Jonny Baker talks to Ian Mobsby about his new book on fresh expressions of church and 'post-Christendom Anglicanism'
Ian, give us a few sentences to summarise your research.
In the research I look at why emerging and fresh expressions of church are significant. I explore the theological, sociological and cultural aspects of 4 emerging churches - one in the USA and three in the UK. I also explore why so many alt worship and emerging churches in the UK are specifically connected to the Anglican Church. The results indicated a number of things that are interesting regarding different sub groupings of fresh expressions relating to contextual theology, Trinitarian theology and new forms of mysticism.
What sparked you to research this particular question?
Initially it was because I was sick to death of people in the church slagging off the mission shaped church report and fresh expressions for having no theological or ecclesiological depth. I was also curious about what it was within Anglicanism that had allowed it in some places to become the womb for alt worship and the emerging church – I had a hunch there was something coming out of theology in practice in a new post-modern context. This arose from travelling around emerging churches in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand. I was also fascinated by the fact that most were using Rublev's icon to frame much of their thinking.... It was an image that just kept coming up.
So do you feel like you managed to find that theological depth/language that you were looking for? Was your hunch right? Can you give us some of the headlines around it?
I think some things have crystallised but there remain a number of questions. It is clear that emerging churches are largely using a particular model of contextual theology – what has been caused a synthetic approach – that the spirituality and practice emerges out of holding the faith, and particular postmodern cultures, and a particular spiritual community in tension. It is clear that fresh expressions are a mixture of inherited and emerging churches – where emerging are attempting to relate to the postmodern whilst the more inherited seek to relate to the more modern. I guess this what Rowan Williams means by 'the mixed economy' of church. The emerging churches seemed to be attempting to relate to pomo culture where people had some focus on new forms of mysticism. I was really excited to discover that some emerging churches consciously or unconsciously were based on Trinitarian ecclesiology. What God models as the sacred community is what church is called to reflect. These values of inclusivity, justice, incarnation, unity in diversity and focus on fluidity as community are key to being emerging church. It is deeply mystical and hugely exciting....
I was very interested in the move you make to show that the emerging churches you research are authentically church and Anglican. That seems a useful argument for people located in Anglican set ups. Has it made any difference to the emerging church community Moot that you lead either in self understanding or in your relations with St Matthews or the diocese?
One of the key discoveries for me was to find that the Anglican settlement after the violence of the reformation was based on a church celebrating unity in diversity, with a strongly mystical Trinitarian ecclesiology. The Church of England utilised this as a basis in the shift from premodern to modern. If this is right, then the emerging church in the shift frm modern to postmodern has rediscovered a similar framework which demonstrates at a core a connection or reframed Anglicanism. Ironically at a time of Anglican crisis, the basis of its beginning finds a new essential purpose with an ancient:future focus. The resonances between some of Richard Hookers writing and some emerging church writing is very exciting. Has it helped understanding? – most definitely! It has helped my Bishop to understand what and why we do what we do and aspire to be, it has helped those in St Matthews and others to understand us, and it has helped us in moot to establish what we would like to hold onto regarding Anglicanism – and what we don’t like and need to reframe in our pomo context.
You identify a weak area in the communities you researched around leadership and ordination (in relation to Anglican identity). Can you see a way forward in this area?
The weakness of a truly Trinitarian driven spiritual community – which some have called the mystical communion model – is its fraternal approach. The role of leaders and leadership is unclear. There is a danger of cults if power and governance are not transparent or not worked out. Clearly there are leaders. I think the emerging church have been using a servant/serving focus for leadership – a division of function rather than power and hierarchy. So I think the emerging church reframes leadership, but we still need leaders. In bodies of the people of God (the laos priesthood of all believers) – the question about what is the role between ordained and ordinary priests is the question. This issue is being hotly explored by Bishops and the Fresh Expressions team. For me there is something about the privilege of training, being an entrusted custodian of the tradition, accountability to the wider church, and a mediator/translator between the specific spiritual community and the wider church. I hope this research has identified a number of questions for ideas about ordination to be further explored regarding the emerging church and Anglicanism – there are still things that need exploring.
In the conclusions of your research you talk about a re-framed post-Christendom Anglican eccelsiology and identity. Is such a thing really possible?
I am convinced that a post-Christendom Anglicanism is not only possible but essential in a world of increasing fundamentalism and fanaticism. Anglicanism came about in response to such fundamentalism – its place of unity in diversity is a key voice. If Anglicanism is about this unity in diversity and an outworking of Trinitarian ecclesiology – then the emerging church can rightly hold onto this as an ancient:future basis. It may be mad but if it jettisoned the unhealthy components of Christendom and an overly hierarchical and controlling system, something very helpful would be released. I am hopeful the the Fresh Expressions initiative is a healthy sign.
I really welcomed your articulation of the need for more catholic inspired fresh expressions of church. Do you see any signs of growth in that area?
I am pleased that my dissertation has initiated some discussions. Fresh Expressions are launching a 5th roundtable to promote more catholic emerging churches with a big consultation in Feb 07. There are signs of growth – of the more post-Christendom Anglo-Catholic – but they need to be encouraged and nurtured. Engagement with rhythms of life, new-monasticism and experimental Eucharists are signs of hope.
How can people get hold of your research?
You can download the dissertation from http://www.mootique.net  as a pdf and it is also available in book form there.
Ian Mobsby is one of the founding members of the Moot Community with past involvement in two previous alt worship/emerging church communities. Ian is an ordained Anglican priest working with Moot full time in the Diocese of London, an associate Missioner of the Church of England Archbishop’s Fresh Expressions Team, and an associate lecturer of the St Paul’s Theological Centre in London.