Modernist theology by George HenslowThe nineteenth century background:

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Britain - like other western countries - was in a state of spiritual crisis.

Especially among the more educated classes, people were turning against Christianity, often because of its teachings on eternal hell, the substitutionary theory of the atonement and biblical texts where God approved of massacres.

Modern Churchman cover

Our journal began publication in 1911. Its name was The Modern Churchman until 1996 when it was renamed Modern Believing under the editorship of George Pattison.

Articles from the first edition include:

Ourselves and our aim by Henry Major

The birth of the Churchmen's Union by Theodore Brocklehurst

Modernism and modernity by Percy Gardner

From then till 1946 it was edited by Henry Major. Since then it has been edited by A W Adams, William Frend, Anthony Dyson, George Pattison, Martyn Percy and Paul Badham, with Adrian Thatcher and Jonathan Clatworthy editing it for brief periods thereafter. From 2014 it is published by Liverpool University Press.

A new editor was announced in June 2014.


by Professor Percy Gardner, D.Litt., Oxford, from The Modern Churchman, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1911
A Mid-Monthly magazine to maintain the cause of truth,  freedom and progress in the National Church.

The term Modernism, as applied to a widely spread movement in the Church of Rome, was officially promulgated in the Encyclical Pascendi, published in 1907. In the Syllabus, published a little earlier by the Roman inquisition, and approved by Pius X., sixty-five propositions to be found in the writings of authors belonging to the Roman Church had been formulated and condemned. This Syllabus was supplemented by the more elaborate Encyclical, said to be drawn up by a noted Jesuit, in which the whole of the teaching condemned as Modernist was ranged in careful order, was formed, as was supposed into an elaborate and consistent system of thought, opposed to the orthodox doctrine, and was held up to the execration of all Catholics.

It must be confessed that in the propositions of the Syllabus the tendencies of modern Christian thought were set out with considerable insight. The Encyclical which followed was much less trustworthy. The author, though a writer of remarkable ability, had been too thoroughly trained in Roman methods of thinking and arguing to be able to adapt himself to the freer and less rigid movements of the modern intellect. He has created a portentous system, the whole of which was probably never accepted by any human mind. Agnosticism in philosophy and the critical spirit in history are its two main props; and in the connecting with these supports of all the religious views of which Rome disapproves, the writer of the document shews a rigour and a subtlety which arouse great admiration.

While it would be easy to extract from liberal writers in England passages which would support most of the theses condemned in the Syllabus, the Encyclical does not seriously strike us. We may leave aside this marvellous construction, together with the ugly and barbarous word modernism with which the Pope labels it. But the tendencies which when reflected in a papal mirror take such a monstrous form exist and are working in other churches than that of Rome. Let us, however, leave the Graeco-Roman hybrid word modernism to the papal phantom, and use the good Latin word modernity to signify these tendencies.

But Anglican liberals would be even more clever than the Roman author of the Encyclical if they could knead into their religious faith all the tendencies which may fairly be called modern. Modern tendencies, like those of every other age, are a mixture of good and bad, of the spiritual and the materialist, of the ethical and the wicked. Many of them are definitely anti-religious, more tend, by exaggerating the importance of the trivial and indifferent, to turn the minds of men from what really matters, from that serious view of life without which religion becomes a poor and superficial convention.

Modernity in religion does not imply a modern spirit in all things. It certainly does not imply secularity, for secularity is the direct negation of religion. It does not imply that vague sentimentalism and ethical indifference which is perhaps the most dangerous of all the foes of European society at the present moment. It certainly does not imply a reversion to the ritualism and materialism in which the Christian Church of the Middle Ages was steeped. That those who want to put back the clock of Christianity for six centuries should be spoken of as advanced is one of the oddest abuses of language and confusions of thought.

In fact, modernity in religion is just like modernity in everything else. it is an adaptation of religion to the changed circumstances of the time, a re-reading of the venerable documents of religion in the light of history and experience, an attempt to find for the undying spirit of Christianity an intellectual and social framework better fitted to the modern world.

