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.