For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions by Andrew Davidson and Alison Milbank
(SCM Press, 2010, 256 pages)
In the previous decade, North American evangelicalism saw the rise of the “emergent church.” This trend explored new forms and expressions of Christian faith which drew on traditional elements of Christian spirituality and liturgy in a way that took seriously a postmodern context. This was not so much an organized movement as it was a set of impulses that guided the thinking of many Christian writers who had come from and were dissatisfied with an evangelical background. “Emergent” impulses have been a part of the United Kingdom’s recent theological history as well. The Church of England’s 2004 report, Mission-shaped Church, was the official appropriation of the various “Fresh Expressions” by England’s established Church. In For the Parish, Andrew Davidson and Alison Milbank, both priests in the Church of England, make the case that, instead of opening up new avenues of ministry, the initiatives of Fresh Expressions actually weaken the Church and undermine the traditional parish structure.
The book is a bit uneven. At times it is hard to know precisely who the audience is. The authors seem to assume a fairly popular lay readership, but they consistently wade into a depth of theological analysis that seems inappropriate for such an audience. It also seemed that they were arguing against straw-men at points. I’m not sure that proponents of the Fresh Expressions would always recognize the positions that the authors are critiquing. That being said, I am very sympathetic to the basic perspective of the book. I thought that two of the later chapters, which laid out the positive vision of the authors, were the best parts of the book. Chapter 7, “The Parish,” is a fascinating look at the development of the traditional English parish system as well as an exposition of its ability to promote social cohesion and shared vision in communities. Chapter 8, “Rebuilding a Christian Imaginary in the Parish,” showed how the parish, as a durable and flexible institution, can continue to creatively minister to the diverse needs of people in particular localities.
This book should be of interest to those who follow current trends in ecclesiology and in contemporary English religious life. In particular, if you enjoy watching British mystery programs or reading English mystery novels, this book will give you some insight into why parish priests and church buildings are such ubiquitous features of these genres. The parish system is an essential part of understanding English history and culture, and this book explains and defends that heritage.