I had a brief, but excellent meeting on Monday with Pete Pillinger
of Fresh Expressions and
co-author of Changing
Church For A Changing World
. This book is a cheap and superb introduction
to Fresh Expressions Of Church from a Methodist
perspective. In it, my old friend Martin Wellings gives an historical
perspective on Fresh Expressions. He points out that the beginnings of
Methodism itself was a ‘fresh expression’ of its day, as were various
developments over the centuries (not least some that led to the movements being
expelled – such as Primitive Methodism and the Salvation Army). Martin points out
wryly that fresh expressions can become stale
. Is that the problem we face today? I suspect it is. I am glad
the Conference welcomes fresh expressions of church, but there are real
structural issues of our ecclesiology with which to grapple. I hope to look at
some of this during a sabbatical in eighteen months’ time.

There is the whole question of wineskins. Jesus said that
you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, or they will burst. Whether the
current ‘wineskin’ of Methodist ecclesiology (including our structures and
governance) can contain fresh expressions is a moot point. The Past President
of the Conference, Graham Carter, remarked in one Methodist Recorder article
that you probably shouldn’t put a Fresh Expression on the circuit preaching
plan, allocating it Local Preachers and ministers to take services in the way
you would a ‘conventional’ Methodist church. This is both eminently sensible
and also a ticking bomb. It is sensible, because FEs are so diverse within
themselves and compared with traditional Methodism that your average Methodist
preacher doesn’t have the training to lead worship in them.

But it is a ticking bomb, because the circuit system is the
basic structure of Methodism. The circuit is supposed to be the primary focus
of mission. Treating worship in FEs (rightly) like this undermines the system.
Great – but unless we change the wineskin there will be a red or white sticky
mess. Perhaps we need to face head-on the fact that we have turned into an
ecclesiological system something that was never intended by Wesley to be
anything of the sort. The classes, bands and societies he established during
the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival were a good thing in that unlike
George Whitefield, he organised converts and enquirers together. However, they
were established on the assumption that the members would still worship at the
parish church on a Sunday. So (in our terms) a midweek fellowship meeting or a
parachurch organisation evolved into a church congregation after Wesley’s
death, and in the light of Methodism’s ultimate split from the Church of
England. I suggest this fact has never been seriously faced.

But even to suggest this moves us into sacred cow territory
for some Methodists. So let me stress that I also see strengths in the circuit
system and the importance we place on ‘connexionalism’. Methodists see
themselves as connected to one another. In the circuit at its best, the strong
churches help the weaker ones. In the circuit staff meeting, we have an
opportunity for mutual support in the ministry on a regular basis. We are not
congregationalists, and I approve of that ecclesiologically. I do so, because
for me apostolicity is about two things: it is both about continuation in the
apostles’ doctrines (which is by no means guaranteed by the right person laying
hands on you) and it is about our wider fellowship. I see the original apostles
as guaranteeing doctrine, and in doing so having a trans-local ministry. There
is a challenge to maintain that sense of connectedness, without falling into
congregationalism. Other denominations manage to do so – although they often
run the risk of hierarchicalism (which, if we’re honest, can happen in
Methodism, too).

But of course, apostolicity is also about church-planting,
which is one critical aspect of Fresh Expressions. And so within this issue of
ecclesiology comes the question I have raised before on this blog, namely our
understanding of ordination (‘within’ on the grounds that church leadership
arises from the church, rather than a certain form of it being a sign that
guarantees the existence of the ‘true church’). Methodism ordains to two
‘orders’ of ministry. One is that of ‘presbyter’, which is seen to encompass
the New Testament office of the presbyter/bishop (rightly in my opinion we see episkopos and presbuteros as interchangeable terms). The other is that of
‘deacon’. I want to focus on presbyters. The problem comes in determining what
a presbyter does. There are several New Testament passages about Christian
leadership. I want to test whether our descriptions of a presbyter’s rôle
fulfils New Testament expectations.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging description of leadership
functions in the NT is in Ephesians 4, where four or five (depending on how you
interpret the Greek) leadership roles are enunciated. They are apostles,
prophets, evangelists, pastors (and) teachers. In recent years, some
charismatics have talked about the five-fold ministry. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch have expounded a more
nuanced view: these five ministries are gifts to, and present in the whole
church, not just leaders. However they are crucial for missional leadership.

Against this, the commonest and briefest understanding of a
presbyter’s calling is to a ministry of the word, sacrament and pastoral care.
Mostly, these fall within the boundaries of ‘pastor-teacher’ (notwithstanding
my previous concerns about sacramental presidency). If there is one possible
loophole, it is in the ministry of the word: ministering the word to whom? To
the church – in which case it is pastoral – or to the world – in which case it
is prophetic or evangelistic? I think it fair to say the standard assumption,
especially when one factors in the nature of ministerial training as many of us
have experienced it, is that the word is a pastoral function. We thus end up
purely ordaining pastor-teachers. It is not surprising if we then have a
‘maintenance ministry’, or an inward-looking one. Methodism does authorise
evangelists as well, but it is not explicitly part of the ordination call, with
one possible exception: one part of our ordination service calls on presbyters
to ‘seek the lost’ (Methodist Worship Book, p 308). Those who do not generally
fall within the pastor-teacher models of ministry generally end up being
recognised as laypeople. Where in particular are the apostolic church-planters?
And while I dislike a clergy/laity distinction, I am seeing ordination here as
a call to leadership in the Church. If we persist in purely ordaining
pastor-teachers, we shall inhibit the necessity of mission, which is
fundamental to the nature of the Church.

Some will object that certain ministers do have gifts in the
apostolic, prophetic or evangelistic areas. However, we should not rely on one
minister to be an all-rounder, as some circuits request. We are the Body of
Christ, and we need all members to bring their gifts. I believe the call, then,
is for team leadership, even if one person has to be the overall leader. I see
it as a vital missional task to identify and bless all the Ephesians 4
ministries, and bring them together into a team leadership model. I am not
calling for a neglect of pastoral care, but for a balance, where all the gifts
are recognised and given importance. I believe that will make for a healthy,
missional church. Pete told me that on the recent Fresh Expressions ‘Hard Questions’
, the Bishop of
spoke of how he had dealt with a problem of leadership in a fresh
expression. How would they receive the sacraments? Answer: rewrite the ordinal
and ordain the youth leader. If an Anglo-Catholic can do that, can Methodism
start to show some of the flexibility of a new wineskin, too? The need is

It’s easier to state the problems than propose the
solutions. And of course, I’ve said similar things on the blog before. I’m
currently working on some positive responses. Hopefully I’ll post them soon,
and you can all improve them, or show me their glaring weaknesses.

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One comment

  1. Wineskins

    A superb post: Dave Faulkner: Wineskins. Considering the future of the Church, Fresh Expressions and what ministers do. A great contribution to the debate that needs to happen.


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