Forging the Gears

Bishop Steven's address to the Missional Communities Conference 29 March 2012

A warm welcome to Sheffield and to this Conference.  It’s good to see so many old friends here.  It’s good to see the whole fresh expressions movement continuing to flourish and to take part in this day conference.


I want to explore with you today a conviction which has been growing for some months now.


It is the conviction that one of the principal challenges for the Church of England over the next ten years will be the key challenge of helping the structures of the institutional church relate creatively to the new mission movements which are emerging and helping the new mission movements relate to the structures of the Church of England.


To a greater or lesser degree, the question is also true for the other denominations and churches which are partners in the Fresh Expressions initiative.  How do we enable these two manifestations of the church to work together creatively and well.  How do we enable church as parish and diocese, on the one hand, and church as movement of mission on the other to complement one another in God’s economy rather than to work against each other?


One of Jesus’ more difficult sayings is embedded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  This is Matthew’s version:


“No-one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.  Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed: but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved”.


I’ve seen exegesis of this saying which priviliges the new over the old.  I’ve seen exegesis which privileges the old over the new.  The truth is that both are valuable.  The sayings are I think about the difficulty and complexity and challenge of old and new working together creatively and well, valuing one another, enriching each other and blending together.  Whatever else Jesus is saying is he is saying that this is not a straightforward exercise.


I’m grateful for George Lings paper circulated before the conference on Modality and Sodality and for George pointing us again to Ralph Winter’s classic article on the two structures of God’s redemptive mission.  I was first introduced to the terms and the ideas of modality and sodality in Eddie Gibb’s book, I believe in Church Growth, published in 1981 when I was at theological college.  I think the terms are very useful and what I want to say this morning builds on this language.


What I say this morning is a response to what I observe is happening, what I discern God is doing, at the present time in the Church of England from my perspective on the last decade.  As you will know, from 2004 until 2009 I was team leader of Fresh Expressions, largely listening to what is happening in hundreds of different contexts across the country.  For the last three years I have been a diocesan bishop in this particular diocese.  The area we serve as a diocese is among the very poorest in the country.  Church attendance and affiliation is among the lowest in the country.  Yet we also have some of the largest Anglican churches outside London in the city of Sheffield and we are home to some of the most exciting and interesting of the new mission movements in the world.


As everyone here will know, Mission-shaped Church in 2004 recognised something God was doing and affirmed the creation of new ecclesial communities – fresh expressions of church – through intentional and incarnational mission – pioneer ministry.  The present reality and the end product was, in Rowan William’s helpful phrase, the mixed economy church: fresh expressions of church within and alongside parish churches as a normal expression of Anglican life.


So far so good.  But this conference bears witness to another facet of the reality of the mixed economy church.  Something is happening here at more than local level.  It is possible to see now much more clearly than in 2004 a significant number of mission movements at work across the Church in the United Kingdom, across different denominations, enabling the creation of fresh expressions of church at local level and also these wider movements and connections.


The pattern as I see it is very varied indeed.  Some of these movements are very informal and liquid still.  Others have thicker identities, clearer structures and constitutions.  Some are renewed forms of older mission societies.  Others are new ventures struggling for language to describe what they are doing.    Some have their origins in particular ecclesial traditions.  Some have sprung from networks of parish churches.  A few borrow from abroad.  But the majority, interestingly, have emerged in the UK and some of these are international in their significance.


It is time I think to adjust our spectacles and to see the significance of these mission movements in the wider canvas of what God is doing in the United Kingdom and beyond.  It’s time to begin to discern a new pattern and bless that pattern also and to develop some new structures to support it.  We have become used to the language of the mixed economy church at a local level.  But I find the concept very helpful also at a diocesan level and at national level.  We need to encourage the creative synergy of church as diocese and parish and church as movement of mission.


It may be helpful to name some of these mission movements, the new sodalities, which have emerged.


Here are just some, many of which are represented here.  I would cite:

·       The movement of mission represented by Messy Church: the intentional encouragement and fostering of all age Christian communities and outreach.

·       Church Army’s redefining of its identity as a religious community and order as well as a mission society.

·       The parallel movement in the Church Missionary Society: a long and careful returning to its own roots, responding to global change, and intentional fostering of mission identity.

·       TOM, The Order of Mission from St. Thomas Crookes and Philadelphia in Sheffield, now a global movement of mission.

·       Contemplative Fire, the network of communities which Philip and his team have seeded across the country.


There are ways in which New Wine and Soul Survivor are evolving from being conferences to which churches bring their members to more liquid movements of mission with a wider influence, clear values and means of training, equipping and influence.  There are parallels as well in some of the conservative evangelical movements and societies.  It is interesting to ask the question of whether GAFCON is striving to be a modal or a sodal expression of the Church.


While these movements are in their infancy, or in stable periods of development, there are very few questions raised about the relationship between the sodal and the modal form of church.  Dioceses and parishes are rarely threatened by these movements of mission and deal instead with local manifestations which add to the richness of church life.  But as these movements grow, the Church of England will need to take note and to respond to what is happening.  There is likely to be more friction at the interface.  The mission movements may feel the need to extend their influence over what is normally seen as the preserve of dioceses and parishes.  Questions of finance and boundaries and the training and authorization and deployment of ministers need to be addressed.  It will become more not less difficult to negotiate these areas as what God is doing through these movements of mission gains in confidence and strength.


We may need to invent or develop new language and categories in order to be able to understand what God is doing.  I find the language of new monasticism very helpful as a means of describing some of what is happening in these movements of mission where there is a conscious drawing on the religious orders of the past in order to inform our present understanding.  However I think it is a mistake to see an exact overlap between what is new monasticism and contemporary mission movements.  There are examples of mission movements which are not monastic at all.  There are examples of new monasticism which are not mission movements.  The Church of England needs I think a more generous mechanism for recognizing movements of mission alongside the system of recognition for avowed religious communities.


Part of the agenda of the last decade has been striving to recognize new ecclesial realities at local level through the language of fresh expressions of church and the mixed economy.    A key part of the agenda of the next decade will be striving to recognize new ecclesial realities beyond the local in the new mission orders and movements and for the mixed economy to be seen as a reality at diocesan, national and regional level.


As Jesus indicates in Matthew 9, this may not be easy or straightforward.  Over the last decade we have identified and developed some very important new gears to describe and enable the relationships between the Church of England and fresh expressions of church at local level.  Those gears include new language, formal encouragement and policy.  Two of the most important are the ideas around ordained pioneer ministry and Bishop’s Mission Orders.  The forging of those gears was not easy or straightforward.  A great many people contributed to the task.  But they are essentially about gearing at local level.


Over the next decade, I think we will need to focus on a different set of gears to enable these wider mission movements to be seen more clearly, to engage with dioceses and parishes and regions and the national church, to enable two different expressions of the church to work together creatively and well in the wider purpose of God’s kingdom.  This conference today is, I hope, an important step in that process.







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