Mapping a mission-shaped deep church?


“And now for something completely different,” I’d like to steal shamelessly again—this time from what many folks on either side of the pond might think an unlikely source of inspiration—a report from the Board of Mission of the Church of England! It is entitled “The Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church Publishing, 2004). Perhaps this has already come up in discussions in Jason’s esteemed community of bloggers. If so, I hope the bits I share will still be able to inspire or, at least, inform.

The Church of England is a venerable institution undergoing profound stress and strain… but also, in many sectors, revitalization in its missional focus. The Church of England is, in certain respects, the epitome of Deep Church, yet it bears a tremendous responsibility and burden (some would say ‘baggage’) as the established church of this green and pleasant land. I happen to think we can learn a great deal from the questions it is presently asking.

The “Mission-Shape Church” has sold around 20,000 copies and is a center-piece of conversation in Anglican circles. The term ‘fresh expressions’ has become the Anglican equivalent to ‘emerging church’ thanks to the report. Theologian John Hull has summarized the central concern of the report as follows: “The main burden of the report is that the Church of England has depended too much upon the local parish church, and it must now be recognized that this is but one form of church structure. . . . It is necessary to encourage other kinds of ecclesial formation, which may take the form of cell churches, café churches, network associations and so on, and these fresh expressions must be regarded as legitimate churches, genuine churches, although they may lack many features of local parish churches and may indeed sometimes cross parish and even diocesan boundaries. The report is thus a call for the renewal of local church life and a demand for more imaginative structures.”

The need to adapt is based on the core conviction that “the Church is the fruit of God’s mission, and… as such it exists to serve and to participate in the ongoing mission of God.” Hull is critical of the lack of clarity in the report, especially regarding its “failure to distinguish … between the church and the mission of God.” He has written a substantive theological response which is itself a very profitable read. But, for the time being, I will highlight a few key points from the report that might spark some fruitful conversation—points that have been addressed in recent weeks in this blog.

1. Regarding consumerism: Consumer culture: we find our identity in what we consume, not produce; we are what we buy; everything becomes a consumer choice and the world revolves around the notion that we can have whatever we want—and this applies to health care, educational provision, patterns of work, association and relationships, … and religion…; pleasure lies at the heart of consumerism; “It finds in consumerism a unique champion who promises to liberate it both from its bondage to sin, duty and morality as well as its ties to faith, spirituality and redemption. Consumerism proclaims pleasure not merely as the right of every individual but also as every individual’s obligation to him or her self…. The pursuit of pleasure, untarnished by guilt or shame, becomes the new image of the good life.” (p. 10; quoting Zygmunt Bauman)

2. Regarding ecclesiology and mission and the nature of God and … : “any theology of the church must ultimately be rooted in the being and acts of God: the church is first and foremost the people of God, brought into being by God, bound to God, for the glory of God” (quoting from a CofE document from 1997). Thus, God must be known relationally and communally. God is also a missionary—“we would not know God if the Father had not sent the Son in the power of the Spirit”; the missio dei itself expresses God’s relational nature: “The communion of the persons of the Trinity is not to be understood as closed in on itself, but rather open in an outgoing movement of generosity. Creation and redemption are the overflow of God’s triune life.” (p. 85)

3. Regarding the Incarnation and mission: “A truly incarnational Church is one that imitates, through the Spirit, both Christ’s loving identification with his culture and his costly counter-cultural stance within it. His announcement of, and promise of, God’s kingdom cannot be separated from his call to repentance, as the price of entry. Following his example, his Church is called to living identification with // those to whom it is sent, and to exemplify the way of life to which those who repent turn. Otherwise its call to repentance is reduced to detached moralizing.” (pp. 87-88)

4. OK, I think #3 is so important I am going to continue that topic with: “The incarnation involves an exchange, the dignity and power of which it is humanly impossible to grasp, only faith can give us a tiny glimpse of its reality: God becomes one of us, even to the extent that he accepts suffering and death… This exchange is relived every time there is an act of inculturation. God in Christ enters more fully into our human condition; we share more fully in his life. We die in Christ to that which is sinful and we rise to a creative newness in human relationships through the transforming power of Christ.” (p. 88; quoting from Gerald Arbuckle, Grieving for Change: a Spirituality for Refounding Gospel Communities; GA is a Catholic writer)

5. There’s something typically and essentially Anglican about the report—it struggles to maintain WORSHIP as the center of the church alongside of MISSION. That is evident in the following “four dimensions” of the church’s “journey”:

• UP: the journey toward God in worship with consequence of transformation; this is the church’s seeking to be holy • IN: relationships that express the oneness of Trinity and body of Christ; persons of Trinity showed us the quality of diversity held in unity because of their eternal love; here is the expression of oneness • OUT: sending in mission embraces breadth of give marks of mission; this is the fulfillment of our apostolic call • OF: we do not exist for ourselves or by ourselves; we are part of the wider church; the church militant is connected to the church triumphant; “We have a history of which to be proud, in part, and from which to learn. Both the Church militant and triumphant are expressions of interdependence in the OF dimension as the Church seeks signs of being Catholic.” (p. 99)

My response here, is this another way of ‘mapping’ DEEP CHURCH?

That’s enough to chew on for now. There’s much, much more to ponder in the report. But perhaps some of these bits and bobs will grab our attention and stimulate some helpful exchange

Phil Harrold