Wednesday, March 09, 2011

emerging responses to For the Parish, chapter 5 – flight from tradition

“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 is here, Chapter two is here. Chapter 3 is here. Chapter four is here, including a lengthy and very helpful set of comments

These posts seem to be getting longer and longer. My excuse is that I do want to take seriously the questions being raised!

This chapter offers an extended reflection on the relationship between faith and tradition. It begins with the assertion that the Anglican church originates with an priority of common prayer. Thomas Cramner “producing a prayer book for all to use, not through a common confession.” (98) So For the Parish take issue with Fresh expressions practically, ethically, theologically and grammatically.

Practically, if you have diversity as encouraged by Fresh Expressions, does this not make it hard when people shift.

“The person who has come to faith through a ‘skateboarding church’ or a ‘greetings-card-making church’ is very unlikely to find anything on offer in a new locality that even approaches what will have been his or her only experience of church life up to now.” (99-100)

Ethically, Fresh Expressions seems to value novelty, and to value novelty is simply a middle-class luxury.

“Only those who are rich in this world’s goods are likely to side with ….[the] … postmodern thinker, who looks forward to a future that is like the present ‘only with more options’.” (102)

Theologically, faith is a given gift. “It is notable that every Fresh Expression starts with what is chosen, wheras the inherited church is more likely to start with what is given.” (102-3) Thus For the Parish frames tradition as something that comes to us “from beyond ourselves.” (103) In so doing, the the tradition gives us an “exteriority” (103) with which to judge ourselves, a breadth and depth that is both “wide-ranging and specific.” (105)

Grammatically, For the Parish is concerned about the loss of “the” in the language of Fresh Expressions. They offer examples including phrases like “faith” rather than “the Faith” and “Fresh expressions of church” rather than “Fresh expressions of the Church.” Apparently this makes the church into an abstracted idea, rather than the inheritance of the past. This is a “flight from locality, temporality and particularity.” (117).

The chapter offers one extended example – the use of compline. It is worth pondering in relation to tradition.

For the Parish are concerned that Fresh Expressions celebrate pick and mix. To be crude – some incense from the Catholic shop, some interaction adopted from a Baptist call to worship, some expression of praise borrowed from a charismatic church (for the actual worship see here).

For the Parish respond with the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and his suggestion that language is an interlocking system. Structuralism “makes us aware of the vast web of interrelations and distinctions that together allow us to use words meaningfully.” (108) So in For the Parish “The liturgy is also a system of meaning, and the same principles apply.” (108) So when you pick and mix, you are losing sight of the whole. Meaning is best generated what a person is offered the chance to grasp the “same embedded meanings as they had in their original settings” (109).

“Any church congregation or mission initiative can certainly benefit from the treasures of the ‘catholic and contemplative’ traditions, whether ritual or textual, visual or musical. All the same, the greatest benefits of this tradition come when it is experienced as it co-inheres in the whole, in the fullness of its own integrity.” (109)

For the Parish fear that if compline is pick and mixed, if it becomes the only worship offering of a church, then Fresh expression is simply “Complinist Fresh Expression” (109) is losing the integrity of the whole, the essential place of Compline as “part of a wider cycle of worship and community life”, embedded in a whole which preserves the original setting.

I want to respond in two ways.

First, I want to note the the work of American theologian Kathryn Tanner. I am using Tanner deliberately. On page 96, the authors of For the Parish note of Mission-shaped Church that “the list of citations [in Mission Shaped Church] reads like the inventory of the second-hand paperback section of an evangelical bookshop.” (96)

Tanner is Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Theology in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and in her 1997 book, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology she offers a method of intuition and bricolage:

“Transforming the use of shared ideas from a non-Christian to a Christian one is a piecemeal process, in short; the items of another culture are not taken up all at once but one by one or block by block.” (117)

In other words, there is solid theological scholarship that is currently arguing for the pick and mix. To dismiss it as “second-hand paperback section” is either mean or shows a lack of engagement with contemporary American theological scholarship.

Second, I want to probe the For the Parish discussion of the use of incense at compline. For the Parish acknowledge that yes, in a pick and mix world, incense does have liturgical value because it is multi-sensory. However, to use it in a pick and mix way (as the example I gave above here), is to lose the fact that incense has layers. It was used in Jewish prayer. And it was a gift of the Magi. And it is dropped on the Paschal candle at the Easter vigil as symbolic of the wounds of Jesus.

