Fresh Expressions: Emerging Church And The Historic Denominations

Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!

But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.

For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?

(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)

How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.

Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.

Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.


  1. Hi David,

    Following this from Pete’s blog I think you have some interesting thoughts! My own answer to the question is yes, they can embrace each other! What has been lost in historical denominations is both scripture and the Holy Spirit!!! By this I mean that power struggles seem to be more a priority than what sacraments and such things mean in biblical terms.

    As far as the emerging church movement goes, my one fear is the total conversion to a “feelings only” religion where anything goes…one person in the movement is quoted saying something along the lines of, there is no theology of doctrine, its great! That to me doesnt sound so great.

    In all I am in favour of the emerging church movement but I am in favour of the methodist denomination…both can embrace but it needs to be spirit AND biblically based.

    Paul Saxton


  2. Dave (and Sack of course),
    Thanks for this, it’s really interesting. Having thought that emerging church was the saviour of western christianity i also have come across over all pessimistic but, as you correctly highlight, i think the ability of the emerging church to question the church is something valuable, as are questions about power and authority. I think this provides a background to the emerging churches relationship with orthodoxy and tradition. I don’t think the emerging church disregards the historic denominations but it does insist that it must be interpreted in a certain way, in particular paying attention to the use of power and influence and i don’t think that is a bad thing.
    For example the emerging church seems to remain largely sceptical about expressions of church which forcefully prosletize but embraces all things celtic… so it can’t be concluded that it is dismissive of all things historical, doesn’t it just interprets them through a particular framework????

    Re. Sackos comment “power struggles seem to be more a priority than what sacraments and such things mean in biblical terms”- the point of postmodern literary criticism (inc. modern biblical studies) is surely to say that issues meaning and power cannot be seperated… you can’t ignore the power struggle debate and get on with interpretation because I think it provides a good and ethical critique of our decision making and might help to prevent the stupid mistakes that have plagued our history
    Long comment, sorry!



  3. Dear Paul and Phil

    Thanks for your responses! I still think the emerging church’s characteristically postmodern concern about power and truth will expose the power games played in the historic denominations regarding ordination, office and power. As Frost and Hirsch seem to imply in their book ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come’ there are clear leadership ministries of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (as per Ephesians 4) but many historic denominations, Methodism included, ordain to a ministry of ‘word, sacrament and pastoral care’. I see two problems with this.

    Firstly, word and pastoral care are clearly there in Ephesians 4, but a ministry of the sacraments most definitely isn’t. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any limitation on who may baptise (Paul frankly isn’t too bothered in 1 Corinthians 1), nor is there even a hint of who may preside at Holy Communion (it just has to be approached in a godly manner by all who partake, as in 1 Corinthians 11). What kind of mindset limits the channels of the sacraments? For all the egalitarian talk in Methodism have we not inherited some of the authoritarianism that was so manifest in John Wesley himself?

    Secondly, we ordain those who teach the Bible and have pastoral oversight but we don’t ordain the apostles, prophets and evangelists: no wonder our churches are so inward-looking! (I owe this insight to Frost and Hirsch.)

    To pick up specifically on some of Paul’s comments, I don’t doubt we have issues about Scripture and the Holy Spirit in Methodism. Nor would I espouse a new approach that is ‘feelings only’, with no reference to doctrine. I do think, however, that we may need to rethink the way we present our doctrine: the old ‘systematic theology’ approach that makes everything into a neat system doesn’t to my mind fit with the nature of Scripture itself. And certainly it’s interesting to see the emerging church emphasis on not having a statement of faith but a rule of life: throwing away the statement of faith may be a ‘baby and the bathwater’ mistake, but the rule of life is highly important. In the past it’s been all to easy in the church to subscribe to a doctrinal statement and not have a life that reflects that doctrine.

    Also, to pick up specifically on Phil’s comment, I’m sorry if my post seemed to imply that the emerging church is suspicious of history. I am only too aware it is far from being ahistorical. I like Brian McLaren’s comment in ‘The Church On The Other Side’ where he speaks of ‘trading up traditions for Tradition’. In other words, if we’re the Body of Christ, then we’re not limited to the ‘traditions’ of our denomination’s heritage (if we do, we are not liberated but bound by them). Instead our heritage is the entire tradition of the whole church in every place and generation. The emerging church then creates a mosaic of these different traditions, playing with them and often creating something new.

    So there you go: another long comment!



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