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Why do we need an "Interweaving Ecclesiology"?

10:05 06/12/2021
Why do we need an "Interweaving Ecclesiology"?

A guest post from Mark Scanlan

 

It can feel like these are difficult times for the Church. External challenges such as a decline in the Church’s perceived relevance in a secular age, revealed through falling attendance and shrinking credibility in the public square, reflect both the diminishing of religion in people’s consciousness as well as suspicion of traditional authoritative institutions. Internally, the discussions about the right form, structure and approach for the church to meet these challenges become polarised all too quickly. It is therefore with some trepidation that I step into this space and offer An Interweaving Ecclesiology: The Church, Mission and Young People as a contribution to these conversations. Though trepidatious I am also hopeful that this contribution might help navigate a way forward.

At the recent General Synod Archbishop Stephen Cottrell presented a paper providing an update on the vision and strategy for the Church of England. Two aspects of this are pertinent to the contribution I hope that An Interweaving Ecclesiology might be able to make in charting a way forward – one is the desire to see the ‘mixed ecology’ becoming the norm of church life; the other is the oft-mentioned desire to grow younger, with the bold ambition of doubling the number of ‘young active disciples’ in the church.[1] In expanding on this in his address Archbishop Stephen made clear that such a vision and strategy does not mean ‘dismantling one way of being church’ but rather, citing Professor Andrew Walls, it can play to strengths of the parish system in which the church is both ‘diverse because humanity is diverse, [and] one because Christ is one’.[2] In this way he was making every effort to show that movements such as Save the Parish and Fresh Expressions need not be seen as in conflict, but rather offer complementary perspectives that can serve the revitalising of the parish system.

I humbly suggest that the vision for an ‘interweaving’ ecclesiology might help in holding together the oneness and diversity called for by the Archbishop, and that the additional strategic goal of growing younger might just be key in this process. This does not mean for me a focus on younger generations at the expense of older, but rather that the church takes account of the gift that is offered by what I call the ecclesial imagination of youth ministry – a way of life that forms faith and is held in the practical wisdom of the way that churches work with young people. This perspective tends to be missing from the discussion of the relationship between ministry and mission with young people and the wider life of the church. Whereas instead of one-directional thinking about how the church might minister faithfully and connect in mission with young people, I explore what the heritage of such ministry and mission might offer back to the church in terms of a vision for ecclesial life. In the introduction to the book, I summarise this by suggesting that our ecclesiology is poorer for not considering the natural location of young people as interpreters of culture, that our ministry among young people is poorer for not considering the theology of the church and our participation in the mission of God is poorer for both. This idea really sets in motion the trajectory of the book that seeks to present a vision for the church in mission that draws on the practical wisdom of Christian work with young people.

The lens through which I explore and draw out the ecclesial imagination of youth ministry is the story and current practice of youth ministry movement Urban Saints / Crusaders.[3] What is fascinating in this tradition of work with young people that is now over 120 years old is the way in which they positioned their work with young people in groups outside the usual streams and structures of church life, whilst also committing to working in harmony with the local church. What emerged was a way of life that formed faith in young people and leaders that didn’t fit within the life of the church and yet influenced the church in the UK in numerous ways. When exploring the ongoing praxis of current groups in the movement through in depth extended ethnographic case studies I discovered that this dynamic of faith forming was retained and cultivated on the margins of church life.

I came to see that in these groups, with their natural bricolage of practices and activities that could be termed ‘ecclesial’ and ordinary – prayer, bible study and pastoral care playing out alongside the usual youth group activities of fun and games, food, crafts and simply hanging out – the leaders and young people were comfortable with an ambiguous identity in relation to the church. The groups were not trying to be or  become churches but also carried in them a form of ecclesial life that meant, for some young people and leaders, they were a vital part of their experience of Christian community that was helping to form and sustain their faith. For other young people though they were simply youth groups to attend and enjoy. This ambiguous identity cultivated spaces in which Christian, non-Christian and those who were unsure how to identify themselves could build community, ask questions, have fun and participate in Christian practices together. As I reflected on these dynamics I came to understand the groups as ‘potential ecclesial spaces’ – they held the possibility of the life of the Church flowing in to them through the activity of the Spirit of God and as such became part of an overall expression of church life for some, whilst for others remaining simply youth groups.

One of the leaders I interviewed for my research described the relationship between this potential ecclesial life in the youth groups and the wider life of the church locally as ‘an interweaving thing’. The phrase grabbed me as a helpful way to encapsulate what I was beginning to discern – that this activity of Christian work with young people was able to create spaces which formed and sustained Christian faith in community and as such had the potential of ecclesial life, yet this ecclesial identity was ambiguous and needed to be in relationship to the more formal structures of local churches. Furthermore, though the experience of church for the young people and leaders was richer for the interaction of these ambiguous, potential ecclesial spaces and the more formal expressions of church normally expressed in congregational life. With a realisation that ‘the Church’ is not contained fully in either. An interweaving ecclesiology then values the dynamic interaction of various activities, groups, meetings, and relationships that makes up Christian community, and therefore the church, for any individual, and I would suggest in any parish -recognising and living within the tension between the margins and centre of church life.

The usefulness of this as an approach for the whole church in mission is seen in how it helps to hold in ecclesiological tension the way the Church finds its identity and vocation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This Christological foundation for the church is both in the sacramental events of Eucharist and baptism as the church gathers, and in the way the church must ‘walk in the world as Jesus walked the land’,[4] embodying its pilgrim life. Taking this a step further Stephen Pickard posits that the ‘effectiveness’ of the sacramental life of the church is discerned not only in the moments of inward celebration but rather in the ‘ongoing transformations of societal life, in which the body of Christ lives and moves and has it being’.[5]

The ecclesial imagination of Christian work with young people holds these inward and outward dynamics in the life of the church in tension, embracing the marginal ambiguity of the outward ministry to young people as well as the importance of the wider life of the church. My question and challenge is whether the often polarized debates between those longing for more creativity in pioneering new forms of the church and those calling for the parish to be saved might be brought to a more mutual understanding within a vision for an interweaving ecclesiology? Such a vision embraces the vital role of pioneers on the margins of church life, creatively seeking to follow the Holy Spirit into the ambiguity of new potential ecclesial spaces, whilst also acknowledging the significance of the loyal gathered parish congregation, as both inhabit the sacramentality of ecclesial existence. Committing to relationship together and celebrating the part the other plays in the Body of Christ could help the beautiful tapestry of God’s church be continually woven in and for the world. This might, perhaps, help the idea of a mixed ecology to flourish and become the norm, embracing all the glorious variety of expressions of ecclesial life as vital to the diverse yet one Church participating in the mission of God. I firmly believe that the Church can be more fully the Church as we embrace an ecclesiology that can hold these things together. And my hope is An Interweaving Ecclesiology might in some way serve this cause.

 

Mark Scanlan is a lecturer in Theology and Youth Ministry at St Mellitus College, London

An Interweaving Ecclesiology is available now via our website at a special launch discount

 

 

[1] Archbishop Stephen Cottrell, ‘Vision and Strategy Update’, General Synod November 2021 paper (available here: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/GS%202238%20Vision%20and%20Strategy%20Update.pdf)

[2] Ibid, p 2

[3] See https://www.urbansaints.org/history

[4] Julie Gittoes, "Where Is the Kingdom," in Generous Ecclesiology: Church, World and the Kingdom of God, ed. Julie Gittoes, Brutus Green, and James Heard (London: SCM Press, 2013), p. 100

[5] Stephen Pickard, Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press, 2012), p. 201.