There is a deeply seated and fundamental contrast between the academic or strictly historic view of the documents of Christianity on the one hand, and a practical or ethical view of them on the other. The tendency of modernity is to develop and further both points of view. In our Universities there is a growing tendency to place in a white light the writings of the Bible and the facts of Church history; to range the sacred books of Christianity in their time and place among other books; to set forth the history of the Church in lines parallel to the history of other phases of thought and the growth of other institutions. The spirit of historic criticism is steadily eating its way into theological literature, and every ten years sees a further advance. One may, as an individual, set limits to the process, but one cannot wholly deny its efficacy without falling into the ranks of hopeless obscurantism. But at the same time other needs than those of mere intelligence have to be regarded. The mass of mankind are interested, not in the history of religion, but in the experiences of religion. Their starting point is not the desire of a consistent view of the past, but the need of salvation in the present. They are driven to look on the Bible, the Prayer Book, creeds, and hymns, not in the pure white light of science, but through the mists of hope and fear, desire, and imagination. They care but little about the dates or even the authenticity of the sacred hooks, or the intentions of those who compiled the Prayer Book or wrote the hymns; what they need is something to make life more self-consistent and happy, and to make it easier to face duty and death. With growing democracy, this point of view also becomes more marked.

In the middle ages, Christianity was like a circle with a single centre; now it is like an ellipse drawn with reference to two points, the centre of knowledge and centre of action. And the religion alike of Churches and individuals is best understood when we define its position in regard to these two governing points.

The misfortune is that the scholar and the worker are not content each with affirming his own point of view, but they must proceed to vilify that which they do not choose. The scholar is apt to regard the worker as an obscurantist, and the worker to condemn the scholar as a rationalist or even an atheist. But in this case, as in so many, we may apply the favourite maxim of F. D. Maurice: each party is right in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. To reject the results of modern scientific criticism is to dwarf the intelligence, to remove religion from that healthy light of day, which Newman in an unfortunate moment called garish, into a dim and failing light. To despise the demands of practical life is to drift into pedantry and inefficiency.

I have said that modernity in religion is not essentially different from modernity in other things. A man cannot have much experience in teaching at a University without discovering that in all studies which have a near bearing on life the same contrast of the academic or scientific and the practical point of view prevails. One may study the history of philosophy as a pure matter of knowledge, without giving in one's adherence to any particular school. But the moment one tries to look at the living world philosophically, or aspires to live a philosophic life, the practical view breaks up the dead level of historic investigation, and compels one to hate one system or writer and to love another, or to cleave to one and despise another. And then a real living interest in the subject begins. One can only make Plato or Kant attractive by reading into them the experiences of actual life. Again, one may study the history of art merely as an evolution without much emotion, but when one begins to practice art, or even to care much about it, it at once seems a succession of mountains and valleys; and one loves the artists of the past not because they represent the culminating point of a particular tendency, but because they appeal to the individual heart and imagination. In physical studies the same differentiation appears when the worker begins to see that his knowledge may be put to some practical purpose, and be of advantage either to himself or to the community. In other pursuits, as well as in religion, the increasing differentiation of modern society into students and practical workers produces similar results to those observable in religion, and we have everywhere the ellipse in place of the circle.

Let us return, however, to the subject of religions. Everyone would allow that a circle is a more perfect form than an ellipse. And a complete reconcilement between the student and the worker would be an ideal to be longed for. But meantime, as such a consummation lies below the horizon, we have as best we can to find a modus vivendi, a practical via media. The modernists of the continent attempt to do without any reconciliation, to keep knowledge and practice in separate regions of the brain. While they indulge their critical tendencies to the full in dealing with sacred books and religious history, they are ready to conform to the rites and support the sacraments of the dominant Church. This is an almost exactly parallel attitude to that of philosophers under the Roman Empire, who set no limits to their theoretical scepticism, while they' were prepared to take part in any religious cult approved by the State. Is it not a better course to search for means of reconciling the spirit of criticism and the spirit of belief, by some concessions of the extreme rights on both sides in the interests of an intelligent morality, and a softened criticism? This is the way which has been generally taken by liberals in Protestant countries. It is the way of Maurice and Kingsley, of Stanley and Jowett, of Thomas Arnold and his son. It is really also the way of Newman, though the further growth of criticism and the recent hardening of the attitude of the Roman Church has made the solution of Newman no longer possible. There are in England, in Germany, and in America, a number of earnest thinkers and workers who are trying to move in this way, to cut a path through the thick forest towards a land of peace and unity, where the clashing between the interests of knowledge and the necessities of life may be less fierce and incessant. Any success on their part is a gain to religion, and a step towards a better order of society. Those who try to find a middle way between intellectual extremes often meet the fate of those who try to reconcile a quarrelling husband and wife; they are fallen upon by both parties. But after all life is a series of compromises; and it is to the appreciation in England of that fact that we owe the practical success which foreign observers often find it hard to account for.

