this is the sixth of a series of short reflections celebrating twenty years at cms
what age do you become mature? we certainly celebrated our two lads birthdays at 18 in crazy style as that felt a moment of transition into adulthood. i had an email this week inviting me to something to celebrate fresh expressions of church becoming eighteen - wow! where did that time go?
looking back on my time at cms it was couple of years in that mission shaped church was published. here is my blog post when it landed on my doormat. this was a church of england and methodist report published in 2004 which was in response to the wave of new things bubbling up round the edges of the church. two members of cms were on the group that produced the report - chris neal and gill poole and i am proud that cms were involved in what was a seminal report really. it is very rare that a church report becomes a best seller but it caught the moment and maybe even a wave of the spirit! it said it was catching up with what was already happening through the likes of the emerging church. it coined a new term - fresh expressions of church - drawing on the declaration of assent where the church says it will proclaim the gospel afresh in every generation. there had been an earlier report called breaking new ground so this was a build on that actually. graham cray chaired it and there was a foreword by rowan williams in which he wisely described a mixed economy of church to suggest that the new and the old were all part of the church's household and he came up with a pretty radical definition of church which has not been bettered since in my view. you can dig it out to find the content but it was generous in what was welcomed into the mix. and it was brave - there would be a lot of work to do in the church of england around culture change if this was to have legs.
the report had a series of recommendations and the then archbishop rowan williams gathered together some people who got behind resourcing it as i think he realised he probably needed to bypass the central funding structures to act quickly. he was an absolute legend, an authority dissenter who was loved to bits by the movement that followed. it's so fun to read the blog post of that evening at lambeth palace which I was at telling the story of grace as an example of a fresh expression and the blog entry is titled bring on the angliCAN church . a fresh expressions team was appointed and they got to work speaking, develioping training, sharing stories and setting to work on policy such as creating a pathway for ordination , changing the regulations around church planting across parish boundaries and so on. the tenth anglican church planting conference that june 2004 sold out. cms were one of the sponsors. but reading my blog post on it you get a sense of the energy that was around. along with notes i took on rowan williams wisdom. it's also weird how small photos were then on blog posts - but i loved this one of steve collins, ben edson and adrian riley . other denominations joined in (urc, baptist, salvation army) and it was picked up internationally. for example i visited korea where it was translated and inspired new expressions. the relationship with emerging church was interesting - if you know the diffusion of innovation curve emerging church was in the early adopters but fresh expressions was more working with the early majority - at least that is my sense of it and stephen croft and i had a discussion at greenbelt one year to that effect i remember. and it really did diffuse to a significant degree over 18 years thus far.
in july 2019 it was 15 years on from the mission shaped church report and at general synod it was reported that this had been the single most effective thing the church had done to reach genuinely new people (at least for a long time). it was also futuring the church in its forms. a motion was adopted to encourage every parish to consider a contextual expression of church (contextual means that it is creatively related to the culture of the place it is in). others would know better than me how theior denoiminations hgave responded.
the diagram above i sketched at one of the later fresh expressions gatherings and jotted down what graham cray reflected on as the facets of its charism.
the weird thing is that it is at a funny moment right now. covid has been difficult for lots of things which is one factor. another i think was a change of archbishop so the funding changed perhaps rightly to things he was passionate about. but several people used language of it being embedded as if to say we've done that - which i think was pretty naive looking back. my own take is that the church has always needed a combination of its structural way of organising and a movement way of organising (the jargon for this is modal and sodal). if you just leave something like fresh expressions to the structural it will likely slide back into more internal agendas. you need those groups with particular focus and energey to help and continue to call the church to its edges. i also think that the nature of fresh expressions was broad church and ecumenical and it worked hard at that with book series in the sacramental tradition as well as the low church end. the more recent developments are located in a much narrower stream or at least that is how they are perceived. that inevitably means some people get on board but others simply won't. the church of england also stopped its central funding contribution to fresh expressions. it is now an independent charity. it's still doing good things but much smaller. i actually feel we're at a bit of a critical juncture to see what the way forward will be for the mission of the church in this regard. i am not saying we should turn the clock back, but in retrospect i think the church has not made the most of the huge opportunity that it was on the cusp of in july 2019 because it thought this was embedded enough.
the good news is that all sorts of newness has bubbled up and multiplied. the church is most definitely looser round the edges. and cms and church army and other groups who were there before fresh expressions are still here and passionate about and involved in encouraging the mission of the church. we (cms) always seem to be perceived at the more radical end of things (which i don't mind) but actually we have been engaged front and centre in lots of ways. it has honestly been an absolute privilege to have been able to be part of that era and movement and i think cms was great in encouraging and helping resource it. we funded a couple of people on the fresh expressions team (bob and mary hopkins) for a good season as well as carving a furrow in the pioneer end of things (more about that later). fresh expressions is still going in a smaller format and we will carry on! i am so grateful to have been part of cms that has kept investing, kept at the table, kept drawing on lessons learned about contextual mission elsewhere, and shared stories internationally to help fuel this adventure of the imagination. ht to everyone involved. it has been a huge joint endeavour.