What needs to be freshly expressed?

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 28 - Jan 2008

A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church.

It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples.

It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.

So states the Fresh Expressions website www.sharetheguide.org. The Church of England website adds that Fresh Expressions are 'part of Archbishop Rowan Williams' vision to create a "mixed economy church" of traditional congregations alongside new expressions of church life'.

Many MCU members welcome the principle, though some have misgivings about how it works out in their local area. I was a vicar's son, brought up to attend church services pretty well from birth. The time came, in my teens, when I found the 1662 Book of Common Prayer boring. The Church of England agreed, and produced Series 1, 2 and 3 and eventually the Alternative Services Book.

Until then the Church of England's liturgy was rooted in its Reformation origins. The whole nation should adhere to the same order of service and pray the same prayers. Everybody prayed for the monarch and confessed to erring from their ways 'like lost sheep'. From the late 1960s, however, saying something different was no longer the guilty secret of those who used the illegal 1928 Prayer Book. The new services were permitted but not obligatory; and if used, they offered choices.

If we do not all need to use the same service, why stop there? Once the cult of uniformity had declined many found value in variation, diversity and local creativity. Does a two-tier system really make sense? If the traditional rules are not essential to acts of worship, why retain them at all? Instead of Common Worship, should we have had just lists of parameters, stating which components need to be included in which type of service?

On the other hand Fresh Expressions do not suit all. Clergy who spend huge amounts of time maintaining their listed buildings and performing their statutory requirements may long for the freedom given to more independent 'fresh expressions' ministers. If they do not, it is perhaps because they believe in the holy building and traditional patterns of worship, and resent the fact that the bishop has appointed another priest to minister in their parish without consulting them.

There are of course mixed motives. One is the desire of regular worshippers to worship in ways which genuinely help their spiritual lives. Another is the anxiety to stem the decline in the numbers of worshippers.

Thus the website speaks of people who 'are not yet members of any church' . It reads as though they ought to be, and we're working on it - a natural enough thought for clergy who spend a lot of their time on it. However, when I look back on the things I did as a parish priest, most of my negative memories relate to my worries about the numbers attending my church, and whether I was being successful. Instead of ministering to my parishioners all too often I was in effect trying to persuade them to minister to me by obliging me with their attendance. Most of the worst things I did resulted from these anxieties.

Whenever the intention is to persuade people to attend acts of worship by offering more attractive venues and styles, the implication is that what puts people off is the venues and styles otherwise on offer. If people find church buildings off-putting do it somewhere else. If they don't like traditional church music offer them charismatic choruses.

My experience is that a generation ago many non-attenders used to say this. If only the services were at a different time, or more attractive to children, or livelier or warmer, they would come. I doubted it even then. To plan on the basis that parishioners would attend if only they got the music they liked is to collude with the idea that the purpose of going to church is to enjoy your favourite music; and once that is accepted the church is presented as just one more entertainment venue to rival the others.

More recently these reasons for non-attendance have become less common. Most people do not now feel any need to explain why they do not attend church services. Many have never attended except for occasional offices, and quite a few - especially school children - are treated by their peers as a bit strange if they do. It is the people who do attend who need to explain their strange habit.

In this situation the main focus of attention should be not how to express it freshly, but on why it needs to be expressed at all. You can give a fresh expression to a stale crust with a couple of minutes in the toaster, but if nobody is hungry there is no point.

If we pay more attention to the how than the why, the packaging than the gift, I suspect there are two main reasons. One is that clergy who are well established in their patterns of worship may find it quite difficult to know where to start with people who do not see the point. It is easier to press on with the practical jobs of making the services attractive.

The other is that when we start examining seriously why it is a good thing to attend church services, it will not be long before we discover that we are not sure, or disagree with each other. In the past Christians have been taught that God punishes those who do not attend or rewards those who do; that the grace received in the sacraments makes our lives more successful or deducts a spell in purgatory; that God performs what we request in our prayers; or even that God enjoys hearing our hymns of praise. Most people today would probably reject all these reasons.

My own approach would be something along these lines. Humans have been designed to relate to God, and to do so both as individuals and as members of communities. Just as our relationships with other people can be supportive or hostile, close or distant, so also can be our relationship with God. Good relationships with God help us to develop good relationships with other people and vice versa. Similarly, learning about God helps us to learn who we are, how we fit into the world around us and how we ought to live.

This is a brief and inadequate sketch. I hope, though, it is enough to illustrate two points. One is that if we think other people ought to engage in acts of worship we need to articulate some kind of reason, a reason which convinces us and which we can honestly recommend to others, something which takes us beyond the question of whether people enjoy it. In the absence of good and honestly articulated reasons, all attempts to get people into church are mere manipulation.

The other is that once we have articulated the reasons why we think it a good thing to worship God, our reasons will themselves indicate what counts as good worship, what counts as stale worship, and how to freshen it up.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.