In conclusion, I must add that every member of the Church of England is of necessity bound to take a middle course. That is our Church's condition of existence. If she ceased to regard either the intellectual or the practical necessities of the age, she would cease to be a Church, and become a sect.


by the Revd Theodore P. Brocklehurst, M.A., Vicar of Giggleswick-in-Craven, from The Modern Churchman, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1911
A Mid-Monthly magazine to maintain the cause of truth,  freedom and progress in the National Church.

I am yielding, very reluctantly, to the request of the Editor, that, as a quondam member, I should write an informal account of the beginning of the Churchmen's Union.

On April 5th, 1898, I wrote a letter to The Daily Mail on the subject of the "Selection of the area of preferment" which attracted the attention of the Rev. William Routh, who became Editor of The Church Gazette in 1898. He asked me if I would help him with a contribution on this subject, for a new Church paper he was just on the point of bringing out. Hence, in the issue of The Church Gazette, May 7th, 1898, my letter appeared, whereupon the Rev, Dr. Rosedale wrote to me. As a consequence Mr. Routh, Dr. Rosedale and the writer got into personal touch, and mooted the possibility of a centre for Broad Churchmen.

To put this idea into shape, Dr. Rosedale wrote a letter to The Church Gazette, June 18th, 1898, suggesting a conference of Churchmen with modern ideas.

From all this, it will be seen, that proximately the Churchmen's Union owes its existence to The Church Gazette and to the suggestion of Dr. Rosedale, who generously offered his parish room and other hospitalities for the initial gathering. No one was circularized, it was a friendly and voluntary foregathering of about a score of clergy and laymen.

We held our meeting on July 27th, 1898, and a striking characteristic of the meeting was its perfect accord in principles rather than discussion of differences.

The Church's need of progressive religious thought was unanimously affirmed, especially was this iterated by the laymen present, who alleged that the thinking laymen were disposed to be either contemptuous of or indifferent to Church matters. The thinking layman no less than the thinking clergyman required that religious truths should be elucidated in such a way as to afford intellectual conviction; that, in any case, the laity declined to he fettered by the dead past, and required recognition of the living truths of to-day.

"Anyone who thinks at all", said one speaker, "must realise that our very perceptions of truth are undergoing a process of unfoldment."

Every day, from the scientific world, truth is coming that must affect dogmatic authority. Loyalty to our Faith and its underlying spirit does not require us to believe only in a God Who manifested Himself in the past but Who is not revealing Himself in the present. If the Church declines to pay heed to present day revelations of the truth in the domains of science and history, and refuses to keep pace with the progress of enlightenment, the loss will be her own.

We need the living truth of the ever-present living God to sustain our spiritual life.

By an enlightened presentation of the living truth, as it underlies the dogmas of the dead past, we may do a great work for the Church and the nation at large.

Practical expression to the feeling of the meeting was given as follows: That an organization be formed to unite the body of Churchmen, who consider that dogma is susceptible of re-interpretation and re-statement in accordance with the clearer perception of truth, attained by discovery and research.

To this end, a small provisional committee was appointed, of which 1 was requested to be the convener, and the Editor of The Church Gazette generously allowed me to use his columns as a semi-official medium.

At the request of the provisional committee, I. arranged for a luncheon at the Great Northern Hotel, Bradford, on Sept. 29th, 1898, in the Church Congress week. At the deliberations afterwards, it was determined to hold a public meeting at the Church House in London on October 31st, 1898, in order to launch the Churchmen's Union formally. This inaugural meeting was well attended; the constitution of the Union was determined and an Executive appointed, consisting of seven clergymen and seven laymen, together with the Hon. Secretaries and Treasurer.

