At what point, on their outward bound journey, does the space traveller experience real panic? On seeing planet earth recede past the point of no return, in the knowledge of limited supplies of oxygen and other life sustaining resources, perhaps. I think the Church is in danger of reaching this point.
This week, I find myself once again at Modern Church’s annual conference. Its theme, so well timed to coincide with the happy outcome of the vote on women bishops in the Church of England, is A Liberating Spirit? Exploring Spirituality for the 21st Century - and how badly that spirituality needs to be explored.
As one conference delegate put it, 'either we get spiritual or we go under', or perhaps lose sight of ourselves as we drift ever further away from our source of life, our element.
Spirituality, however we may think of it, is the Church’s true element, the oxygen on which it depends for survival. The going under is the point of no return, the separation of the Church and the planet itself from its source, its life. So exploring spirituality for the 21st century involves re-discovering that element so that the Church can be seen again, as it were, from a great distance. This is where Modern Church and its conference offers hope. The conference, and Modern Church itself, is an element, a life context, in which the wider Church might begin to be visible again to the world, and to itself.
What Modern Church is offering to its conference members, and to the wider Christian community, is “passionate liberalism”, to quote Canon Professor Martyn Percy in his opening address. It is passionate about accepting the ‘other’ and the way things are without seeking to dictate, dominate or control. It is passionate about embracing and holding the world as it is, and the Church as it is, in the boundless realm of God’s mercy and love. This is the spirituality needed for the 21st century, a spirit of a love which goes way beyond tolerance because it is a forward movement towards the other. It is akin to that of the Father running towards the son who he does not understand (which doesn’t matter to him in the least) and yet fully understands. It is a complete re-shaping of the Church as we know it.
Those attending this conference are here because they not only believe passionately in liberal theology but because they love God in and through the thinking which is done here, through wisdom which is new and still ‘on the edge of things’ and still being explored, through ideas brilliantly presented and hammered out further in conversation and through deep and powerful worship which takes place here three times a day. Modern Church is not secular humanism dressed up as church.
It is the thinking, the patient listening and the depth of prayer which makes this event significant for the future of the Church as a whole today. In some ways what is going on here is as important for the future of the Church of England as the decision taken by its General Synod on Monday. In both of these contexts, truth is being recognised. Here, at the Modern Church conference, we are coming across things which, to quote Mark Oakley, another of our speakers, ‘we don’t know that we don’t know’ and for which we realise a new language is needed.
We will need a new language for these new times in the life of the Church of England. If we can learn to speak each other’s language we shall have something new to say to the world. We shall have learned, through forgiveness, a language which resonates with the other’s pain, rather than what is loosely termed ‘relevance’. The language of resonance is what the Church needs to learn in order to communicate the reality of God’s loving embrace of a broken and hurting world. In order to learn this language, the Church needs to let go of some of its own self inflicted pain, much of it bound up in all the events and exchanges that led up to the synod vote.
There is quite a bit of letting go happening here at this conference. We are all to some extent letting go of old habits of mind, re-focusing the lens through which we have seen the Church, the world and ourselves, as we continue to explore new ways of thinking about spirituality. We have thought about the nurturing aspect of the Christian life, and of ministry in particular, in which we allow the grace of God to flow into and through us onto others, as a mother does in breast feeding her child. This is a letting go in order to allow.
There is the letting go of the past and of the future, in order to be fully present to the present, to value it as the only moment we can truly call our own and so make the present, whatever it is being for others, as rich as it can be. This is a re-focusing of our lives.