Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hard Questions in church

I promised to say more about the Hard Questions day…which I found hugely stimulating.
We were given the questions first thing (so that at least we didn’t spend time wondering what they were, or whether we’d be able to answer them - but yes, they are genuinely hard)
They looked something like this
  • What is Church?
  • What is a Fresh Expression of Church?
  • How can a fresh exp be both fresh and authentic to its tradition?
  • How can emerging groups connect as part of the larger body of Christ?
I was intrigued to hear that officially, one third of Anglican Churches are currently engaged in something they would describe as a Fresh Expression of Church.. I have to say, I’d question this. My suspicion is that what is going on is rather more akin to rebranding other activities…recognising the potential in groups that might in the past have simply been seen as an aspect of church life to become church for those who attend.
I’m not saying this is a negative thing…absolutely no!

Little Fishes, for example, is clearly church for most of its members. When I arrived here, I was told by various people that the group didn’t “work” because the mums didn’t come to “real church” which, as everyone knows, is what happens on 10.00 on Sunday mornings. (Not…just in case my irony escapes anyone out there!).
But from my very first encounter with them I realised that what was happening here was real and wonderful. People were coming together to engage with God and with one another. They were learning and growing in faith. They were even encouraging others to come and see….

Official thinking is that a fresh expression is truly “church” when it develops its own sacramental life. Given the target age-group, it’s no surprise that baptisms are a regular fruit of Little Fishes, though we’ve yet to manage one actually within the Thursday morning service. Still the baptism of N and her daughters on Easter Eve was one of the highlights of the whole Triduum for me this year, and she refound her faith within Little Fishes, so that's pretty special.
Equally, I’ve broken bread with Little Fishes many times and despite the total absence of any authorised liturgy, I’ve known full well that as we gather together and think of Jesus, he meets us in the bread we share. So I’d say that the sacramental life of the group is in good heart.
What’s more, I learn learn and keep on learning from those children.

This morning, for example, we explored the Emmaus story together, ending, of course, with the breaking of bread. This time I made it more deliberately Eucharistic. We set out bread and wine formally, the children enjoying the process of spreading a cloth, and placing chalice and plate When I reached that point in the story where the disciples recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread, I moved from that story into a reminder of the last time they had eaten together, and used the words of institution. It seemed absolutely the right thing to do, just as it seemed absolutely right that we should all of us share the bread while the adults passed around my earthen-ware chalice…
The learning point came, for me, from D.
I should have known.
When I baptised him, 18 months ago, he was not prepared to be fobbed off with the polite little dribbles of water that are the norm for a C of E Baptism. In my talk at the service I’d spoken of the water as representing the overwhelming tide of God’s love and grace so D., a toddler theologian, decided to illustrate this. He splashed joyously till parents, god-parents and priest alike were all dripping. I'll never baptise again without remembering him, and his lesson has been part of my baptism talk ever since.
It was the same today. When everyone had taken a piece of bread, there was still more left…and D returned for seconds….and thirds. If we meet God’s love in Jesus through the elements of bread and wine, he wanted us all to enjoy as much as we possibly could…not to waste a crumb or a drop…
Oh, I learn and learn from those children!

So there's no dispute...Little Fishes is an unmistakable sign of the kingdom.
Little Fishes is church: not a doubt of it.
But it’s surely not a Fresh Expression, since it has been running for a good few decades…and because we open the church and invite people to come to us, rather than meeting where they are already…(Mad thoughts of a toddler church at a mother and baby clinic are brewing even as I type…but that’s a dream for another day).

Nonetheless, Little Fishes has won a place on the Fresh Expressions web-site, and I can’t help wondering how many other "fresh expressions" fit into the same category, of a belated realisation that a group or happening bears all the marks of church itself, and can in no way be seen as simply a pathway to proper church in the fullness of time.

I’d love to believe that one third of Anglican churches are working outside the box…outside the building…outside all the inherited boundaries and building authentic Christian community beyond the walls,- but I do wonder. Unless they are incredibly well-kept secrets, I’m not aware of that many in this diocese (feig being a glorious exception, of course). Generally, the invisibility of some fresh expressions is another issue…though where they are built around existing networks, perhaps its reasonable to expect that only members of those networks will notice.You might reasonably argue that fresh expressions don’t need to be grafted on to any denomination,- but if a denomination is laying claim to them, it would be good to know where they are. If only as the parent of young adults who don't want to engage with God via inherited church, except once in a while to cheer their mother...


marcella said...

It's true there's nothing new about the organisation of Little Fishes. Although I've yet to meet the child of someone who in their turn attended as a toddler, I'm sure since the group has been going for 22 years they must be out there.

The fresh expression comes from the children, it certainly doesn't come from the group's official coordinator! And yes, D is a shining example. Very sorry I missed it.

Caroline said...

I love that age of child - when they see so clearly and are not hindered by convention.

St said...

I too suspect that everyone feels they have to hop on the Fresh Expresions bandwagon. Half my job is to develop Fresh Expressions of church here in Nailsea. Currently there are none but we are doing some innovative evangelism and church planting.

Sophia said...

Every time I need to feel that there is some HOPE I visit your blog! Regardless of how old the idea is, if it works, it works. It sounds like Little Fishes is a real church community, just as you said. Who cares if they don't coming to the "real" service.

Here in NYC the "real" service is the excruciatingly formal, un-child friendly 11 AM Solemn High Mass. Of course families don't come! I like to read your blog and soak in all of your interesting ideas - it's helps me avoid getting too swept away in this city's idea of "church" and back on the solid ground of spreading the Gospel in whatever way works. :=)

martin poole said...

I think it's right to say that there is a fresh expressions bandwagon which is in great danger of being hijacked by 'the church' as a way of making itself look hip and trendy and that anything that is not solid common worship or trys to use a bit of technology is now classed as a fresh expression. I think it's important to be discerning about really new ways of being church and to support those who are brave enough to experiment rather than just labelling anything newer than than 1985 as a fresh expression.