The following may be taken as an accurate précis of the proceedings:-

That there was no desire on the part of the Churchmen's Union to multiply parties in the Church. The true broad Church ideal could not be partizan; it recognized to the full the need of all schools of thought in our Church, if she were to be really national.

That the Churchmen's Union is primarily intended to be a union of Churchmen, who desire to promote the clearer statement of Christian truth in accordance with the advance in knowledge that has been made in modern times.

The Churchmen's Union is based on the principles of freedom of enquiry and of toleration in matters of religious opinion born of the Reformed Church of England, at once Catholic and Protestant. With State politics the Churchmen's Union has in its corporate capacity nothing to do.

Thus did our Union arise out of the conviction that the National Church must continue to advance in Christian thought as well as in the good works of the Christian life.

The Churchmen's Union is therefore plainly intended to uphold the right and the duty of free theological enquiry consistently with a due regard for the historical position and doctrinal development of the Church of England, to the end that the truths of Christianity, as set forth primarily in the life and teaching of our Lord, may be more clearly realized, and their application to the varied needs of modern life more fully understood and enforced.

Hence the Churchmen's Union does not concern itself with small details either of doctrine or ritual or organisation, for it realises how tastes vary with education and environment. Hence it sides neither with High Churchmen against Low Churchmen, nor with Low against High, in these matters. Its ideal is to allow as large a latitude as possible, providing that Christian courtesy be shewn to the congregation, their wishes duly consulted, and their consent openly obtained, before any alterations are made in these non-essential matters.

The members of the Churchmen's Union would feign live in the spirit of S. Augustine's great saying:

"Unity in needful things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things."

The foremost and immediate action of the Churchmen's Union is towards obtaining for lay members of the Church a real, legal, and adequate share in the government of the Church, which is alike the heritage of ministers and people.

As regards the Union's methods of promulgating its objects, it must be borne in mind that a merely negative and critical attitude is mischievous and unworthy. The positive side, which includes both teaching and action, is the only one to enlist generous minds, and to inspire that high aspiration which achieves its aim.

The policy of the Churchmen's Union would thus strive to represent not merely the Zeitgeist, but the spirit of Christ: a policy which, while it draws its inspiration and its principles from the Gospels, yet ever seeks for the method of their application in the modern world.


by H. D. A. Major, from The Modern Churchman, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1911
A Mid-Monthly magazine to maintain the cause of truth,  freedom and progress in the National Church.

 In this, the first number of our new magazine, it is due to our readers to tell them who we are and why we exist.

The Modern Churchman is the organ of the Churchmen's Union. This means that all official notices sent out by the President, Council, and Secretary of the Churchmen's Union, will be be (sic) found in our pages, and that we are therefore the official medium of communication between the officers of the Union and its members. Many of the members of the Union are living in splendid, but also in somewhat depressing isolation. They arc out of harmony with much in the Church around them. They are apt, at times, to feel as lonely as did Elijah on Mount Horeb. The Modern Churchman will prove, we hope, a monthly reminder that they are not alone, and its columns, whether those reserved for articles or correspondence, will give a much needed opportunity for intercourse, which should have the effect of uniting, inspiring, and strengthening many of those who at present are inclined almost to despair of the future of the National Church.

Another object of The Modern Churchman is to enlarge the membership of the Churchmen's Union. This society is not a small one, and in proportion to its numbers, its influence is far from insignificant, but in the opinion of those who know most about it, its influence for good is enormously curtailed by the fact that its existence is hardly known to any beyond its own immediate circle, except it be to its bitterest enemies.

This we may assume is largely due to the fact that influenced by a certain inherent disbelief in organisation, and a profound dislike of religious partisanship, it has never attempted an active and well-organised propaganda on behalf of its principles. In consequence of this, many who favour its principles are unfortunately in ignorance of its existence. Thus the Churchmen's Union is not only deprived of the society, help and comfort which would arise from their membership, but they by being deprived in many cases of all fellowship in their discontent with the condition of the National Church, and despairing in their isolation of any practical betterment of affairs, drift from discontent into opposition, and from opposition into indifference, so that the valuable services which these men might exercise in the reformation of the Church and clergy are lost to the nation. How tremendous this drift of educated, moral and religious men from membership in the National Church towards an attitude of entire indifference to religion, combined in certain cases with a spirit of hostility and contempt for the clergy and the general policy pursued in matters ecclesiastical is hardly realised, except by those who have seriously investigated the condition of affairs. It is those then whom

