Michael King asks what's in a name.
Being Vice-President of the Methodist Church is a very real privilege. I have visited many different parts of Britain, met some wonderfully committed and gifted people, been shown remarkably creative pieces of work and marvelled at the extraordinary variety and diversity of 'church' in the 21st century.
Now I'm now less than three months away from handing on this very special role to Daleep Mukarji in London, which has meant that I am being asked to reflect on my year in a number of committees and forums.
I am aware that there are debates surrounding the name of 'fresh expressions' – such as whether the label is correct or even the best descriptor. I am content to leave that discussion with theologians and ecclesiologists because, from my experience of the Methodist Church this year, what the label of fresh expressions has done is to give local churches, Circuits and Districts permission to think outside the box.
Of course Christians have tried new things for the last 2000 years but there is something about being able, in this new millennium, to name new initiatives as part of a discernible moving of the Spirit – and especially if it is encouraged by the Methodist Conference – that gives people a sense of communal purpose. This is along the lines of, 'What you are doing there is not like we are trying here, but we're both part of some important moving of the Spirit and isn't it good that we can encourage one another?'
Up and down the land, the mission shaped ministry course is being taken seriously whilst deacons, chaplains, VentureFX Pioneers, presbyters, lay workers, and faithful church members are talking about new ways of being church. Many manifestations of church could be described as 'outside' normal church. Defining normality, of course, begs other questions!
I just want to thank God for anything that releases his people to reach those outside mainstream church circles. Emil Brunner's much quoted, 'The Church exists by mission, as fire exists by burning', is still central to my understanding of what church is about. These recent expressions of church in the UK are as important as any missionary movements internationally; the impulse to tell other people that God loves them has exactly the same roots. In all cases, whether near or far, context and sensitivity are vital. It is often lay people that initiate mission because they are alongside others in daily work; it requires faithful and committed Christians who know the local scene to combine with an openness to new ideas and inspiration. It's happening all over! Praise God.
Is there a danger that institutions (whilst generously granting seed money to nurture new shoots) are trying to control things too tightly? I'm all for a bit of order, but not at the expense of stifling the Holy Spirit. There has never been one way of being church. Some recent recommendations from the joint (Methodist/Church of England) working party – as reported in the book Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church – appear to suggest increasing control over what defines church, before looking at the merits of any fresh expressions.
It's a lesson that I'm also learning in the garden where, for the first time in my life, I am going to grow parsnips. On asking for advice, I was told to grow them in pipes, to keep them straight – but I am growing them for their flavour, not for show. Yes, they need to be recognisable as parsnips and I want them to thrive but I'm really not bothered about shape. Their taste is what matters to me. The values of new forms of church are more important than the shape they take.
There's that lovely parable in Matthew 20 (verses 1-16) which describes aspects of the Kingdom of heaven. Verse 15 includes the words of the landowner, 'Or are you envious because I am generous?' I wonder how many fresh expressions the Holy Spirit of God is trying to point out to us; how dulled we are to the Spirit's promptings, how slow we are get on board; how we prefer the holy chaos to be ordered according to our own understanding and how often we miss out on fully appreciating the generosity of God.