Subversive or Supportive – Pt.4(Fresh Expressions)

Coincidence or not…there was one significant difference between my proposal and what has become Fresh Expres  sions…location. I suggested a movement that was located ‘parallel’ to the Church… autonomous but interdependent….rather than authorized and therefore potentially supervised by the Church. As one Anglican Priest commented, ‘in Fresh Expressions there is a real danger that new monasticism will be domesticated by the very institution it may well be meant to rescue.’ … [last blog]

 Fresh Expressions / New Monasticism

I decided to do a bit of investigating myself and headed off to the Fresh Expressions website. I was particularly interested in learning in what ways Fresh Expressions as a movement was getting alongside the Church and in particular, in what ways New Monasticism could be regarded as a  Fresh Expression as is increasingly suggested within their literature?

So where to start? Well I love real stories about real people so I clicked on the Fresh Expressions stories page and sat for several hours reading, listening, watching videos of a host of Fresh Expressions: Café Church, Messy Church, Goth Eucharist, Black Sheep, Church down the pub, on the beach, in the street, for the poor, on the bus and the stories go on. People praying, working, crying, laughing, learning, I just loved it. Good on you all you Fresh Expressions I think you lot are bloody brilliant.

After that I read the home page and about us, to get an idea of the ‘self understanding’ of those promoting Fresh Expressions. This is what I discovered and I quote directly from the Website:

  1. Fresh Expressions are a response to our changing culture
  2. A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of the people who are not yet members of the church.
  3. A fresh expression is a church plant or a new congregation.
  4. It is primarily for the un-churched – for those who have never been or for those who have stopped going and are not willing to go back to what they experienced before.
  5. There is no standard model of a fresh expression of church.
  6. The fresh expressions of church are not meant to replace existing forms of church, and they are certainly not in competition with them.
  7. Fresh Expressions are not a half-way house, a bridge project, which people belong to for a while, on their way into Christian faith, before crossing over to ‘proper’ church. This is proper church.

Now I guess these statements must be examples of ‘messy church’ and I for one wouldn’t like to tidy them up. But I do have a number of questions and comments to make in regard to 7. This is proper church?

If I could digress for a minute, and muse for a moment on XX Rowan Williams understanding of ‘Proper Church.’  Rather than go into this in detail, here is a link to a recent contribution he made to the debate about the appointment of  Women Bishop’s.

His contribution was specifically directed towards this debate, and he commented on the nature of Episcopacy in the Church, and specifically the role of a Bishop. He unwrapped the relationship of a Bishop with his/her Priests and Deacons who through their ordination are ‘qualified’ to receive the Bishop’s Licence and are delegated his/her authority to preach, teach, heal etc on behalf of him/her and the church. In order to exercise this ministry, the Priest/Deacon must be ‘plugged in’ to the legal and canonical order of the church (….the proper church implied…my comment) 

Now, this appears to me to be a very clear and tidy exposition of a specific aspect of the life of a proper church, and as a person who celebrates 30 years of Priesthood this year, I can confirm, that any attempt to disrupt that order is treated with the utmost caution and if necessary exclusion. (This was the lived experience of many faithful believers during the 70’s charismatic renewal when all kinds of new expressions exploded in the institutional churches and were either excluded or ignored by church authorities…new monasticism included)

So, how is it that these two very differing ideas of ‘proper church’ are co-habiting under the banner of Fresh Expressions?  I decided to dig deeper, and returned to listening to the stories again on the web site.

It was there that I spotted it. I had never seen it before, an entirely new species: a BMO.

I was fascinated by the appearance of a BMO in so many of the stories I read about Fresh Expressions. It is only when I read that xx Rowan had authorised a BMO and created ‘The Order of the Black Sheep’ that the penny dropped:

A Bishop’s Mission Order is a new legal device in the Church of England created as part of the ‘Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure’. It enables a bishop to legally recognise a mission initiative that will lead to a new Christian community – a fresh expression of church.

This is a most amazing ‘sleight of hand’ and whoever came up with it should be commended or censored and history will most definitely make a judgement on this one.

On the one hand, a BMO effectively raises a hand of friendship and a sign of affirmation to various mission and home grown communities, many of whom would have been rejected a couple of decades ago by the C of E.

On the other hand, a BMO supported by Pioneer Priest’s and new narratives such as ‘a mixed economy’  ‘messy church’ effectively gives the church potential full control over every Fresh Expression.

Once again this is either utter genius or complete madness. What seems to be clear, the Church and every Fresh Expression are on course, at some point for either a creative or damaging collision.

Let’s just mull this over together for a minute…..

There are many who argue that the introduction of the BMO in 2007 has accelerated the growth of fresh expressions and given the Anglican Church the opportunity to diversify in ways that were impossible before. Yes, I agree, these are very good points and worth consideration.

However: Fresh Expressions is viewed by many as a visible sign of hope that the Church is having a change of heart and no longer needs to resist or suppress agents of change. Instead it is believed to be in an ongoing dialogue, collaboration, encouraging creative and challenging tensions to facilitate its own transformation. However it would appear that we are in the middle of a Foucauldian type drama, where power and agency are used subtlety to create an illusion of freedom and dialogue when in reality there is none. Fresh Expressions that have a BMO are in fact indirectly subject to the authority of an Anglican Bishop who can withdraw his favour as quickly as he gave it.

