Giles Fraser is one of the CT's regular columnists. Never dull, he is also highly opinionated and pugilistic in his style, a style which epitomises all that is best and worst about modern liberal Anglican theology. When I say "best", I mean intelligent, critical, thought-provoking, fiercely committed to the gospel values of compassion and justice. But I also say "worst", because he is completely intolerant of anything that doesn't fit his own definition of proper Anglicanism.
CT readers will know that Mr Fraser has a big problem with evangelicals. But this poorly-digested column reveals that his real problem is one that he shares with many of his like in the C of E. There is a strand of Anglican ecclesiology that is very preoccupied with the idea of "being not doing". This, of course, is an important concept which derives from a theological focus the incarnation. At its best it results in parish churches which are strongly connected with their local communities, beacons of love and hospitality. Unfortunately it can also result in a theology of passivity in which any attempt to reach out actively to the community is seen as, somehow, a bit undesirable. This is where this snooty dislike of Fresh Expressions comes from. "FX" are all a bit too active, rather too much like 'doing' when we should just 'be'.
I am a defender of the parish system. I think the notion of the parish churches as chaplains to the community and guardians of the nation's spiritual heritage is absolutely right, something to be upheld and to cherish. But even the strongest defenders should admit that a system intended to provide for the spiritual needs of every soul in the land isn't really doing the job. It is essentially a Christendom model: "we're here, you know where to find us". But that just doesn't work any more for increasingly large numbers of the population. The parish churches are still able to attract people to come and hear the gospel. But they are beginning to look like sandcastles on the beach, as their sphere of influence gradually diminishes.
The fresh expressions movement is far from the bureaucratic initiative that Mr Fraser thinks it is. It is much more a "bottom up" phenomenon, arising from the imagination of Christian people in the parishes who want to worship in culturally contextualised ways. The thinking behind this movement is that we need what Rowan Williams called a "mixed economy church". More accurately, we might describe this as a "dual economy", embracing both the established pattern of parish ministry and the more network-based new forms. To insinuate that Fresh Expressions is a threat to the parish system is simply ridiculous. A church composed only of fresh expressions would be a very weak church. But then, so would one which simply consisted of traditional parish churches.
Giles Fraser, who ironically is based at a Cathedral, not a parish church, is too intelligent not to know all this.
But, not for the first time, he prefers to eschew a balanced approach in favour of having a go at something simply because he doesn't like it very much. And, in the final analysis, he is simply wrong. Anglican ecclesiology is defined less by geographical parishes, and more by an understanding that the church's role is to witness to the whole community, not just a select few. Fresh expressions are an attempt to broaden the reach of the church to those who are normally beyond the margins of religious society, something a liberal theologian ought to approve of wholeheartedly.
I've now spotted a couple of other indignant responses to this article:
Jeremy Fletcher's Blog
Will Cookson's Blog