Editorial by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times No. 50 - Jul 2013


If the first quarter of this year was marked by a change of Pope, surely the most significant event of the second quarter was the death of Baroness Thatcher. Whatever history's final judgment on her may be, few have shaped and articulated cultural change as she did in her premiership. And the implications of that are profoundly theological.

There is continued debate about the significance of her most famous saying: 'There is no such thing as society.' In its context, it appears to have been primarily an appeal to citizens to take personal responsibility rather than leaving the solution of social problems to an abstract Them. But the currency gained by the saying has gone far beyond that. She, and her subsequent followers of all parties and none, undoubtedly viewed our culture  as dominated by a collectivism in which the individual 'striver' (a popular word in more recent debate) was stifled.

We may argue how far this vision was true to the facts, and how far it was an over-reaction to the behaviour of certain trade union leaders and other influential figures of her time.  We may argue, too, about whether it was a correct analysis of our country's undoubted social and economic problems in that period, and - even if it was - whether in the long term the cure has proved worse than the disease. But we can hardly deny that, for good or ill, she encouraged and reflected a turn to individualism and a markedly reduced emphasis  on community and solidarity.

And as liberals we have to recognise possible goods here, as well as possible ills.  The Modern Churchmen's Union was, after all, founded in 1898 to encourage and defend freedom  of conscience within the Church; to enable the "strivers" after new understandings of truth  to pursue their visions without fear. And it is an intriguing fact that the 1960s  - the "Honest to God decade", which Thatcher so hated - and the 1980s, which she so embodied,  were both dedicated to the overthrow of the image of stifling communal order  against which both she and the MCU reacted in such divergent ways.

The breakdown of the old order has certainly not been all bad. The release of women  from the bonds of patriarchy - all too limited as it still is - both in society and now in the Church  owes much to that breakdown. Likewise, though alas not yet in the Church, the partial release of LGBT people  from the bonds of heterosexism. These and many other gains are not to be decried. It is significant  that in such areas, though in all too few others, Thatcher's successors continue to promote  a "progressive" agenda.

But where do we as liberal Christians stand in the dialectic between the community and the individual?  There has also been much 'progressive' thought, not just in secular society but perhaps even more in the Church,  which during these decades has been rediscovering visions of solidarity. It is the Churches who have led  the opposition to some of the more monstrous and pharisaical demonising of society's 'losers'  which has characterised the recent debate on welfare. It is within the Churches, also,  that there have been movements to rediscover the reality of community at a local level  in a society where any sense of mutual belonging is now at a premium. Some of those movements  - and I think here particularly of Radical Orthodoxy with its renewed vision of parish life  and its rejection of fissiparous tendencies in modern culture - do not naturally identify with 'liberalism'  as they understand it. But surely here a true liberalism is one that struggles with the dialectic  rather than coming down on one side or the other as firmly as Thatcher herself did.

The solidarity of the whole creation is the theme of this year's Annual Conference.  And concern for the environment and a more holistic view of nature is one area where many secular movements  have resisted the individualistic turn. Recognition of the fragility of creation and our solidarity with  and responsibility for it is one of the great new facts of our time, outstripping in significance  any cultural changes in the Thatcher years. But it is by no means free of ambiguity and paradox. Writers on the subject such as James Lovelock and George Monbiot have over the years produced enough material  for several PhD theses to analyse twists and turns both conceptual and practical.

The Chair of our conference, Margaret Barker, is best known for her work on Temple mysticism. She has reinforced the findings of many other scholars that the religion of the Temple was far more mystical,  metaphysical, ritualistic and indeed 'pagan' than some later Jewish and Christian writers would like to admit. In itself, that would be no more than an interesting historical finding about a phase in religion  that we can now leave firmly behind. Where she may be more challenging is in her suggestion that the early Church,  and Jesus himself, were in the business of restoring the vision which lay behind all that.

Some strands of liberal theology (and the sort of theology which Dave Marshall propounds in his article below,  if indeed that is as separate as he implies) may have difficulty with such pre-modern ideas, and even be tempted  to relegate them to the world of The Da Vinci Code. Others may find it possible to be more open-minded. But, if the picture that Margaret paints has any validity and any possible relevance for the Church today,  we are immediately thrust back into a world of mystical hierarchy and order - where the Radical  (and certainly the less radical) Orthodox might be at home, but where others may be very uncomfortable,  and often with good reason. After all, if there is some sort of Platonic order to the whole universe,  might it not be that (for example) patriarchy is an inherent part of that order? Do women and men  have predetermined places (no place at all for LGBTs, of course) from which they depart at their peril? More generally, what about the spiritual "strivers" who seek to go beyond the given: the prophetic voices  behind the Deuteronomic reformation, and the Reformation of our own era, and for that matter the turbulent priests  of the original Modern Churchmen's Union? Must we see, not only the whole Church, but the whole of creation,  as suppressing the individual in the name of cosmic order, and condemning all economic, social  and spiritual entrepreneurs - and perhaps the whole entrepreneurial human race - to outer darkness?

In this year of the fiftieth anniversary of Honest to God (and, I note, the fiftieth edition  of this newsletter in its present form) it may be fitting to recall the work of Paul Tillich,  himself no stranger to metaphysical and even mystical thought despite his roots in existentialism. His famous dialectic between "catholic substance" and "protestant principle" may give us a tool  to resolve the tension between solidarity and freedom, the One and the Many. The cosmic order  portrayed in Temple theology, as much as the order of Christian orthodoxy, gives a vivid picture  of how things are and how they ought to be. Perhaps there is indeed "such a thing as society"  at the cosmic as well as at the human level. (That favourite Aunt Sally of some liberals,  the doctrine of the Trinity, just might have some relevance here.) Yet at the same time this order  is semper reformanda. Some at least of its disruption by humanity may be a "necessary sin",  driven as it is by the "evil inclination" (yetzer-ha'ra') of lust and greed  which the Rabbis insisted was nevertheless God-given. If so, it is part of an unavoidable dialectical movement  towards a new level of order in which the individual has a place historically denied to her.

All this is deep theological territory with a huge diversity of practical applications, affecting how we might view everything from a proposed 'fresh expression of church' to a proposed local windfarm. Resourcing responsible theology, in this area between the apparently rather abstract and the sharply practical, is what Modern Church is all about.

At our AGM during the Annual Conference we will be faced with considerable challenges, which were adumbrated in the last edition. For the latest on one of these - the future of our learned journal  - see the Trustees' statement below. But we are also faced with the prospect of losing yet more of our key people.  Not only, as previously announced, will John Plant and Richard Hall be standing down as Chair and Treasurer respectively, but our General Secretary, Jonathan Clatworthy, is under doctor's orders to reduce his commitments drastically. This is not the place to pay tribute to any of our retiring officers in any detail; that is for the next edition.  But I for one, having taken over from Jonathan some five years ago as editor of this newsletter and worked closely with him subsequently, will feel that loss particularly keenly. Members will be glad to know that he intends to continue to contribute to Modern Church in other ways, and that nominations are coming forward to fill the vacant posts. And meanwhile our work continues, not least through the Honest to God conferences of which notice was given in the last edition and for which flyers are enclosed.

It is precisely because we live in a fractured and dialectical world, and a fractured and dialectical Church, that we need to rise to these challenges. Modern Church, in its own diversity, mirrors that very dialectic between the cohesion of the community and the entrepreneurship of individuals, and the Trustees have been particularly conscious of that in recent months.

There is indeed such a thing as society, and there is such a thing as our society, and it will continue and flourish.


Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.