When the Soufflé Goes “Splat” image

When the Soufflé Goes “Splat”

Previously at ThinkTheology: I argued that Newfrontiers has, in the past, at various times and in various ways, been at risk of overegging the relational pudding. I argued that if there are three things that unite churches with one another – shared relationships, shared mission and shared theology – that our approach has been to disproportionately emphasise the first one at the expense of the last two. Particularly, I questioned our confessionophobia, and suggested that when you don’t write down what you believe, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have set beliefs because you’re “relational” – it just means that lots of people are not quite sure what those set beliefs are. With mission, my argument was that it made more sense to build your relationships around your mission than your mission around your relationships. Exit stage right.

Enter Matthew Hosier, stage left. Matt responded that although shared theology and shared mission were important, it was shared relationships that should unify a movement – and therefore, to develop my metaphor, that it was OK to end up with a soufflé, in which the egg was dominant over the other ingredients, rather than a cake. Shared mission, he argued, is insufficient to unite churches because it works best within relationship. And shared theology is insufficient because it, too, derives from relationship; authority rests either with confessions, congregations or apostles, and it clearly ought to rest with apostles because that is the relational model. So if our emphasis on relationships is stronger than our emphasis on theology or mission, that’s OK. Exit stage left, pursued by a bear.

There’s always a risk in a response like this that we can end up talking at cross-purposes and frustrating each other (let alone the reader). But let me respond briefly on the two points where I sense disagreement between us.

One: in my view, Matt has got the connection between relationship and mission upside-down. For him, shared mission flows most naturally out of shared relationship; for me, relationship flows most naturally out of shared theology and shared mission. His examples, of the trips we have both taken to Istanbul and Belfast recently, actually make this point. I did not partner in mission with those churches because we already had good relationships (I had spoken to two members of the Belfast church and one of the Istanbul church before I went there); I went out there to build relationships with them because we are on the same mission and share the same theological convictions. There are all sorts of people whom I like very much, but whose perception of their mission is so different from mine that it does not make much sense to work together except in unusual cases. Conversely, there are thousands of people in Newfrontiers whom I have never met, and with whom I have no direct relationship whatsoever, but with whom my unity in mission, theology and values is so strong that relationships form easily when we start doing things together. It is much easier to make a friend than to redefine a mission – and that means we’re better off uniting around the mission, and making friends as we go. Otherwise, the risk of the exclusive bubble, which Matt rightly recognises, becomes acute.

Two: Matt frames the three ways of understanding theological authority as (1) confessions, (2) congregations and (3) apostles / relationships. This, to put it no more strongly, is bunk. Churches can have confessions; apostolic leaders can have confessions (and for about a year, Newfrontiers did, albeit an unusually short one); and churches can both believe they have the final say on matters of doctrine, and ask for apostles to clarify what they should do and believe. In other words, these three categories are not mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive, and they don’t map onto the relationship / mission / theology discussion either. There are two types of question in play in Matt’s mini-list, not one: first, whether a set of beliefs is to be written down or not (oral vs written confession), and second, whether that set of beliefs is defined by a local congregation (congregational confessionalism), a historic body (historic confessionalism) or a translocal church leader (apostolic confessionalism). Matt has conflated the two, and his soufflé has collapsed as a result.

As I say, the question is not whether we have a confession – a list of things that everyone believes – but whether it is written down anywhere, and whether anyone knows what that confession actually is. To use a (partly) hypothetical example: let’s say it is unclear whether or not a particular view can be taught on a Newfrontiers training course. Teacher A believes it but, being the cautious type who does not like to rock the boat, he avoids it. Teacher B believes it, and teaches it quite happily, causing plenty of discussion. Teacher C believes it, but teaches the mainstream view to avoid conflict, even though he does not actually believe it in all details. And so on. Because the theological commitments have not been clarified – and I’m not claiming that writing them down is the only way of doing this, merely that it seems like a very sensible one – nobody is quite sure where they stand. When you add to that the multiple spheres of influence in the movement, and the fact that nobody particularly wants to write any of their theological commitments down, you have the recipe for potential confusion and disunity. Which, in the end, can harm relationships.

To be honest, I’m not arguing that we need a written confession. I do think that greater theological clarity within the spheres would be helpful, and I am trying to help with that in various ways, but I think we’re probably past the point at which a written confession would have been possible anyway, even if it was desirable. Rather, what I’m arguing is that our long-term unity and stability will be harder to maintain if shared theology and shared mission continue to play second-fiddle to shared relationships. So yes, making a soufflé is possible, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s not. But I think any chef would tell you that a soufflé is a lot more difficult to cook, a lot less robust, and a lot more likely to cave in on itself, than a cake.

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