Connecting the Centre to the Edge, Graham Cray

In Church After Christendom Stuart Murray-Williams has written that

“The brightest hope for church after Christendom is a symbiotic relationship between inherited and emerging churches. We need each other.”

We usually refer to that symbiotic relationship as the mixed economy: a complementary partnership between fresh expressions of church and inherited models of church. But it can be understood in other ways as well. At a recent conference in Germany, Bishop Steven Croft spoke of “connecting the centre to the edge” as one of the keys to the rapid growth of fresh expressions in the UK. 

Over time, and brought to a head by the publication of Mission-shaped Church, the expertise of pioneers began to be taken seriously by senior church leaders and pioneers themselves began to understand that they had something vital to offer the wider church. Church plants and fresh expressions of church (before they were called fresh expressions!) which had been regarded as fringe or eccentric, un-Anglican or un-Methodist, were recognised as of strategic importance. Without this connecting of centre and edge there would be no fresh expressions initiative. Mission-shaped Church encouraged double listening – to God and to the context. But another double listening was already taking place within the church. If this was pivotal to the start of a national movement to plant fresh expressions, it will be equally important for it to be sustained.

At every level of the church: local congregation, circuit, deanery, presbytery and Churches Together group, as well as synod, diocese and district, the centre and edge need to listen to one another and learn from one another. Those planting fresh expressions, or simply struggling to relate their faith to friends and colleagues, need to share their experience with their church leaders. Church leaders need to listen and allow their understanding of the local mission field to be enlarged. In this way more traditional approaches to mission can become more effective. Equally, pioneers need to learn from the church’s traditions and those who lead more traditional approaches. Fresh expressions are not about completely reinventing the ecclesial wheel, but about proclaiming and embodying the historic faith afresh. There is much to learn from the wisdom of other traditions and previous generations.

Church leaders also need to develop relationships of trust with pioneers. Leadership is not about control, only allowing people to do what we understand, it is about releasing others to do things which we could not do, but which God has called them to do. According to Archbishop Rowan

“Leadership is not about giving commands, not even about making decisions, it is quite literally about leading, clearing the way, making it possible for us to go where otherwise we could not.”

When leaders give pioneers support they free them to fulfil their callings from God. Pioneers need to know they that someone is guarding their backs, not waiting for them to slip up.

The connection between the centre and the edge is lubricated by trust, communication and prayer. Leaders who have authorised pioneers or who have been given a supervisory role are called to make every effort to see that the fresh expression flourishes. Pioneers need to keep the rest of the church informed. They are a reminder that the whole church is missionary, that mission is the calling of both dimensions of the mixed economy, and that it takes place both through the centre and at the edge.

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Graham Cray writes regularly in the Church of England Newspaper and other places.

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