Can Denominations do Grassroots Church?

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Foreword – The exchange below conflates three separate correspondences over the last couple of years. Though my correspondents here speak out of Episcopal/Anglican situations in the USA and Australia, the issues they are dealing with apply in any institutional setting where people are engaging with more organic models of church and pioneering.

A CORRESPONDENCE 

Hi Paul,

I agree with a lot of your posts about the potential  for synergy between the inherited churches and fresh expressions. I do not share your same optimistic view that they can comfortably live together in the same world. In my diocese church plants and “fresh expressions” get looked at with a whole lot of skepticism. Our synods have passed not one protocol for planting or for fresh expressions. I could care less except it means that though I have been ordained twenty years all of a sudden I am being made to operate “under the care” of a priest who has been in orders only seven years? You ask why? Because he heads up a parish and I head up a fresh expression! How do you read that?

And then how does that work missionally? My deputy Ethan is running the project that has brought more unchurched people – all young guys “from the wrong side of the tracks” – into a living faith than any other initiative in our diocese. They are committed and they’re really on fire for discipleship and community. It’s a fight club – if you can believe that! Ethan is a wrestler and is just a natural gatherer and evangelist.

So now Ethan has this bunch of guys journeying together. These young guys now want to get baptized and share in communion. To my thinking Ethan is in the perfect place to do that with them. He has a BTh. He’s employed in the admin of the diocese – so he’s “one of us!” But our bishop is saying “no”.

I offered to step in as the official pioneer for the district and be like a priestly visitor but the official line is that if our converts want anything sacramental we have to take them to the parish church for that – away from the community that makes sense to them – to the community that doesn’t and that has never reached out to them or ever connected with them. To be honest I think for our diocese that last sentence really sums up the whole purpose of a fresh expression! But it’s going to make zero sense to Ethan’s young fighters! This pecking order thing just confuses what ought to be a natural progression.

On top of that our bishop is nervous of putting any kind of episcopalian badge on the fight club – for insurance reasons!! So it’s like they’re wanting none of the risk but all of the profit. That’s how I see it.

My brother-in-law Isaac (you and he have had dialog through Shapevine) has been in parish ministry even longer than I have – and yet (along with every other priest or worker leading a fresh expression or even a new plant) he has to function under a “temporary licence” from the “archdeacon for fresh expressions”. So get that: after 20 plus years in ordained ministry Isaac’s work now doesn’t even get the badge of a bishop’s okay! Really, from an institutional point of view it is off the map. It’s not exactly what I would call a vote of confidence! That is what we have both experienced in dioceses known as “friendly” to fresh expressions. What must it be like in the unfriendly places??

The Brits look to be a long ways ahead of us on this. Those of us that are planters get looked at like we have created a problem when we step out on mission and anybody with a heart and soul for a fresh expression is by that fact typecast as a poor churchman who obviously doesn’t understand “the tradition”. Obviously we are amateur churchmen. Otherwise we would be following all the established conventions working so well every place else! Except of course they are not. “No matter that we’re in a nosedive. At least we’re not changing anything”. You know the score! Maybe I am a little over sensitive on this but that is the basic attitude I pick up on. So brother, though I wish I could, I just can’t match your optimism.

 John Anon
(USA)

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Hi John,

Thank you for sharing what you have, so openly. It’s a painful truth that no pioneer is ever going to sit comfortably with the status quo! Perish the day when planters are good “churchmen”! Like you I regard the Anglican-Episcopal tradition as a story full of innovations!! But I feel your frustration, my friend. The place of the pioneer is never an easy one to occupy and that’s for certain!

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With their BMOs and trans-local episcopal jurisdictions I think you’re right that the Brits really have pushed the boat out much further – though I am often surprised at the lack of money for denominational pioneers even there. Some Anglican dioceses in Australia are using Episcopal MOU’s where needed as a form for authorization, cover and assimilation.

I share your concern with regard to using the parish system as the exclusive web of entry points into any region. My spiritual father Bishop David Pytches famously described the parish system as the church’s condom to prevent church multiplication! And he often commented that his former diocese (Chile, Bolivia and Peru) was a diocese without parishes. (It had scattered missions at that time.)

