Making the mixed economy work
Friday 6th May 2011The Archbishop addressed the Fresh Expressions national day conference in Oxford, where he said that the heart of the Church's mission involves walking alongside people to help them 'see' things they've never seen before - and the task was the same for both inherited church and its counterparts in fresh expressions.
The full transcript of the Archbishop's address is below:
I want to begin by one of those back to basics exercises, asking the question, ‘Where does the church start?’ We talk sometimes about the first Pentecost as the birthday of the church and then we think, ‘Yes but they were already gathered when the Holy Spirit arrived so maybe the Resurrection is the beginning of the church’ and then we think, ‘Well of course the people Jesus met after the Resurrection were the people he’d already met quite a bit in his ministry so maybe that’s the beginning of the church’ and then you think, ‘Jesus assembles people around himself because of all the heritage that he has in his very being of the history of Israel,’ and before you know where you are you’re back to Creation - and that’s not a bad place to start of course because if we are talking about the church, two things are perhaps worth keeping in mind among many others.
One is the sort of thing you find in the letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament. The church is about what God wanted from before the beginning of the world. The church is not some kind of decorative religious luxury that was thought up by people who wanted something to do on Sunday mornings. The church, the assembly of God’s friends, of God’s invited, starts with God’s purpose before the world began. So that’s one thing.
And the second thing is that if that’s right, then it’s always going to be a little bit difficult to identify exactly where the church as we know it, begins. And that’s fine. I think it’s fine as a matter of history and biblical theology and I think it’s not too bad either as a matter of how we approach mission.
One of the things that the whole fresh expressions story has, I think, helped many of us to see more clearly is that we need to push away the notion of church as simply something to which people sign up in one go and in one way. And we are discovering, sometimes discovering the hard way, just how complex, how varied, people’s journeys are towards the heart of church because those are journeys towards the heart of God’s purpose - if my starting point here is right. And journeying towards the heart of God’s purpose is really quite a long business; in fact it’s one you never come to the end of. Literally never.
But I think that helps us a little bit in looking at how the church does, as a matter of fact, take something of the shape we usually think about in the New Testament. And if we read the Gospels I’d want to say with some emphasis that the Church begins where Jesus is with others and exactly how it shapes up to be something more like what we usually mean is quite a story but it begins with that encounter.
And as we read the Gospels what we see of course is an extraordinary spectrum of different kinds of encounter. There’s the encounter that leads people to jump in feet first, literally in the case of St Peter. There’s the encounter that makes people sit up, suddenly review their lives and, in great confusion, start out on a path about which they have no idea with a lot of stumbling, Matthew the tax collector perhaps. There’s the sort of encounter with people who are very frightened of change but desperately eager that it should happen for them and in them and who slip up to the edge of things, hoping to get a little bit of the flavour of change and like the woman in the crowd with the flow of blood just reach out, touch for a moment the garment of the Jesus who’s passing by only to find of course that Jesus, with his infallible instinct for embarrassing people, rounds on her and says, ‘You want something?’
And then there are those people who are interested and who don’t know quite how much that interest might mean and are very nervous indeed of the implications they just about guess at and who come to Jesus by night and never come out fully and yet hear things that stick. Nicodemus. Well now, if you were to ask which of those people in the Gospels belongs to the church I think you would have a very usefully confusing discussion as a result. I’m not at all sure. We tend to think it must all be necessarily the feet first model but does Nicodemus become a ‘disciple’? Does he become a learner in the school of God’s new law? Well, yes and no, and he’s taking his time over it. And of course he only emerges in full technicolour, so to speak, as a follower of Jesus when Jesus is being buried which does make one think a little bit – and that corresponds I think to a certain kind of religious identity which is quite happy to be identified with the Jesus who is part of the past, with the heritage Christ as you might say. But that’s another story. Let’s for the moment give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he is still a listener, a hearer of some kind.
