Letter I sent to the Church Times referring to Bp Stephen Cottrell’s review of the Milbank and Davison’s book “For the Parish” which was not published
Sir, – I was really pleased to read Bp Stephen Cottrell’s informed and measured review in Issue 7706 of the Church Times concerning the recent Milbank and Davison book “For the Parish” entitled “The baby and the parochial bathwater”.
Whilst I also endorse the view that the Mission Shaped Report was not a full theological exploration, it should be remembered that it was never intended to be a full ecclesiological exposition – it is a church report!
I was also pleased to see that Bp Stephen mentioned New Monasticism as an example of good practice arising out of the Fresh Expressions initiative, which seeks to be ‘ancient future’ in vision. New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church, (the subject of a new multi-authored book to be published shortly by Canterbury Press) has a comprehensive theological self-understanding and connection with the ongoing tradition and calling of monastic and apostolic mission.
Many of us involved in Fresh Expressions of Church were dismayed by the position of “For the Parish” which seemed to compare the most romanticised and perfect expression of the Parish Church with the worst ‘dumbed down’ forms of Fresh Expressions. As Bp Stephen states, this impoverishes the argument of “For the Parish”.
As well as the examples the Bishop of Chelmsford gives for what is not said in the book – I would take this argument further. Where is the missiological engagement? I read much on ecclesiology and the importance of the Church but little on missiology and the importance of the Kingdom? Too much focus on the Church and too little exploration of the Kingdom creates the danger of idolatry – ‘Seek you first the Kingdom of God’, (Matt 6:33). Where is the theological engagement with Models of Church and the work of Avery Dulles or contextual theology and the work of S B Bevans and Niebuhr and other theological disciplines? There is a conspicuous absence of a wider theological engagement. It is a great arrogance to believe that the discipline of Ecclesiology is the only real form of theological discourse, and it is disappointing that a more systematic approach has not been taken holding ecclesiology and missiology in tension.
There is a deep paradox in this book that talks up dialogue and mediation as a model but then continues to set up a dualism – parish good, fresh expressions bad, typical of a polemic that is not particularly helpful for a comprehensive theological reflection. The truth is we need a more ‘both-and’ position, both traditional and experimental, conservative and progressive.
The danger of this book is that it seems to propose a return to a specifically Christendom theological mindset, where salvation and authentic mission can only be found within parish forms of Church, with a translation model of contextual theology which arrogantly downplays the contextualisation of the gospel and the church. No one expression of church can fully be a vessel of the gospel, hence why there has been a diversity of form of church in the Church of England for sometime – parish alongside monastic and friar orders, chaplaincies and missions. This is not new. The Missio Dei is at its heart the mission of God in God’s Kingdom. It is not about maintaining ‘unity in conformity’ as a particularly institutional expression of church. This is the weakness of the model of ‘Church as political society’ or Christendom which the authors suggest we should return to in our post-liberal times.
We remember that mission and evangelism in this country in the Romano-Celtic, Saxon and Norman times was not completed largely by Priests and Deacons, but rather by evangelistic Monks, Nuns, Friars and Bishops. In more recent times, in the Oxford Movement we see a Church renewed through the resurgence of the religious life in response to cultural change and the calling of the Holy Spirit. May be fresh expressions and New Monasticism are such a resurgence of non-parish forms of the Church led by the Holy Spirit in response to our increasingly post-secular context.
Surely the way forward for the wider Church is a renewed partnership of the best of Parish and the best of Fresh Expressions in ‘mission-informed’ engagement to a culture which is increasingly post-church and post-Christian. Mission and Evangelism are part of our apostolic calling. We need to avoid setting up false-dichotomies.
Revd Ian Mobsby
Moot Priest Missioner, Associate Missioner to the Archbishop’s Fresh Expressions Team and member of the Church of England’s College of Evangelists.
The Moot Community
St Edmund the King Church
London EC3V 9EA