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My mentor David Pytches in his Chile, Bolivia and Peru days

I prefer the plural approach of earlier centuries. Parish churches are, generally, a diocese’s bread and butter in terms of generating income. (Some dioceses have been cleverer than others, investing money into real estate that generates income instead of draining church coffers. Why would you rely only on what comes in as freewill offerings?!) But certainly parish priests do not have to be the gatekeepers for an alternative (and often very different) model of ministry – or the “supervisors” of it? That would not be a plural approach. So I am with you all the way there.

However, I just wonder whether (and could you tactfully ask your bishop if this is the case?)  perhaps the parish angle has been chosen in your diocese – and the archidiaconal route has been taken in Isaac’s case – in order to avoid getting snowed under legislative approaches and issues?? Dare I suggest that to ask diocesan synods to produce new protocols, legislation and ordinances might not be the most freeing way forward!!

And in that vein, perhaps rather than pulling Ethan’s fight club under the diocesan badge, as if that would matter to his converts, I wonder if it might actually be wiser – and again more freeing – to lean in the other direction of input without ownership. I actually see that as a virtuous and giving framework.

Then the benefit of Isaac’s situation is that the “temporary licence” may in reality be truer to the exploratory and experimental nature of a good fresh expression or plant(?) Perhaps to issue an episcopal licence for every experiment and project would be something like putting Saul’s armour on David? (I guess you see it as the bishop hedging his/her bets?) I just wonder though, might it be your bishop’s tactic for allowing greater liberty? I have no idea in Isaac’s case. I am only guessing, but it’s possible that’s why the archidiaconal route has been taken there.

Brother, it really is not an easy road we’re on as pioneers, and whatever you do I know you won’t wait until all the protocols have been ironed out before you step out and make an initiative in obedience to the Holy Spirit! At the end of the day there are no caveats or sub-clauses in the Great Commission! And if I can be so radical as to point it out – no mention of episcopal, archidiaconal, or any other kind of institutional or authority to buffer our obedience to Jesus!

When institutional voices assert that Jesus’ authority only counts when it has been mediated through archbishops, bishops, archdeacons and all the rest they really are proposing a kind of feudalism that Francis of Assisi famously rejected back in the 1200s! Surely we haven’t gone back to the 1100s to prevent another revival like the one he embodied!! Top-down is no recipe for initiative!! 

Way, way back in the 80’s I asked my pastor and mentor Bishop David Pytches about his approach to initiative within the institutional church. I remember his answer to this day. He said: 

“Innovators innovate. You must steward any advantage you have to bringing positive change to your denomination. Historically change comes when innovators innovate. They experiment with new things and some of the new things take off with God’s blessing. The institution then has to decide what to do about it. They can throw you out or they can find protocols, and ways to endorse and replicate what you have pioneered.”

“Historically change does not come from people who will not do anything until there is a denominational protocol for it. If you have any advantage it behooves you to innovate – firstly or the sake of God’s kingdom and also for the sake of your denomination.”

I know that in espiscopal circles one of the worst insults is that someone is “too independent” or is a non-collegiate player. I would reply that while “there no i in t-e-a-m” there are 4 in I-N-I-T-I-A-T-I-V-E!!

I remember the story of when William Booth, in his latter years, met the King at some grand function. As you know Booth was smeared and persecuted by the respectable churches for his creation of the Salvation Army. Even relatively liberal figures like William Wilberforce described the Salvos as “the scum of the earth”. So against all that background the King asks Booth, “Is the established church still giving you trouble?” And Booth smiled and said, “Sir, they imitate me!”

To repeat a point recently made by another dear American Episcopalian friend of mine, Canon Jon Shuler of NAMS, Jesus prefaces the Great Commission by saying, “ALL AUTHORITY in heaven and earth has been given TO ME! THEREFORE (I HAVE THE AUTHORITY ON MY OWN TO TELL YOU DIRECTLY TO) GO…!”  Could it really be that simple?

Would it be fair to say that sending the 72 while the 12 were still having so many issues shows a quite different order of priorities to the ones we generally follow in today’s churches? Jesus seems to be able to live with a little untidiness!! How about us?!

 

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