"The grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said",
[John Milton, Lycidas]

whom we would gladly win to our Union. We cannot offer them all they would like to receive or we to give. We can offer them no immediate hope of achieving their ideals for the National Church, and for the reformation of the temper and teaching of the bulk of the clergy. We can offer them no ready-made solution for the many intricate and complicated problems which stand in the way of wise and practical reforms in our Church services and organisation. But we can offer them sympathy with their discontent; we can discuss with them various remedies; we can combine with them in the practical effort to apply these remedies. Above all, we believe that a resolute, united body of strongly religious, moral, thoughtful, patriotic, single-minded men and women educated on modern lines and really in touch with modern life and its needs and difficulties, could do much to turn the enormous power for good or ill which the National Church possesses into channels where it would exercise a most beneficent influence on the national life, and make the Church - what she is not at present - the friend of every man of good-will in the community, whether he regard himself as one of her members or not, the ready helper of every social and religious effort which has for its object the strengthening and elevating of national character and the amelioration of the conditions of life. A humble-hearted, earnest-minded, active, friendly organisation, existing simply to serve the nation in the Spirit of Christ. Not an organisation marked by an ineffective self-complacency, which is only galvanised into activity when the comfortable possession of her privileges and possessions is in danger; still less an organisation which exists for the cultivation of an exclusive obscurantist ecclesiastical policy, which seems to the average Englishman to be little else than the attempt to form a fool's paradise, in which a small percentage of ecclesiastically-minded laymen and good women may receive, with becoming humility, the authoritative teaching and primitive discipline of a mediaevally minded hierarchy.

We desire that those who at present cherish the ideals of the Churchmen's Union in isolation may be brought together and thereby multiply in manifold fashion the influence which such ideals must have, especially when voiced by a large and united body of lay opinion. Whenever matters of Church policy are discussed by the powers-that-be, we cannot but notice that the views of High Churchmen and Low Churchmen are cautiously considered, but the great body of Churchmen who are neither High nor Low come in for scant consideration. This is very natural, human nature being what it is. The mass of Churchmen are of course quite unorganised; they neither read Church newspapers nor do they write to them; they are almost entirely silent about Church matters except in private conversation; and not a small number of them merely tacitly mark their disapproval either of parochial or diocesan or national Church policy by refusing to subscribe any more to Church objects. In no very long time these discontented members cease to attend the Church services, to respect her clergy, and to believe her doctrines. No doubt their life becomes the poorer in consequence, and the government of the Church falls more and more into the hands of ecclesiastics who are isolated from the great body of lay opinion and influence. If things continue to go on as at present, before another generation or two is past we shall have, as in some continental countries today, Clericalism and Secularism ready to spring at each other's throats, and Englishmen of good will and good sense placed in the preposterous position of having either to sacrifice their reason to their religion or their religion to their reason.

It needs no prophetic eye to see that this is the position into which we are drifting - one far removed from the aim of a great National Church, which would unite and build up all classes of the nation, by inculcating an ideal of life at once reasonable and religious.

Space forbids us to dwell further on this theme. Many of our contributors will treat it and in many forms. These contributors will not all be members of the Churchmen's Union, but they will all be members of the National Church. We make this last statement in no exclusive spirit. We do not suppose that because they are members of the National Church they have any higher degree of moral, or religious, or social insight than those who belong to other religious cornmunions in our midst; we only emphasize this point, in order that those who read this magazine may know that the opinions which are voiced in its pages come from the sons and daughters of the National Church, from those who wish her well, from those who cherish ideals for her - ideals of truth, of freedom, of progress, of comprehensiveness - which, if they could become hers, would enable her to become in no domineering sense the Church of the Nation. If these ideals are neglected she will rapidly become an obscure and ineffective sect tending with unavailing care the failing lights on her altars as she beholds the great tide of progressive national life sweep past her deserted temples - unless moved to indignation by the sight of complacent obscurantism and misused privilege it turn aside to sweep them away.


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