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.


§ 14 Responses to Fresh Expression, Stale Journalism

  • Sue Wallace says:

    Got there before me! Giles is not in the parish model by any means, people commute to St Paul’s away from their home parishes. It is a gathered congregation based on a love of a particular style of music and liturgy. So , much as I love Cathedral style worship, if he has a go at Fresh Expressions he had better be careful as the same criticisms could be levelled at him too “The church must never be a series of special-interest groups that we might like to join”. Hmmm. Or would he *really* prefer to go back to “one-size-fits-none” of yesteryear?

  • Pam Smith says:

    I did a double take when I read the spirited defence of trad parish ministry, wondering in what sense Giles Fraser saw moving from his parish to St Pauls as being supportive of parish ministry – then wondered if he was short of time this week and has based his column on something he wrote when he was still supporting trad parish ministry himself!

    IIRC at least one if not both of the people who have written the book aren’t in trad parish ministry either!

    None of them seem to have read up much about FX and the ‘mixed economy’ whereby FX extend the reach of the trad parish by reaching people who are never going to come to a traditional service in a million years – I really don’t understand how that threatens the traditional parish church unless we all start competing for resources, but at the moment the traditional parishes pay the share and are resourced from it and I haven’t heard any plans to syphon of large amounts of money to shut churches and open skate parks.

  • Steve Walton says:

    Right on, Jeremy! And the authors he quotes have not visited any Fresh Expressions themselves, I understand, but are merely reporting second hand – that does not inspire confidence in their work!

  • Ian Black says:

    Bother. I have that book in my ‘to be read’ pile. Looks like I’ve wasted twnety quid.

  • Giles Fraser says:

    I can’t believe you call it FX. That has made me chuckle all evening.

  • Giles Fraser says:

    Actually Pam, I think you will find that Jeremy’s church does not pay its share in full.

  • Giles is right – since 2008 Beverley Minster has not paid in full. I inherited that decision when I arrived in 2009, and with the PCC am trying to ensure that we pay in full in future.
    The decision was a result of a disproportionate increase in what was required – the diocesan increase was 29% and ours was 49% over a five year period. But it’s still unsatisfactory that we don’t pay – we have the second highest share in the diocese and should be spot on.
    In resource terms it’s the Fresh Expression here which has ‘lost out’, in that its full time leader has not been replaced.

  • Will Cookson says:

    I must admit that I was very disappointed with Giles and his article. I thought that he had matured somewhat.
    As a Fresh Expression that is a net contributor to the Diocese of Southwark, and therefore helping to prop up the parish system, I think that he is simply wrong.

    Indeed we were recently asked to plant a congregation by a neighbouring parish onto the Roundshaw estate in Sutton (a deprived part of the borough) which has seen a significant increase (although early days)in the number worshipping in Anglican buildings in Roundshaw. It seems to me that we can work quite happily in a mixed economy as does St Paul’s cathedral.

    Maybe St Paul’s should shut up shop except for diocesan and national services as they are stealing people away from parishes. Or maybe not. Maybe logs and specks.

  • […] Another “gust of wind” this weekend came from one of the Canons of St Paul’s Cathedral who laid into Fresh Expressions (such as Springfield) for undermining the Church of England Parish system. See his article here. You can also see a good reply to that article here. […]

  • Fractal Angel says:

    There’s both room for both, and some of us appreciate both! My home church is a very traditional Anglo-Catholic one, but I have also appreciated and enjoyed and been enriched by the Goth Eucharist.

  • David Keen says:

    We have a couple of Fresh expression running in our parish, because that’s what we need to do in order to fulfil our mission as a parish church. What a glorious day it would be if organ music and BCP liturgy did it for everyone, but out of 15,000 souls, we have about 50 regulars at our choral communion. So we have a cafe service, messy church on a Saturday, midweek Sunday school at a local primary, about to start regular local quiet days, looking to plant a mission community into a local housing estate, and Sunday services at both the church and community centre. Some of this is just doing parochial ministry in a different way, but some of it wouldn’t be happening at all without the encouragement towards fresh expressions.

    If we weren’t a parish church, with a desire to reach everyone in the parish with the gospel, and to enable people from varied cultural backgrounds to worship, learn and pray together, we could just happily service the special interest group that engages with ‘traditional’ Anglican worship.

    If what we did really was cringy, nobody would come to it, and it would stop. Strange that so many fresh expressions are not only still going, but thriving, and reaching a whole new set of people that had no connection with the CofE before.

    Thanks for this piece Jeremy, it needed to be said.

  • Pam Smith says:

    Thanks for the information about Jeremy’s church Giles.

    I am tempted to ask ‘what has that got to do with the price of fish?’ but perhaps your point is that people in churches that don’t pay their share have no right to an opinion. Does this apply to standing for Synods? (I seriously have no idea.)

    Perhaps you could do a column about why churches don’t pay their full share and how they are letting the side down? And one on what relevance Cathedrals have to parish ministry? Both important topics of which you obviously have insights drawn from personal experience. (Though I think you will find quite a few Cathedrals are engaged in developing fresh expressions ministries.)

  • MisterDavid says:

    The parish system was made for man, not man for the parish system …

    One of the Fresh Expressions down here (Cornwall) is a surf church which, in spirit and in practice, is far closer to the monastic model than any British church that I have ever seen. They also have bleach-blonde hair and hang out on the beach a lot. As did Jesus, of course 😉

  • Ray Cross says:

    I’m sorry Giles but you haven’t got a clue. The rest of christendom gave up on the parish system years ago, or were forced out, and now attend the other church groups, denominational and non-denominational, that meet in every parish in the country, day by day, week by week.
    FX is merely an anglican attempt to play catch-up with the rest of the world.

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