I got an email a few weeks ago warning me about a new book that was about to be published 'For The Parish'...The email served as a great marketing tool as I immediately went out and bought the book!
In case you don't know For The Parish is a critique of Mission Shaped Church and the whole Fresh Expressions movement. It's a polemic read and is aggressive throughout in its tone and content. The first line sets the tone of the book: 'Mission Shaped Church is a flawed document' and it continues throughout. It's full of both theologically critique and cheap shots one for example is to highlight on a couple of occasions that Fresh Expression is also a brand of scented cat litter, this just feels bitter and that bitterness serves to raise questions regarding the motivation of the authors. I find the aggressive nature the hardest part of this book, it is not broad and inclusive but ecclesiologically narrow and ecumenically exclusive.
It also concerns me that this serves to undermine the FXC movement and provide fuel to those people who will always be against FXC and the mixed economy. However, that said I did enjoy it, it made me think and also injected some much needed ecclesiology into the whole Fresh Expressions debate.
It's written by two people who are not in parishes - one is in a Cathedral and the other in a theological college - for me this is massively problematic, if you are passionately supportive of the parish church a positive way of showing that support is by embedding yourself in that local community and parish...
It also sets up straw men to knock down based on prejudice regarding what a Fresh Expression of Church is and what it is not. It looks at the extremes rather than the normative experience, which in my experience is a collaborative relationship within a parish where a Fresh Expression of Church works alongside the Parish Church in mission and ministry in a particular context.
I also have a concern regarding their model of contextual theology as it appears to be confused in places. In some parts I think that they're looking at a translation model and at other times they are looking for a counter-cultural model. The problem with these two models is that the translation model doesn't take the context seriously enough and the counter cultural model, which i think that they are perhaps the most strongest advocate of can become so removed from context that it is detached from the normative everyday experience of a person outside of church. They call for the church to be counter cultural but fail to address the problems that this creates.
It is also set in Christendom - harking after a bygone era that whilst we may ideologically believe in it's gone and we have to mourn/celebrate that and move on. I work in a parish church in an urban context, I love and believe in the theologically inclusive nature of the parish but for most people that theological inclusiveness means that they have a venue for weddings and baptisms. For others it's offensive to them to claim that we have their 'cure of soul' because they don't believe in the concept of sin, heaven or the institutional church. They'll opt out of the parish and opt for a secular ceremony. The theological inclusive nature of the parish is great, but there is a separation between theology and practice here.
After the critiques of FXC and MSC they move onto suggest some options for the parish. The imagination in these chapters is weak and whilst I think that what they are doing is good, in the sense that they are asking for more confidence in the traditions of the church, their imagination is poor. It also paints a picture of the North in a particular way which annoys me:
To quote: 'In the Midlands and North of England, the custom of Easter bonnets lives on' - Does it? I've been in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester for the past 15 years and I've never seen a bonnet! And The Whit Walks (Pg 195) in Manchester are still happening but nowhere near as culturally central as they were 50 years ago. I also don't think getting a combined Harvester, Morris Men and Clog Dancers (Pg 207) is going to go down that well in Manchester, but the authors seem to think otherwise...It's out of touch with reality.
It does however raise important questions regarding the formation of anglican identity in FXC, which I think needs to be applied to all Anglican Churches. Liturgy is important in discipleship and the formation of identity, if this is being ejected then our identity is at threat. However, this is a question for all the churches in the C of E that do not follow the liturgy.
There comments are HUP are I think unfair and unrepresentative of FXC. It maybe that if you read MSC in a particular way you get the impression that this is supportive of the HUP agenda. In practice most FX practitioners would reject the concept...but also it need to be noted that many parishes are homogenous units.
Anyway, it's a provocative read and it needs an in-depth theological response. I hope that Fresh Expressions produces this theological response slowly! I hope that we ingest some of the criticisms and respond to them both theologically and practically.