So all of these people are, in some ways, on a spectrum of belonging with Jesus, a spectrum of different kinds of encounter. What holds them together is, of course, boringly simply - Jesus - but more specifically it’s Jesus as, how shall we put it, Jesus as suggesting, opening up, change and newness. And I’m very glad that we’ve got this language of landscape around in our discussion today because I think that’s very close to what’s happening – the landscape gets to look different when Jesus is around. People see things in a new way, themselves and one another and God and God’s world. And I think there’s something really rather central, really rather basic about that image of seeing thing afresh.
It’s an image that really comes into its own, doesn’t it, in St John’s account of the Resurrection. Peter and the beloved disciple running to the empty tomb and, looking in, noticing and then ‘seeing’ – the words are very clearly differentiated in the Greek – you notice, you take in, and then suddenly the picture reorganises itself. You know those puzzle pictures you look at sometimes and you’re asked, ‘can you find a face in this?’ or ‘can you find a figure of some kind?’ and you look and you scrutinise all the details of it; you observe, and then you see. That’s something of what seems to be going on as the disciples come to the empty tomb. The whole landscape reorganises itself and they see.
And so keeping up this backwards and forwards movement between the New Testament and where we are today, part of what we’re about in mission is trying to be the sort of peoples or sort of communities around whom and with whom or through whom people see things differently. And that’s not just abstract seeing, that’s not theory because when you see God and yourself differently, things really do happen, you become a different person when you see differently and - just thinking back to what we were hearing about from Bart earlier on - I think that what’s being described there, as in so many community enterprises like this, is giving people the opportunity to see what they’ve never seen - about themselves, about the possibilities of their community, about the possibilities that God open up - in a world where so many possibilities are getting closed down all the time and, for me, part of the heart of the gospel is always a matter of saying, ‘the world is much bigger than you think and there is much more to you than you ever suspected’.
So when we talk about fresh expressions I’d like to think that we’re talking about countless local enterprises of vision; enterprises of vision where people are being encouraged and nourished and enabled to see what they hadn’t seen before so that the picture shifts. You see the picture in the picture. You see beyond the details. You see a greater world. And it’s this for me that lies behind the importance in so much of our discussion - we’ve already heard it this morning - the importance of understanding pace or speed, the timescale on which people move.
Looking once again at the gospels it seems pretty clear that Jesus expects some people to change pretty quickly and yet he sits in those long, patient meandering conversations – with the Samaritan woman at the well, and Nicodemus - as if to say, ‘Alright so you haven’t got it yet. Let’s keep at it and don’t be rushed’ and I think that is how Jesus relates now to people. And we can’t ever quite see ourselves which category people fall into and that’s where the patience that we heard about earlier really does come in I think, the patience to say, ‘Well I’ll do my best to introduce you to Jesus and the vision he gives. What happens to you then goodness knows, but we’ll be there as it happens. We’re not going away.’
So the pace, the style, the tempo if you like of learning discipleship is something whose variety we have to respect and that’s one of the things that is very, very difficult to explain to funding authorities of various kinds and to institutions who like to have fairly defined and tidy timescales on which to work. It’s really difficult but I think it’s one of the central challenges and tasks that all of us have in communicating with the wider Church, trying to get across something of this sense of patience and plurality so that the encounter with Jesus can happen in the way it’s meant to happen.
Sometimes we force the pace and people feel invaded, manipulated and they run. Sometimes, and it’s just as big a problem, we fail to ask the right question at the right moment when people are ready to be challenged - and learning all of that, learning those disciplines and those rhythms, is a lifetime’s job. And I’m often myself challenged, not to say judged, by realising the points at which there’s a question to ask and I haven’t been able to ask it or the point at which I’ve stepped in too quickly. How it works is so amazingly various and I do want to share one experience quite recently from a parish visit in the diocese of Canterbury where somebody came up and said after the service he wanted to tell me how he’d come to faith the year before. He said it was because his son, his schoolboy son, had a project on St Thomas Becket which required them to visit Canterbury cathedral and this man went along with his little boy to Canterbury cathedral which he’d never been in before. And he’d had nothing at all to do with church, he said, ‘I went into that building and five minutes later my life was unrecognisably different.’ Well, that makes all of us step back. We can’t leave the big buildings to do all of the work I know that but it is appropriately humbling isn’t it from time to time to realise that when all the effort and the imagination has been done, there is still the moment of sheer unexpected meeting which happens in a great space, inside or outside, where God just nods, nudges and everything changes – and the landscape changes.
