For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions Paperback – 30 Apr 2013
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'Davison and Milbank show how the Fresh Expressions and Emerging Church movements have compounded mistakes in soteriology and ecclesiology, generating a flight into segregation, and a flight away from tradition... [They] have produced a book of breathtaking contrasts. In terms of mood, it is simultaneously dour and lively; serious, yet amusingly and deeply ironic; punchy, yet wise; thoughtful, yet discursive... this book is something of a tour de force that really does need engaging with. It should be widely read, studied, and meditated upon: deeply.' (Martyn Percy, Modern Believing)
About the Author
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, Fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Canon Philosopher of St Albans Abbey.
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This ignores three important points.
1. Traditional church has already been influenced by choices relating to the wider culture over many centuries.
2. Culture is not just about consumer choices. Many of the things that Davidson and Milbank approve of come from the church's choices based on engagement wider culture in the past.
3. Theological and ecclesiological choices are important and are already a significant part of mainstream church life.
'For the Parish' is also confused about the relationship between essence and the incarnational reality of the Church. Davidson and Milbank claim that 'the movement seeks to separate form and content, with the assumption that the essence of the Church exists separately from its living forms, '...adherents of Fresh Expressions believe that the Church can be divested of her inherited practices, structures and disciplines and go on to be re-expressed in new ways, with little or no sense of loss.' This statement assumes that current forms of Church have no errors or problems, that thy are comprehensive in their representation of the Kingdom, and have never changed in the past. Which is clearly not true and in Fresh Expressions, the essence of church is ever thought to exist separate from its practices. It is simply that the practices are being reinterpreted for a new Generation. This has always been the case but change is happening more rapidly in the world, hence the need for the Church to find a better way to respond.
There are many other problems with this book; for example the narrow Anglican approach that ignores both the diversity within the Anglican communion prior to the advent of Fresh Expressions and the validity of other denominations, e.g. the Methodist Church which has never had parishes, and it ignores the fact that Fresh Expressions has never been against the parish system.
There are important critiques to be made of Fresh Expressions, but this book is not where you will find them expressed in any useful way. It simply encourages the fears of those who don't understand what is happening to the Church in the post modern context. If you want a more balanced and in depth analysis, I recommend you read something like 'Mission shaped Questions', 'Fresh' or 'Evaluating Fresh Expressions' instead.
Davison and Milbank's argument, in brief, is that in abandoning Anglican parochial structures and authorised liturgies, Mission-Shaped Church unwittingly advocates a consumer approach to religion, based on homogenous social groups, and the elevation of individual choice. Against this, Davison and Milbank argue for a renewed confidence in the Anglican parochial system, the importance of place and mediation, and the restoration of a range of liturgical and extra-liturgical practices to rebuild an authentic Christian imaginary.
Those tired and fed-up of Fresh Expressions in the Church of England, and who suspect the movement of dangerous (not to say heretical !) evangelical and liberal tendencies, will welcome this book. And even those sympathetic to Fresh Expressions will find valuable insights and observations throughout, and much food for thought. But the critique the authors offer is unbalanced and one-sided.
For example, whilst the authors criticise the homogenous unit principle that underlies some of Mission-Shaped Church, they fail to recognise the extent to which so many parish churches similarly cater for fairly homogenous social groups. If Fresh Expressions are (as Davison and Milbank claim, without evidence) largely middle class and bourgeois in character, is the same not also true of the typical Anglican parish church ? Indeed, one would have thought that it is precisely the failure of the parish system to be genuinely inclusive that has spawned the Fresh Expressions movement, in a desire to reach those the parish system has failed.
And whilst the authors are keen to suggest that the move away from the geographically defined parish represent a dangerous break with classical Anglicanism, they fail to reckon with the long history of chaplaincy and sector ministry within Anglicanism, which similarly cater for non-geographically defined (and rather homogenous) communities and institutions. If chaplaincy has always been recognised as a legitimate element of Anglican practice, as part of a `mixed economy' alongside the parochial system, might one not argue that Fresh Expressions simply represent an extension of this existing principle ?
