Traditional and Emerging Church

Church is what happens when the call of Jesus is definitively heard. God calls. God makes a difference. God draws together a community of people. We hold to Scripture and sacrements as the essential common language God has given. But what then?

Then, I suspect, it’s a lot more chaotic than we have usually assumed. In Wales, we used to talk about the ‘mixed economy’ Church – that is, one which is learning how to cope with diverse forms and rhythms of worshipping life. The parish system works very well in some contexts. It’s just that we are increasingly aware of the contexts where it simply isn’t capable of making an impact, where something has to grow out of it or alongside it, not as a rival (why do we cast so much of our Christian life in terms of competition?) but as an attempt to answer questions that the parish system was never meant to answer.

Mission, it’s been said, is finding out what God is doing and joining in. And at present there is actually an extraordinary amount going on in terms of the creation of new styles of church life. We can call it church planting, ‘new ways of being church’ or various other things; but the point is that more and more patterns of worship and shared life are appearing on the edge of our mainstream life that cry out for our support, understanding and nurture if they are not to get isolated and unaccountable.

Can we live with this and make it work? This is where the unexpected growth happens, where the unlikely contacts are often made; where the Church is renewed (as it so often is) from the edges, not the centre. We need a positive willingness to see and understand all this – and to find the patterns and rhythms and means of communication that will let everyone share the benefits.

So there are at least two Churches of England. There is the growing edge, the abundance of new things happening, with the new challenges about worship and ministry they bring. Then there is the so-called routine, the ordinary life of the parish, where people are unobtrusively introduced to Jesus Christ daily. And these two are really one.

Here we are looking at a Church with deep roots, both human and theological, getting on with the prosaic business (always so hard) without posturing, free enough from anxiety to be grateful for new things happening, even if they are not easily digestible, doing those basic and small things which are also earth-changing – reading the Bible, bringing people to baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

What gives this Church its solidity, I suggest, is that it knows itself to exist because of God in Christ – not as a cultural fact, not as a society of militants with a human programme but as a community living in the space God has cleared; sometimes unclear about what exactly should be said about this, sometimes deeply bewildered about the people who seem to be sharing this space with us, always at a loss as to how we should plan for future security, but confident because it was not our power or initiative that cut through the brambles and made a place to live.

This doesn’t solve problems (theology doesn’t, much). I hope, though, that it gives us something to remember when the various parts of the church jostle so noisily that we wonder where our unity is. If we believe in God’s Church, two things are more likely to happen. We shall find more courage to explore new styles of Church life and the patterns and protocols we need to keep communication going with and between them. And we shall be freer to communicate with each other, without distrust and suspicion.

Rev Dr Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like you didn’t already know that…