Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a emerging response to For the Parish. A Critique of Fresh Expressions, chapter one

For the Parish, by Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, is an extended critique of fresh expressions. Always good to listen to the critics, so I am engaging the book, chapter by chapter. The Introduction is here.

Chapter  one – The Union of Form of content

This chapter argues that Fresh expressions separate form (practices) and content (message, purpose, identity). The authors argue that such a separation is passe (so 19th century!), because “In the Church … the message is in the form.” (9) They offer some charity “Any particular Fresh Expression may well embody one aspect of the Church’s life and mission extremely well.” (9)  However the belief is that a parish, because it has a deep rooted commitment in people and place (ie doesn’t separate form from content) is more likely to have the resources to adapt and minister across the breadth of human living.

The argument about the inseparability of form from content is grouped in three sections.

First, they draw on Ludwig Wittengstein, a 20th century philosopher, who argued that language is thoroughly communal. “Our existence is a shared existence and it becomes intelligible only through distinctive, shared ways of life.” (12)  The implications for Christianity include the ordinary, everyday practices and disciplines of the Church as the place where faith is embodied.

Their concern is that Fresh expressions “do not appreciate how much the practices of the inherited church offer for mission and discipleship. They discount the forms of the inherited church without appreciating their potency for bringing the Faith to bear upon our time and space.” (17)

(I’ve heard this argument used to justify fresh expressions, especially in the seeking of a more communal hermeneutic, for example Ben Edson, “An exploration into the missiology of the Emerging Church in the UK through the narrative of Sanctus1” and Guest and Taylor “The Post-Evanglical Emerging Church: Inovations in New Zealand and the UK”, both in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 6, 1, 2006)

Second, they draw on post-liberal theology, for example George Lindbeck and his use of the “cultural-linguistic” turn to urge the essential coherence between religious statements and community life. (And so again, content can no longer be separated from form).

“The meaning of the Christian faith is found in the forms of the Christian church. It is in the forms of the Christian church … any root and branh ‘re-expression’ of the Church, in new practices and forms of life, involves and equally thoroughgoing re-configuration of what the Church believes.” (23-4).

Their concern is that separating form from content, faith from culture, leaves fresh expressions appealing “to an abstract and cultureless deposit of the Faith that is is be enculturated here and now.” (23)  Thus fresh expressions are bypassing the tradition, the form and content of the church through history.

(Again, I’ve heard this argument used to justify fresh expressions, especially in the turn toward spiritual practices.)

A third major section is that of the rise of a theology which stresses how mysterious God is. This demands a humility in our talking of God, an awareness of the limitations of human language. It requires us to “stress another sort of knowledge through art and ritual, shared stories, and shared forms of life.” (26)

(Again, I’ve heard this argument used to justify fresh expressions, especially in the turn toward art, ritual, story and community).

I have five responses to this chapter.

First, I  am confused. I’ve heard all three arguments being used by the authors in critiquing Fresh expressions also being used by Fresh Expressions to theologically justify their life.

Second, I am puzzled as to how “the” form/content church the authors advocate got here? Surely 16th-19th century Anglicanism is itself a mutation from the early church.  For example, how can a communion liturgy in Elizabethean English emerge, but now seems to be frozen? Or to put it another way, how does the “form/content” church change?

Third, I also suspect that the form/content of the Anglican church is actually much, much more diverse than is being advocated here. So if you are going to argue for the inseparability of form/content, you surely need to deal with the very diversity of the practices on the church on the ground.

Fourth, I wish this had more “global” perspectives. For the Parish assumes that because fresh expressions are separating form from content, they are extracting a kernel from a husk (23).  Steven Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Faith and Cultures Series), maps out six ways to do contextual theology, of which translation, the separating of kernel and husk, is only one.  I believe that translation is too limited a model to describe fresh expressions. 

Or the work of Lamin Sannah, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, who argues that the uniqueness of Christianity is that from the very birth of the Church, at Pentecost, in the power of the Spirit, it has crossed cultures. In other words, form and content change! What if, in the Incarnation, form and content are in fact mean to change, the church is meant to become fresh in missionary encounter. I wish the authors were engaging perspectives outside Western philosophy.

Fifth, the opening footnote seems to be to be astounding in it’s arrogance. They respond to the use of the word “denominations” in Mission-shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context with the footnote that “It is already to yield a great deal of ground to think of the Church of England as simply one denomination among many in this country. Historically this is not how we have seen ourselves, nor does it reflect our legal position.” (3).  Hello. What about the world-wide ecumenical movement, which in the 20th century celebrated the diversity of Gods’ body? How does not “yielding ground” square with Philippians 2, in which Christ making himself nothing! What about the fact that fresh expressions is NOT Anglican. Let me repeat that – NOT Anglican.  It began in the UK as a partnership with the Methodists and now includes the United Reformed Church.  I hope I’m mis-interpreting this footnote and the authors are not suggesting that the Anglican church is actually Britian’s most one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
With these questions I am looking forward to the next chapter, Theology and mediation.

Posted by steve at 12:02 PM


  1. Unfortunately I don’t think you’re misinterpreting the foot note at all, its at the very core of what this book is about. My local experience has been clearly stated by — , “that while the ecumenical dialogue is all well and good, it isn’t about any sort of discerning together how future church may emerge or even how together we might encourage it. Because we do the form and content right and the rest of you need to come back to us. You might also want to look at the ecumenical relationship agreement between the UCA/Anglican that has broken down late last year. The obstacle is once again about this very issue of form and content. Sorry don’t hold out much hope for learning other than to know the counter argument to fresh expressions in this book.
    The other comment I would make is that the Incarnation by its very nature, about reforming form and content. The grace of God breaks into what is life denying and broken in relationship. The gospels reinterpret the prophets to proclaim Jesus as the one who is the fullness of God and that the kingdom of God looks quite different that what is being experienced presently. Jesus life exemplified relationship with the Father the critics tagged him a drunkard and a glutton. Hardly one in which form and content was the focus.