This is a seriously prickly subject and I would appreciate hearing the points of view of those of you who read this blog.

So what about New Monasticism?

I am almost afraid to take this further, as I am not sure where we will end up but move on we must and address this comment:  ‘In Fresh Expressions there is a real danger that new monasticism will be domesticated by the very institution it may well be meant to rescue.’

Remember, this was not my comment, but my intention is to explore if there is any truth to it? I decided to speak directly to Bishop Graham Cray the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appointed co-0rdinator  of Fresh Expressions. Unfortunately my introductory emails and Facebook invitations to connect were either lost or ignored.

Next, I decided to get familiar with the Moot Community who appear to be spokespeople for New Monasticism in the UK. The thing that caught my attention most on their website was that they were an ‘Authorised New Monastic Community’ in the Diocese of London.  How intriguing, for one who for many years experienced the ‘exclusion of the proper church’ in regard to new monasticism to see the welcome mat out.

I was fortunate to have Aaron from the Moot community contact me directly in response to a blog about Fresh Expressions. This was followed up by a Skype chat with Aaron and lunch with him and another member of the core community, Vanessa. These are delightful people, warm, friendly, passionate and thoughtful about their vocation. On returning home I listened to a Fresh Expressions in-house pod cast where Ian the core community leader of Moot and Vanessa responded to the interviewers’ comment that he had noticed they had changed and grown over the last couple of years. Their acknowledgement of this, together with Vanessa’s explanation of the ethos behind Serum, her open and inclusive meditation groups, and Ian’s continuing exploration of contemplative prayer, were very warming and encouraging.

Moot are a young, vibrant, inquisitive new monastic community in formation. They need space to explore experiment, embrace some of the peculiarities and particularities of both the ancient and new monastic ways of living and discover what their own unique contribution is. So it was again somewhat perplexing to discover a conversation was going to take place with the Bishop’s Council to see if Moot could be not only authorised but acknowledged as a bona fide new monastic religious community in the Anglican Communion. Should the responsibility for such a decision be placed on the shoulders of such a young community?

Surely, such a conversation if it actually takes place should be in the form of a consultation that takes into account the historical development and formation of a new type of monasticism since Bonhoeffer first coined the phrase in the 1930’s?  Should it not have an ecumenical dimension reflecting the ongoing work of those  who have pioneered a new type of monasticism alongside the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ in her rich unity and diversity. Should it not include members of the older monastic orders, whose wisdom and experience the new monastic community would be foolish to ignore?  Should it not include, communities that have been living the ‘theory and praxis’ of new monasticism in visible and demonstrable ways, in some cases for over three decades?

My only suggestion to the Moot Community is that they might find some wisdom in a anecdote from my monastic mentor the late Brother Roland Walsl when he tells the story of the foundation of The Community of the Transfiguration.

‘There were just two of us when we started out to explore out monastic vocation. As Priests we were well schooled in the ways of the Church, and knew that in order to travel the monastic road there were many things we had to unlearn and leave behind. Right from the beginning the church, both Anglican and otherwise presented us with a series of opportunities and options that on the surface would justify our existence and even may give us a leg up to being recognised as a ‘legitimate and purposeful religious community.’ Perplexed we went to visit the Abbot of Nunraw to ask for his advice on how to respond to the advances of the Church. His advice was simple, practical and later we discovered, essentially monastic;  Advise your Bishop lovingly but clearly to bugger off and leave you alone until you are clear yourself of ‘what God had got you into and how you live and work it out.’

Before I comment on Fresh Expression / New Monasticism, may I express a concern I have for those dear Fresh Expressions whose stories I read on the website.

They may discover they do not have the freedom ‘within’ the church that they may well have maintained if they had stayed ‘alongside’ the church. As a result, many may find themselves susceptible to the looming storm in the USA Church which is being fuelled   by the call for insurrection, revolution and the overturning of all institutional expressions of church. This, may I add, is an American problem, rooted in a rather outdated ‘conversation’ between evangelical ideology and the emerging church movement.  Although this is an essentially American folly it will be exported to Europe and once again distract us from own quest to become part of a ‘New Expression of an Ancient Faith.’

I do not believe that new monasticism is or will  become a Fresh Expression they are radically different in their ‘theory and praxis.’ If the conversation does take place between Moot and the Anglican Church and there is an attempt to ‘bolt’ new monasticism onto the Anglican Communion then it will simply implode because the very nature of the monastic ethos is subversive. Sadly, it would also slow down and possibly distort the ongoing conversation between ‘a new type of monasticism and the one holy catholic and apostolic church’ a conversation that is still relatively new. It would very definitely lead to an attempted domestication of a small part of the new monastic community.

One of the most poignant symbols of Irish/Celtic Monasticism is the Wild Goose, and it is to her call, echoing across the centuries that we have responded.  Domestication of creatures from their natural habitat relies upon their willingness to conform to the needs and desires of their new masters and their willingness to adjust to their new environment.

A New Type of Monasticism should not be constrained (caged) not at the stage when we ourselves are only learning to appreciate our new found freedom to fly. However I think the danger of domestication may well come from within the movement rather than from outside.