There are two other points I want to make about that before I go on to say a little more about what Graham touched on in the introduction. Two points, one about leadership, something we’re all very preoccupied with I think in this connection and once again we heard very helpful things about it earlier this morning. In a model like the one I’ve been sketching, leadership is very much about helping people to see – perhaps even more about helping people see than organising people to march in a straight line and the gifts needed for both those kinds of leadership are not always in the same person – in fact rather rarely. But particularly in this connection I think that leadership in vision is crucial and, of course, helping people see does presuppose that you’re alongside them to start with. You can’t stand in front of someone and say, ‘what do you see?’ without getting in the way. But if you’re beside them saying,’ Can you see that? Look at that.’
I love the beginning of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian is about to start off on his journey and meets the man at the wicket gate who says, ‘Can you see that light?’ And Christian says, ‘I think I do.’ And he sets him on his way.
And that ‘can you see?’ ‘I think I do’ is often the beginning of a long conversation and a long journey of the kind I think everyone here has some experience of. So that’s just one point about leadership as helping vision and therefore being alongside, nudging, encouraging, discussing, suggesting, listening and learning; learning to see yourself because sometimes when you see – as it were through the eyes of someone else – you see something new as well. So you don’t stop learning in that process.
Second broad point, touching just a little bit on that very, very key question of how the sacramental life of the church comes to exist within lay led communities and basically lay communities. Just a reminder for what it’s worth and I draw no conclusions in this point that in the early Church both baptism and Holy Communion were spoken about in terms of illumination. To be baptised in the language of the early church was to be illuminated, it was to have your eyes opened. And some of the oldest prayers for use after Holy Communion in the Syrian churches and the Greek churches have some line like, ‘we have seen the true light’ or ‘our eyes have been opened to God’s glory’. And that just makes me think and as I say without drawing any tight conclusions that the Sacraments of the church – baptism and Holy Communion are very much about celebrating those flashpoint moments when we see more than we ever expected, where we get a glimpse of the full landscape.
What do we see in Holy Communion? Well we see people eating a bit of bread and drinking a sip of wine. What else do we see? Bishop John Jewel of Salisbury in the 16th century, in one of his sermons – a great favourite of mine – says, ‘In Holy Communion you see the rocks split and the dead rising’. That’s seeing. Because he takes that passage from St Matthew’s gospel about what happens in the crucifixion and says, ‘Well if we’re here celebrating the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord, what we see is the effect of that and what’s that? It’s the rock splitting, it’s the veil of the temple torn apart, it’s the dead rising from their tombs, seeing more than you ever expected you could see.’ And that at least gives us a way into thinking a bit further about how we approach these Sacramental moments and Sacramental rhythms in the Church’s life and how we neither stick with absolute rigidities about them nor sell them short because Baptism and the Eucharist are big things and I don’t want any mission strategy to pretend they’re other than big things. And yet we know we’re in uncharted territory very often here and so I’ve no glib solutions – just a thought about how you lead people to the point where that bigger vision than is ever expected can be allowed to dawn on people’s eyes.
And so now to some of those issues that I think Graham was hinting at in his introductory remarks and a few thoughts before I finish on what kind of church practically, concretely this might look like if this vision that I think we try to share becomes flesh.
I have absolutely no doubt that the Church, the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, and probably – if the truth be told – the Roman Catholic Church in due order as well, will be looking far less homogeneous in a couple of decades; different kinds of congregations, with different rhythms of life. I believe very strongly that whether we’re talking about inherited models of church or fresh expressions, the real heart for the next generation is pretty well bound to be in those small groups of people working at their relationships, at their understanding, together, quietly, in the long term. The cell, in other words. Whether inherited or not so inherited we’re looking at that development of mutual formation, mutual shaping of life and possibilities that will take place within the sort of group where people really trust one another.
