Fresh Expressions of Diocese!?

It is most heartening that a whole new atmosphere of encouragement and permission is beginning to spread across the Church of England following the Mission-shaped Church report. Clearly the vision of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for a Mixed Economy church helped enormously. However, with God encouraging us with so much creativity in the field of fresh expressions cropping up all over the place at the grassroots… could God have in mind for a similar more radical transformation of the diocesan structures? In this article Bob Hopkins discusses some of the possibilities. In fact with the pressure of reduced finances and fewer clergy there have already been various suggestions for rethinking certain aspects of our 43 dioceses in the Church of England. It was over a decade ago that the obvious management suggestion arose of reducing the duplication of 43 units all staffing to similar departments. Whilst this sort of rationalisation would probably have been implemented in most other organisations, the depth of history associated with our dioceses and their fierce independence, presumably explain why little has been done in this direction.

Nonetheless, as we have said, our travels around England have been greatly inspired by a number of dioceses that are beginning to encourage and resource pioneer initiatives to plant fresh expressions of church. However, one experience recently led Mary to a much more challenging possibility for a diocese. The heart of the question that resulted was “do we need a fresh expression of diocese?” If they are encouraging this exploration of new forms of missional community at the grass roots, could it be that we should be thinking through a similar transformation in how we have done dioceses?

We had been spending a day with the clergy of ten significant churches within one particular diocese. During the interaction a number of things struck us. First the fact that when talking about the diocese, the expression always was in terms of “they” not “us.” Clearly there was a strong underlying sense of detachment rather than solidarity and ownership.

Secondly, through the day it became clear that different churches had developed particular strengths and God had given them distinct characteristics and creativity, which were proving really fruitful in different areas. One was in children’s mission and ministry, another in processes of evangelism, yet another in healthy small groups, another in developing contextual prayer and worship, another in the adaptation of buildings, etc.

However, these strengths were either confined to their own congregation or being networked beyond the diocese. It seemed a universal principle that where there was fruitfulness and growth in an area of ministry, the diocese connected less to that church rather than more. Clearly there may be factors on both sides.

Thirdly, of course this was all set in the context of declining resources and cutbacks in clergy numbers centrally and locally. Somehow these and other factors led Mary to conceive of a particular sort of fresh expression of diocese. Instead of an area of need or shared ministry across a diocese leading to a response of the diocese coming up with a program or creating a central post… how about identifying all the different proven strengths of local churches and working with them to become the resource churches willing to share and train other churches across the diocese.

Not only would this release great economies with largely lay teams and volunteers replacing diocesan office-bound specialists… it would transform the “them” attitude to an “us” attitude. The diocese wouldn’t be an institutional add-on at the centre, but the sum of gifts being shared across the churches. A central co-ordinating and communicating role to facilitate the link-ups would replace the costly specialists.

The recent launch of the Fresh Expressions training processes entitled mission-shaped.intro (6 week nights) and Mission Shaped Ministry (1 Year, part time) may prove examples of this new direction. These are substantial new training initiatives attracting 50-100 participants and are being initiated in the diocese of Norwich, Lincoln, Sheffield and others with local churches hosting and volunteer leaders doing much or most of the work to administer and run them.

Could these examples point the way to this sort of fresh expression of diocese that, rather than controlling the programmes centrally, shifted to releasing pioneer initiatives among its member churches to resource the whole. We realise that this suggestion raises all sorts of questions rather than giving all the answers, but we think that this is a debate that should be explored.

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