    Comment by Geoff — January 19, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Achtung Aeon, TransFORM. TransFORM said: RT @emergentkiwi a emerging response to For the Parish. Critique of Fresh Expressions, Ch1 summary + 5 rejoinders […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention sustain:if:able kiwi » a emerging response to For the Parish. A Critique of Fresh Expressions, chapter one -- — January 19, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

  3. I take it from your comments that the authors are suggesting that everyone in the parish is fully aware of the foundations of each activity that is offered by ‘the inherited church’. In my experience even ordained personnel (in whom, through laying on of hands, the heritage of the church is embodied) do not always understand, and cannot articulate, the historical connections between weekly practice and ‘mission and discipleship’. Fresh Expressions provide an opportunity to discern anew what the inherited church discovered through the generations of its experimentation.

    Comment by Graham Vawser — January 21, 2011 @ 8:33 am

  4. Thanks Graham. What you say is a helpful, grounded, reminder of the reality of congregational life and the challenges of ministry.

    I like how you frame F Ex as an opportunity to discern anew the tradition. It brings to mind my first theology lecture when the lecturer said he didn’t mind if we left with the same theology as when we started, just as long as we were able to articulate why,

    So F ex could return us to the same spot, just more aware (grateful?) of our history. Equally, it could help us realise that there are parts of our history we need to re-find, lost because of cultural change perhaps,

    Thanks for keeping me thinking


    Comment by steve taylor — January 21, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  5. thanks for your comments so far, Steve. I wonder if the authors are critiquing a particular book, rather than the reality of F Ex? It seems to me ( as a long time practitioner) that it is precisely the falling apart of form and content in the tradition that led the pioneers of Alternative/emerging/F Ex to try to recover a unity of form and content. That’s certainly the theology I have proceeded from. And those of us who deliberately stayed rooted in their tradition (Anglican in my case, Baptist, catholic, lutheran, presby, etc in others) rather than going to start something brand new, that too was inspired by just the theological themes that Davidson and Milbank seem tto think we lack. Do they make explicit what the source material is they are critiquing? I skimmed it very fast, haven’t had time for a full read yet like you.

    Comment by maggi — January 25, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  6. Thanks Maggi. They interact a lot with Mission-shaped church. But also like to talk about “fresh expressions” as a more general concept.

    In some ways I do feel for those who try to engage F Ex, the category is so diverse, which means F ex can seem pretty slippery – we can easily look for the exception that disproves the generalisation,


    Comment by steve — January 25, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

  7. Thanks for blogging through this book.

    That Davison uses the same arguments for parish (embodiment, community-as-hermeneutic, shared life, etc.) as others do for contextual mission seem to be two sides of the same coin. Highly mobilized, fragmented societies like the UK, US, & NZ have made these things harder to grasp at than ever… in being so fragmented, we are losing our humanness, and the church loses its legibility… so should it be any surprise that Fresh Expressions and Parish folks are coming to somewhat similar conclusions? Many in the Fresh Expressions, Missional, and Emerging streams are all arriving at something like “parish” as the outworking of their efforts to contextualize. No wonder when one reads Gibbs, Hirsch, Frost, Friesen, Murray, and others, the idea of incarnating in a neighborhood (a parish) is front and center.

    The missional folks seem to begin with mission, and contextualize it to a parish — although often “place” has no place at the table, and missional just contextualizes to a subculture.

    The parish folks seem to start with tradition and try to shoehorn mission into it. I trust your portrayal of this book as being kinda curmudgeonly, which all the more makes me sad that they don’t see Fresh Expressions, et al, as moving precisely towards a post-Christendom mode of parish life.

    I volunteer for a group in the States called Parish Collective that works to bring house churches, missional communities, new monastics, and emergent innovators to the same table to collaborate on the re-localizing of the church. We’re finding an astonishing convergence happening around “place” in these streams. Really exciting! 🙂

    Comment by Brandon Rhodes — February 15, 2011 @ 3:34 am

  8. Thanks Brandon.

    Love to know more about the parish collective.

    For the Parish is very much against the emerging church and sees it as a destroying of historic ways of being church. By chapter three, they even use the word “heresy” which is strong language.

    You are right to zero in on the issue of what defines “place” – in our globalised world, can place be a sub-cultural set of relationships, or is does it need to include specific place.


    Comment by steve — February 15, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  9. Brandon, I think they DO see F Ex “moving precisely towards a post-Christendom mode of parish life”, and that, for them, is the heresy!

    Comment by Justin — February 24, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  10. Oh and thanks Steve for the reviews!

    Comment by Justin — February 24, 2011 @ 11:48 am

  11. Justin you write: “Brandon, I think they DO see F Ex “moving precisely towards a post-Christendom mode of parish life”, and that, for them, is the heresy!”

    Perhaps more precisely F Ex “moving precisely towards a post-Christendom networked mode of parish life.” Certainly in chapter four they are most uneasy about the place of networks in Fresh expressions.


    Comment by steve — February 24, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

  12. well I look forward to chapter 5 then, as someone in something of a ‘network church’!

    Comment by Justin — February 25, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

  13. …and judging from the language in previous chapters, I’m hoping we get ‘apostasy’…

    Comment by Justin — February 25, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

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