For all that they criticise the theological inadequacies of `Fresh Expressions writers', Davison and Milbank's own philosophical and theological sources could also be wider. Much of their critique derives from Wittgenstein (and from him, Lindbeck), and represents a fairly narrowly conceived Anglo-Catholicism, mediated via Radical Orthodoxy. But they show little broader awareness of contemporary theological work on mission, whether Protestant or Catholic in origin (one thinks of Catholic theologians such as Luzbetak, Bevans, Schroeder, Legrand, Sannah, Schreiter, Oborji, and Shorter, for example, of whom Davison and Milbank appear, to use their own phrase, `blissfully unaware').
And this is unfortunate because greater familiarity with contemporary missiology would have allowed a better analysis of the issues that concern Davison and Milbank. In their discussion on the relationship between form and content, for example, engagement with the substantial literature in the world church on gospel and culture, adaptation, indigenisation, contextualisation and inculturation would have allowed a considerably more nuanced and eirenic account than the one offered here.
Or again, for instance, whilst Davison and Milbank are critical of the way in which church and kingdom are related in Mission-Shaped Church, they seem unaware that the report largely echoes the way in which this relationship is dealt with elsewhere in contemporary thinking on mission, and not only by evangelicals. Consider, for example, the papal encyclical Redemptoris Missio, in which John Paul II, following Paul VI before him, notes that the church `is not an end unto herself, since she is ordered towards the Kingdom of God of which she is the seed, sign and instrument': language that is repeated almost verbatim by Mission-Shaped Church, and which Davison and Milbank regard as protestant novelty.
Above all, there is a lack of care and graciousness in For the Parish that repeatedly jars. Footnotes and references suggest little real engagement with Fresh Expressions in either theory or practice, beyond the Mission-Shaped Church report itself, one or two other works, and the odd website. As a result the authors have a tendency to offer a stereotype or caricature of what they imagine `Fresh Expressions writers' think and believe, without references or substantiation, and then to knock down the straw man they have set up. Had the authors thought to engage, for instance, with the substantial material on Fresh Expressions that comes out on a regular basis from the Sheffield Centre, or even simply to read more of the (easily available) literature published directly by Church House, they could have offered a much more balanced account.
Similar tendencies to caricature are apparent elsewhere in their work. Davison and Milbank reject Church Growth theory, for example, on the basis that (according to them) it proposes we should simply `find out what people want and then give it to them'. And of course, if that were genuinely what Church Growth theory proposes, Davison and Milbank would be right to dismiss it. But in fact, as a description of the work of McGravran and Wagner, Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, this summary is misleading to the point of dishonesty; and footnotes and bibliography provide no evidence that Davison and Milbank have read first-hand any Church Growth theory at all.
But For the Parish is ultimately disappointing not merely for what appears as overly hasty or inaccurate scholarship. It is disappointing also as an example of how we engage with one another as Christians. These are difficult times for those of us seeking an appropriate missionary practice in our fragmented and consumer-driven society, and Davison and Milbank rightly identify some key theological issues for discussion. But one wonders whether, as Christians, we might be able to have a conversation about them with more charity and understanding than is on show here.
There have already been several lucid critiques of this book on amazon, so I won't rehearse their arguments. The fake erudition, the straw man arguments, the lack of sustained theological reflection on the meaning and significance of the movement they want to critique - all of this gives the impression of a work of limited value. I would only wish that the authors would come and visit a fresh expressions community and see for themselves how we don't conform to the straw-man caricatures depicted in this sniping, ungracious, unscholarly and polemical work that belongs to the 19th (rather than the 21st) century.
Read this book as an example of how a panicky establishment responds to signs of genuine renewal in the church that might threaten the comfortable status quo and the smug complacency of those with a vested interest in preserving "the system". In that sense, the book has some value (therefore, I'll give it 1 star).
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