Fresh Expressions in the Urban Context

Eleanor Williams interviewed by Steve Griffiths. UK

‘Fresh Expressions in the Urban Context’ Rev Dr Eleanor Williams £8.95

1. How did you come to be researching Fresh Expressions?
I had struggled for years with how the Church could be culturally relevant without losing what makes it distinctively ‘church’. When my family moved to an estate on the outskirts of Cambridge for my husband to become vicar of the local church the challenge seemed much more acute. I had worked most of my career as a GP in areas of social deprivation, so have encountered a lot of difficult situations. But living and worshipping in the area brought other challenges. The church had a lot going on to serve the local community, but the transition for people to Sunday worship seemed to be impossible. We began to experiment with different types of activity which might bring in a very low-key element of worship, and found it tough going. Several months after we arrived there was a serious assault at the church, which was incredibly difficult, but one outcome was that I found myself looking for what was going on in other contexts to learn about what might ‘work’ in our context. When choosing a subject for an MA dissertation as part of my ordination training it seemed an obvious area to look at – fresh expressions, but specifically at sustainability, particularly in urban deprived areas – what ‘works’ in an area like this? Just last night I was at the youth group, and the police had been called because of behaviour issues, and once again I was faced with this ongoing challenge to say. ‘How can we be relevant here? What would church look like for these kids?’

2. What approach does your new book, ‘Fresh Expressions in the Urban Context’, take?
I look at the development of fresh expressions, and ask some key questions about sustainability, engagement with the poor, and how far fresh expressions pander to the consumerist mentality. I then report on two pieces of research – one looking at what is going on in Ely diocese to engage with the fresh expressions agenda, which gives a really helpful perspective from ‘inherited churches.’ The other main piece of work is reporting on interviews with leaders of fresh expressions, mainly in urban deprived contexts, trying to answer those big questions about sustainability and how they engage with their contexts. I was able to interview several leaders of fresh expressions which had ended, which gave some significant insights into sustainability. In the final section I look at drawing it all together to ask how inherited and emerging churches can work together, and then some reflections on what it means to be ‘church’, and how a fresh expression can move on to become a mature, sustainable expression of church, and the resources needed.

3. Were there any surprises as a result of your research?
I suppose there were several surprises – one was the level of commitment of leaders of FE in urban deprived areas who were willing to commit themselves for the long term, ‘for as long as it takes’, often at great cost, in very challenging contexts, to form communities which could be life-giving places of welcome. Another was that it was sad to discover the extent to which leaders of fresh expressions had felt that there was a lack of understanding from the inherited church, and sometimes hostility and suspicion. But on the other hand there were a surprising and encouraging number of clergy, as seen in the Ely diocese research, who were willing to try and grapple with the issues and challenges of becoming culturally relevant, while maintaining continuity with the past, and who were willing to try new things, even if it was taking them out of their comfort zone.

4. What does the inherited Church most need to hear from the FE movement?
That it is not a threat, but that there may be much that can be gained from a partnership that could be mutually enriching, to have the humility to listen, even if it may not look like church as we know it.

5. What does the FE movement most need to hear from the inherited Church?
Not to dismiss what has gone before, be willing to learn from what has gone before, what has gone well, and the mistakes, and again have the humility to work in partnership, recognising the strengths and weaknesses of each.

6. Do you think Fresh Expressions is a fad or something longer lasting?
I hope that it represents more than ‘flavour of the month’ and the latest craze, but a genuine desire to be culturally relevant, and that there is an ongoing process of honest evaluation, and willingness to engage with both what has gone before and what is emerging, with Scripture, and with Church tradition.

7. What most excites you and disappoints you about how Church is developing at the moment?
I am excited by the sense of expectancy that God is at work in the Church, and that there is an openness in many areas to look afresh at what we are doing in order to move forward to take our part in the Mission of God in the world. I suppose the main area of disappointment is that there is sometimes, understandably maybe, a focus on easier areas, rather than areas of most need, and for many Christians there does seem to be a consumerist mindset whereby they seek churches where their own needs are more likely to be met.

8. What is your vision for Church in the next 10 years?
I think it could be summed up in what Brother Sam, who used to be vicar of St Bene’t’s in Cambridge, wrote several years ago: I sense that renewal of both church and society will come through the re-emerging of forms of Christian community that are homes of generous hospitality, places of challenging reconciliation, and centres of attentiveness to the living God.

9. Where can we get hold of your book?
The book is available through and retails at £8.95

Rev Dr Eleanor Williams is an ordained Minister in the Church of England and a practicing GP, currently serving a Curacy in the Ely Diocese, UK, as a Minister in Secular Employment.