“In order to appreciate them for what they really are, they should be encountered in their original setting. Rather than rearranging them, we should allow then to rearrange us.” (110)

Yet I would argue that the notion of layers is actually quite different to the notion of liturgy needing to be appreciated as a whole in the original setting. For the Parish is surely not advocating a desire to return to the original setting that is Jewish? Or to the early Jesus community? Isn’t this use of layers actually a statement that the tradition we have is itself a pick and mix, a piece from Jewish culture, a moment from Biblical a story, that over time has added layers of meaning?

I am left pondering the whole issue of how the ordinary church leader does generate meaning around people’s understanding of liturgy? Education can happen in many ways – through experience, in a few sentences of explanation in the midst of worship, in the homily which makes connections between life, Biblical text and worship, in short courses, in books or in systematic theological education.

Can you start with “pick and mix”, with a pinch of incense at a “Complinist Fresh Expression.” And over time, with educational intentionality, move people toward maturity and depth in their understanding of liturgy? In other words, what happens if you combine Fresh Expressions with good educational processes?

Or is it that we must continue, in spite of widespread church decline, to offer worship as is, secure in the knowledge that experience of the whole will enable preservation of all that is rich and good?

Posted by steve at 11:04 AM


  1. I am enjoying this valuable set of review pieces of this book and I’m finding them helpful: thanks!

    I appreciate the grace that you are deploying in this review: it would make my blood boil! There is something, still, in British Anglicanism that sees the world and other churches (not that we are a seperate entity! …although sometimes it feels like it!) through the paradigm of ‘well, we are the Established Church’. Sometimes that is overt, more often it is unwitting. That seems to be coming out very strongly in this book.

    Comment by Graham — March 9, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

  2. Thanks Graham. Certainly there is, as I mention in my review of chapter one (, an affirmation that the only real church is the Anglican church. To quote a footnote on page 3,

    “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).


    Comment by steve — March 12, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  3. in response to your tweet i picked up @_InSpirit
    wondering if this particular of the 39 Articles might be of some help?

    ” XXXIV. Of the Traditions of the Church.
    It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

    Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.”

    seems to be good support for freedom in fresh expressions and certainly is through ABp Williams and his missioner Bp Graham Cray. I have posted an audio of Bp Cray of his Mar 14 talk at Ridley Hall to ordinands on the evangelization of England that you may find interesting.
    Having gone overseas to take the Mission Shaped Ministry course of Fresh Expressions, i have much good to say in support of the program and perspectives.

    thx for providing these thoughtful posts.

    Comment by Infuse — March 19, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

  4. You’re really making me want to get into this book! Alas, it is at a low point in the priority reading right now. It does feel as though they focus on the “worst” potential in a FE service and all the “best” of the BCP tradition, doesn’t it? I think I’m again for and against this chapter, at least as how you’ve presented it. In their favor, I know what it’s like to come into a “fresh expressions” (for all future references I’ll be using “fresh expressions” in quotes and you should be meant to imply “emergent” and/or “modern and young evangelical”) church and see something as simple as candles to something as complex as holy icons and the Eucharist used in a manner that clearly shows they don’t know why the hell they are doing what they are doing. So despite utilizing and taking up ancient practices, they don’t know what they mean or why they’re doing them. Additionally they have no, for lack of a better word, “ontology” to make the practice coherent.

    But I side with you on the fact that there is no a priori reason that a variety of liturgical practices cannot be combined so long as the ordo of the service is coherent.

    Thanks for the interactions!

    Comment by Tony Hunt — March 20, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

  5. Tony,

    Thanks for dropping by. Your comment left me wondering:

    If something is done badly (emergents with candles and icons), is that a time to jettison/ignore/critique it? Or is that a time to say, well done, great start, want to know more about where that came from?

    I guess that’s my wondering with my final few paras – do folk learn by trial and error and so any attempt can be a space for growth?

    Or do we get good liturgy by forcing our new/young folk to turn up to what is?

    Or is there something else?


    Comment by steve — March 20, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  6. I’d say, Steve, that if something is done haphazardly and ad hoc, with little understanding or discernment, then that’s the perfect time for it to be critiqued, if also simultaneously encouraged. It is precisely that liturgical acts are being “tried on for size” like a pair of the latest pants that shows just how commodified liturgy can become in the movement. It is also interesting how often you use the words “choice” or “try” positively in our conversations when for me those words are far more ambiguous and questionable.

    Again, I don’t want to overstate differences based on terminology, but that’s how I think about it. Hell, I did the same thing when I was part of a church plant, we tried integrating and experimenting with liturgy and it was a total mess. I wish that we had taken the time to understand why liturgies have the shape they do and how modifications do and don’t work well.

    Lex orandi, lex credendi!

    Comment by Tony Hunt — March 21, 2011 @ 7:16 am

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