'Fresh Expressions' - but of what?

by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times, No. 30 - Jul 2008

There was a certain irony in the topic of the Editorial in the last edition of Signs of the Times. Even as Jonathan Clatworthy was critically evaluating the assumptions behind the Fresh Expressions movement, the same mailing (April 2008) contained an edition of Modern Believing with Paul Cudby's article justifying certain fresh expressions in his own parish.

Jonathan questions the assumption that worship is a good thing and we need to get more people doing it in whatever way turns them on. Paul does not address that question; his argument is rather that worship needs to involve a much wider range of human faculties and experiences which the wordiness of our officially approved services does not touch. Are both, perhaps, right? If so, at what level?

As Jonathan says, the traditional rationales for worship - of any kind - are simply not widely accepted today. The Church then slips too easily into a frame of mind in which worship becomes entertainment. As a resident of Stratford-upon-Avon I was much struck by a quotation in a recent sermon (this from a priest who himself supports Fresh Expressions): "These days, it seems, we go to church to be entertained - and to the theatre to be purged". This chimes with what Jonathan says: "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". Can the church ever hope to win that competition?

But mention of "purgation", or catharsis, in connection with the theatre makes me think that behind some of the old rationales for worship there may lurk some truths about human needs. Jonathan recognises that one of those needs is relationship (with each other, with the earth, with God) in community. To that one might add the healing of the breaches in those relationships. If we used the word ritual, rather than worship, we might note that there are not only religious but also secular rituals - on football grounds and elsewhere - which even today are experienced as building community and perhaps, as in the theatre, healing and purging. Maybe the lines between "worship" and "entertainment" are a little more fluid than Jonathan implies.

Paul is right that these experiences are not just about words, and that "poor little talkative Christianity" all too often fails in its vision. What happens in church on a Sunday morning may, from the point of view of ritualistic functioning, compare rather feebly with what happens in a great Shakespearian production in Stratford's Courtyard Theatre, or even on the terraces at Millwall. Yet, at its best, Christian worship is far more actively engaging than the theatre - even if, as Paul says, the "action" is often little more than going up to the altar rails to receive Communion. It is also somewhat less particularistic and more positive than singing "No-one likes us: we don't care". And this is because it is focused (somewhere within all that verbiage) on a "vision of the Kingdom" of which it is supposed to be an enabling foretaste.

Many of us were brought up on the ideals of the Parish and People movement. At its heart (though there was more to it) lay the promotion of the Sunday morning Parish Eucharist as focusing precisely these functions of building community (across generations and subcultures), healing and purging. Perhaps some of us are now less sure than we were of some of the "orthodox" theological underpinnings of that movement. But as we see its focus apparently undermined by the proliferation of new forms of worship, not just supplementing but often replacing the great Sacrament by audiovisuals, psychodrama or drumming - are we wrong to feel that something is being lost?

I wonder whether the answer is not a return to our roots. The more liberal wing of Anglo-Catholicism, whose influences lay behind the Parish Eucharist movement, would most certainly have agreed that words alone were not enough and that not only the Sacrament but all kinds of visual beauty and dramatic action should play their part in the worship of whole human beings. Almost-silent Eucharists are nothing new, nor is the use of percussive music; I have participated in both, many years since. But in both cases the essential "shape of the liturgy" was preserved. I believe some of the problems about Fresh Expressions could be mitigated if we recognised the essentially supplementary nature of new styles of worship, and also the danger of losing the power of the Sunday morning Eucharist as the great unifier across subcultures - something more rather than less important in postmodern society, and, if it "works", genuinely "good news".

All that may well be anathema to the more extreme Fresh Expressions enthusiasts. And here we approach the underlying theological problem.

The term "fresh expressions" presupposes that there is some Platonic essence of faith and/or worship which can be expressed in a variety of different ways. From that point of view, Sunday morning Eucharist and Wednesday evening drumming could be seen as (potentially at least) equal and interchangeable expressions of that essence. Is the underlying assumption here actually true? As I struggle with the problems of faith in today's world, and its variety of inner understandings in myself and others, I become increasingly sympathetic to the Catholic Modernist position with its focus on truths beyond words embodied in ritual and tradition. This is right at odds with our postmodern individualist culture, even in the Church, where "personal faith" is so often promoted in more or less Evangelical terms even by those who would not call themselves Evangelicals. (And there is no space here to go into the paradox that Judaeo-Christian ritual and tradition has such strong anti-traditional and anti-ritual elements!) But such an approach may tap more effectively into those older and deeper human impulses to which both theatre and football club respond.

So Jonathan's warnings are right. But Paul's questions and enthusiasms are also justified. Yet there is - there must be - a deeper place where they both meet. And, even at the risk of sounding like a 'liberal Catholic fundamentalist' (no doubt a dying subculture in its own right), I have to ask whether the Church today is not at risk of losing that deeper place in an ever more desperate attempt to win the numbers game. Christian presence within a variety of subcultures is highly desirable, and so is tapping into diverse spiritual strengths and needs in enabling worship (or something which may become worship) to happen. The parochial system, and the precise details of what we do on Sunday mornings, are neither of them sacrosanct, if they get in the way of that 'vision of the Kingdom'. But if we are not rooted in that deep place of which our most profound rituals speak, we may simply end up selling the superficialities of postmodernism back to a generation which needs to move beyond them.

Anthony Woollard taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.