And I’d want to say too, reflecting something we were saying in our table discussion earlier, that building personal, face to face, relationships is one of the things that will make the relationship between inherited patterns of church and new models viable. Without building trust in friendship across those frontiers not a lot will really stick. And I think if we’re talking about cultivating the cell and the small group we also need to cultivate, very deliberately, trustful friendships with those who are not in the same style or the same pace; informal mentoring relationships, exchanges of experience.
And all of that I’m assuming is a pattern of life that goes on pretty regularly. And at the other end of the spectrum I think a great deal in our church culture and our wider culture has become. in recent years, a lot more sensitive to festival and celebration. A lot more willing to invest a great deal in the big event and I think we may be looking in the next generation to a church life which swings between those two extremes – the occasional big event where the Nicodemuses and the woman with the issue of blood and so forth are able to see something, to touch the hem, but which don’t instantly press them to commitments they are not ready to make and yet, given the chance, to face the reality of commitment. That at one end and at the other, the smaller scale.
Now most of our church communities are somewhere in between as we all know and that’s OK but I suspect we just need a bit of clarity about what those two ends of the spectrum look like and a sense that the rhythm as between those two is one that is going to make quite a bit of sense to quite a lot of people. At one end the kind of group where people know and trust one other sufficiently to engage in mutual learning, mutual challenge as well. At the other end the context where people happily and cheerfully don’t know each other from Adam and Eve and that’s alright too because something bigger than anybody is holding them.
And I think especially for the under25s,and perhaps the under20s, the big event is still very meaningful, very powerful and significant for them as a way of being in the vicinity of something that is happening without fully understanding it or knowing what you need to do to lay hold of it. And we need therefore to go on thinking quite hard, not only about the small. intentional. intimate, mutual group but how we stage and celebrate effectively, transformingly, those big events.
I think that’s why, bizarre as it may sound to say it, the life of cathedrals is not at all irrelevant to what happens in fresh expressions and coming fresh, as it were, from two very different experiences of church last week – one in Westminster Abbey, an event which some of you may have heard about, and the other which fewer of you will have heard about and that’s the Easter Monday youth pilgrimage for the diocese of Canterbury.
There were two events, two uses of a big, historic building - both of them in their way remarkably creative, both of them clearly speaking past an awful lot of prejudices and assumptions and rigid ways - so how we use that bit of our inheritance I think is a really interesting question and it’s good to know that there are people in our big churches, I’m talking about the Church of England primarily but not exclusively, the people around in those settings who know how to be imaginative there and we need more of them. And more of that thinking.
Well I won’t tempt fate by trying to sketch out in any more depth or detail what I think the church will be like in 20 or 50 years time. That is a sure recipe for disaster but that’s often what I think about, dream about and pray about as a future for our churches in this country. That balance of regular, demanding – let’s face it, demanding - small group life are part of it. Moving out from that in the immediate local community, the capacity to be alongside people, nudging them towards new vision and then the big event, the big statement which says, ‘This is the kind of thing that we’re talking about, this is the possibility we’re trying to make real in the world.’ And that I think is how I see the mixed economy working. I said earlier that the small group, the cell, may be part of the life of an inherited pattern, it may be part of a much more experimental or exploratory pattern. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the sense of mutual commitment and mutual seriousness and it’s that mutual commitment and seriousness that enables creative engagement with the immediate community in the ways we’ve been thinking about.
So mixed economy – yes it’s one of those phrases I occasionally regret having coined. It keeps coming back ad nauseam but what I was trying to say when I first used that phrase some 12 or 13 years ago I think in South Wales, what I was trying to say with it was, not that we’re looking for a church which is a kind of Balkan map of little independent, autonomous, self-serving groups doing what they fancy, finding the style that suits them, which is always a danger there but much more a context in which there really is a flow of communication, good news and challenge between different styles of church life that may respond to different personalities and different stages on the journey and if you ask what holds it together – to go back to my opening points – the answer is Jesus and the answer is what Jesus helps you see. The landscape transformed.