 'How do you manage so much change?' I hadn’t realised that we had been through so much change, but now as I look back on seven years of Sanctus1 I realise that change is part of our narrative.

We have moved from a Cathedral to a parish church and now moved again to an arts café. We have seen the community grow from four to fifty; then from fifty to twenty and currently from twenty back to fifty. We have experimented with mid-week groups, small groups, groups on Sundays and no groups. We have been involved in running club nights, in mind body spirit fayres, in art exhibitions and a night café. Change is part of our story.

And perhaps, it is this sense of change that sustains us. Sanctus1 has been established for longer than many fresh expressions of church and it seems that as soon as the change stops we being to go stale. Fluidity is kinetic and change involves movement. If a fresh expression is to remain fresh it must keep moving, keep changing, keep evolving.

Sanctus1 - Café

Each new person that comes to Sanctus1 changes the community; their unique presence brings a new dynamic, a new set of experiences and new areas of wisdom. This 'openness to the wisdom of the new' means that the old is permanently being refreshed.

As I have continued to reflect on the question posed by our Antipodean visitors I have realised that Sanctus1 is always provisional and will always be journeying towards being church. This is particularly emphasised by our geographic location in the City centre of Manchester, and the demographic of this people group, but it is also an ecclesiological stance that says we will never fully arrive. It seems when we think that we have arrived we discover that we are further away than we thought and that we have simply taken one step on our journey.

This context of provisionality raises many questions regarding future vision and planning. How can you have a plan for the future if the present is always provisional? Provisionality can be an empowering place to be, it means that present certainty does not define future dreams, but that future dreams define an uncertain present. An uncertain present creates space for creative thinking and action as we realise that the dreams for the future are, in fact, the dreams of today.

Sanctus1 - mattress

However, within this positive stance to provisionality how do we ensure that the story of Sanctus1 is carried into the future? One way that we think this has been achieved has been through the defining of our values.

The values need to remain provisional so that each person who comes to Sanctus1 feels that they can influence them so that they reflect the current community. Further evidence of our desire to carry the story of Sanctus1 forward is our desire to be structurally recognised through a Bishop's Mission Order, (BMO). A BMO has provisionality built into it – initially a BMO is for five years with the maximum time being ten years – structured provisionality. A certain short-term future and a positive stance to provisionality means that the present becomes an opportunity for missional engagement and connectivity with Christ.

Within this culture of provisionality the story-tellers and the story-carriers become very important as people who carry the narrative of Sanctus1 with them so that when the future is planned it remains consistent with the story of the past. It is often the case that the leader of a community becomes the central story-teller, however a less dependent and mores sustainable way is for the community to become a story-telling community.

Sanctus1 - gathering

When a community shares and lives the story they then they will go on to write the story, to start a new sentence and dream the next chapter. This has happened within Sanctus1 by the leadership being shared between a team of up to five people, with that team being a mix of clergy and laity; male and female. This team aims to be fluid enabling people to commit to it for an appropriate time-period rather than indefinitely. The story-tellers of Sanctus1 are then not only the leadership team but everyone involved in living the story of the community and serving the city centre of Manchester. To carry the story means to carry the centrality of word and sacrament, the affirmative yet critical approach to contemporary culture and mission as being central to our existence. There is of course a provisionality to this all, knowing that we are still journeying, still incomplete, still trying, still becoming church…