Pioneer ministry is still a new creature in the ecology of the Church of England. The speed of its addition and establishment has been astonishing for an organisation not exactly given to rapid change. In my experience the complex structures within most Dioceses are still struggling to know how to adjust, reform and respond to the presence of ministers often seen as being ‘outside of the structures’.
That was the phrase used by a senior member of the Diocesan staff to describe my role not long after I was licensed. I responded at the time that I thought it wasn’t quite right to describe me like that. I said I would prefer to be seen as on the edge of the structures, though perhaps looking outward.
However in truth, he was right, I am outside of the structures. The reason I responded as I did is that I am very much committed to remaining within them. And I believe this is the case with many people I know who are called to an apostolic ministry, many of whom are ordained.
In some cases sadly it seems that the structures, as they exist at present, struggle to cope with us pioneers. I have had conversations with two such pioneers recently, and their teams, who are effectively in ecclesiastic limbo, because the local structures either cannot accept that they ‘fit’ or cannot find a category to accept them or the emerging community they are developing.
Richard Rohr has said that we need the kind of people who are ‘inside of the edge’. I like that phrase. It seems to me that the edge is an exciting place. A place of opportunity, creativity, entrepreneurialism, emergence. Isn’t it precisely at the edge that we see the Spirit at work, creating new order out of chaos?
But what do we mean by the edge? I think we need to think of two kinds of edges. Firstly the hard edge of denominational structures, canon law, legal entities. Pioneers more often than not work outside of these, exploring new areas and potential new forms of church. But secondly we might define another edge that is not so much structural but relational. A fluid edge that is defined rather subjectively and organically by the stories emerging from the accountable relationship a church structure has with a pioneer. Pioneers then are ‘outside the structures’ but in a positive sense. Through a consistent and valued relationship with the structures they are ‘inside the edge’ – the edge where God’s Spirit is calling the church out to explore new ground, new opportunities and where the birthing of new structures takes place.
Within these two edges we need to cultivate a kind of ‘structural liminality’ – a positive attitude to the absence of structure and a faith and confidence in the work of pioneers, following the missionary Spirit to see new structures emerge. This they will do through relationship with the sending church, a church that will need to offer patience, trust and imagination to give the necessary form to what emerges without imposing poorly fitting forms too early.