Fresh Expression, Stale Journalism

November 6, 2010 § 14 Comments

Giles Fraser’s Church Times column doesn’t rile me as much as it used to. But it was back to the good old days this week. Not sure whether he was short of copy, but it looks like he decided to do the old journalistic thing of setting up an Aunt Sally which most people would agree with, and then wait for the cheers as he knocked it down. Here it is.

Poor old Fresh Expressions: right in the firing line. FX have never been popular with the liberal fraternity. Cathedrals too were a bit miffed at their absence from the Mission Shaped Church report, and not many cathedral staff rejoice when a lowbrow flavour of church enters their portals. (Quote last week from one such: “not looking forward to the second service with a worship band in 24 hours”.) I was there. I know.

From a safe vantage point Giles Fraser was therefore able to have a pop, though dignifying it by telling us he’d read a book by serious people, one of whom he, gasp, knows; and wih the use of the phrase ‘theological grounding’. “It is time,” he says grandly, “to stick up for the traditional parish model”.

Now it would be lovely to hear him for an hour on all this, and i’m sure his views are really subtle and nuance, but I’ve only got the column to respond to.

Firstly: What cathedrals do, par excellence, is minister to ‘special interest groups’ (like those who love Choral Evensong and Latin Mass settings, and do 100 mile round trips to be there). That’s why cathedrals were miffed at being omitted from MSC. I spent seven years engaing with all sorts of such groups, based around their work (like the armed services or local industries), their charitable endeavours, their associations. St Paul’s is stuffed full of them, and Giles Fraser will have to do his bit – indeed, part of his job is to engage with the life of the City of London in just such a way.What’s he going to do – tell them to go back to their parishes? Or seize the opportunity?

Secondly: St Paul’s is not a parish. He therefore lives and works in a model he’s left. Well, thanks for sticking up for us, but his very job title says that there are other ways of being church beyond the parochial. Even those cathedrals which have parishes have a significant ministry which has nothing to do with that model.

Thirdly: the whole point of FX is to recognise, in good mission style (and there is plenty of ‘theological grounding’ here too) that some cultures in contemporary society just do not relate to the parochial model. The best version of FX is when the Kingdom of God is revealed as living and active in unexpected places, and where the church is started afresh from the ground up. He highlights the goths, surfers and skaters paraded by the FX website. Well, there aren’t too many of them in my congregations, and I’m glad that, within their culture, someone is enabling them to meet with Christ.

Giles Fraser gets it wrong when he says that an FX is about teachers wanting to  ‘get down with the kids’. That’s exactly what a true FX is not. Inherited church sprucing itself up always carries with it the danger of dads dancing badly at a disco, of course. But that should not stop the parochial model looking carefully to see whether some inherited practices are just off putting, and whether some fresh clothes might enable some new connections to be made.

An FX is about the discovery of God at work beyond even the fringiest of the fringe. I think I heard Bishop Graham Cray say recently that a lot of things which called themselves FX weren’t. They were the parochial model doing some reshaped things. But where new life is found in the most unexpected places, and that begins to exhibit the marks of church – then we should sit up and take notice.

Fourthly: the church today is all about choice. People vote to go to 8, 10.30 or 6.30 here, BCP or CW, All Age or Taize. The point of FX is that a lot of people will choose to go to none of them. So the church has to be among them insted. To the goths I became as a goth. Or is that too simplistic? When they get it right, FXs do exactly what his beloved authors want: “serve the whole people of the country”. Not all parish churches do. And ‘the whole people of the country’ won’t always best be served by being told that one size fits all.

In other words, there’s room for both. Giles Fraser is spot on that trendiness can just be cringemaking. And he’s spot on that we have to think carefully about how we are one body in Christ when the church is expressed in so many different ways. But some FXs are at the cutting edge of mission, and deserve better than a stale journalistic putdown.

Perhaps he should visit a few, read some more books, and get Graham Cray to debate with him at St Pauls. And then write about it for us.  Please.

 

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