Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Modern Believing Vol 56:4 - October 2015

What are we trying to achieve?

It is now fifty years since the Second Vatican Council completed its work, so we thought some reflection on it would be in order.

Massimo Faggioli notes disappointments: the lack of progress on ecumenism and lay involvement, the dominant role of the papacy. Nevertheless theologically, spiritually and institutionally there has been progress. The Church is not what it was and cannot go back, despite some moves in that direction. Faggioli argues that we need more than fifty years to judge it.

Thomas Hughson observes that, whereas previous councils had been convened to resolve doctrinal issues, Vatican II was pastoral. Nevertheless much theology resulted. Augustinian and Thomist tendencies were expressed in rival agendas like opposition to abortion and promotion of human rights, though he warns against too sharp a distinction. Pope Francis, the first pope since Vatican II not to have attended it, nevertheless expresses it well, not least for symbolising the worldwide dimension by being the first pope from Latin America. Citing his ‘steps away from clerical, papal privileges in dress, residence, and vehicle’, Hughson notes that ‘the whole council’s pastoral rather than dogmatic nature and purpose anchors his supremely pastoral style’.

Christopher Hill describes how Vatican II has influenced Anglican liturgy. It was always closely related to Roman Catholic liturgy, and the Church of England’s new services were influenced by the Council’s reforms. God was addressed as ‘you’ rather than ‘thee’ from Series 3 onwards. The westward-facing position of the priest at the Eucharist became standard. The liturgy was simplified. There was a renewed emphasis on the liturgy being an act of the whole people.

Our final article takes this journal’s ecumenical concern in a different direction. Alan Sell provides a review of Ward and Thompson’s collection of essays Tradition and the Baptist Academy. The contributors explore the nature of Baptist tradition, history and theology, and Sell summarises their accounts of Baptist worship, preaching, sacraments, ecclesiology and polity.

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At the end of last year the Church of England, under the leadership of Martyn Percy, the Church Times and our President Linda Woodhead, threw up its arms in horror at the newly published Green Report. Over the next few weeks a string of additional reports added fuel to the fire.

The comparison that comes to my mind is not with Vatican II – there will be no learned articles on these reports in fifty years’ time – but with the British Labour Party as it licks its wounds after losing the General Election. In both cases the agenda is driven by anxiety about decline. Those responsible for running the institution want to carry on doing the same things, but somehow more effectively – a bit like the Father Ted television programmes where the response to every crisis is to celebrate the Mass. So the Church is to spend extra capital resources on parish clergy and leadership.

Especially for its time, Vatican II was an act of bravery. Church leaders could see that society was changing the way it related to the Church, and the Church needed to change accordingly. Is a similar act of bravery now required, perhaps on a bigger scale, by the western churches in general?

Until the seventeenth century, as far as we know, every society in the world integrated its beliefs about gods into its overall understanding of reality. Speculation about natural processes informed, and was informed by, speculation about divine beings. Science, metaphysics and morality combined to explain how the world was made, why humans are the way we are and how we should live. Shamans, priests, seers, doctors, sorcerers and witches had different roles in different societies, but our modern separation of ‘religion’ into a distinct category of its own does not appear to have developed elsewhere.

This changed with the devastating experience of the European religious wars. Church authority and beliefs about God were increasingly excluded from government, law, science and eventually even ethics. Nineteenth century atheists, aiming to provide a complete account of reality without reference to any divine beings, adapted the word ‘religion’ to refer to a category of concepts for which they had no further use: God, prayer and life after death. Reality was made of matter, so religion had nothing to tell us about it.

Most of the mainstream churches responded by emphasising spiritual realities beyond the reach of natural scientists. It was a popular move at the time, especially since nineteenth century materialism left human life with no meaning, value or purpose, eerily empty. However, one implication was that the uncommitted might as well ignore all religion, since it was only an optional extra for individuals with private beliefs.

This is why twentieth century evangelism was predominantly a matter of catching individuals. Churches could grow by seizing the moment when someone found it difficult to cope with the religion-free paradigm, and grabbing another convert. The emphasis on individual conversion left the default atheism of secular society untouched. Churches which became successful in this way often took pride in being non-political. However, individuals so converted were bound to ask themselves what difference being a Christian really made. The hole has usually been plugged with single-issue campaigns: against abortion, evolution, gay marriage, whatever. The message becomes a simple one: to be one of us, you define yourself as a Christian and therefore oppose what we oppose.

Twenty years ago churches of this type were riding high. Now they are not. Single issue campaigns usually have a limited shelf life; opposing gay marriage clearly offends more people than it attracts, especially among the young. Perhaps another issue will soon replace it, but something else seems to be happening. Until around forty years ago the main British alternative to Christianity was atheism. Since then countless alternative and New Age groups have sprung up, most with minimal resources, and have grown while mainstream churches struggled. Meanwhile moral leadership, once provided by churches, is now provided by organisations like 38 Degrees with its concern for the environment, the poor, the ill, injustice and animals. These issues resonate with many people’s sense of spiritual connection with the world and its living processes.

Judging from the studies of religious beliefs, atheism has been found wanting; but those already disengaged from Christianity are reluctant to commit themselves to an institution providing too many doctrines. More people believe in something, but want to judge for themselves what proves helpful. One can hardly blame them.

This means that many people are looking for a spirituality more akin, in important ways, to what Christianity offered before the crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a wider range of practices and ideas, more integrated into their ordinary lives, more engaged with society’s general understanding of reality.

It is also more akin to the tradition in which Modern Church was founded, just over a century ago, to defend: a faith unafraid to take a close look at new ideas, whatever their provenance, and judge them on their merits, unafraid to admit, when the evidence demanded it, that past church teaching was wrong.

If this is what is happening, the churches can afford to spend less time distinguishing themselves from their wider society, and instead respond more positively to the various spiritual needs people think they have. Part of this response will be to stop judging success by the numbers of people who turn up to church services. Perhaps we should not be judging our success at all. Perhaps, instead of assessing how well we are doing, we should spend more time celebrating what God is doing for us.

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This issue completes my term as Editor of Modern Believing. It has felt sometimes like a privilege, sometimes like a challenge, sometimes both. After a century of publication with a succession of illustrious editors, can I really maintain the standard readers expect? Will I be the editor under whom it collapses? Can I really keep on top of the rapidly changing publishing world? Anthony Freeman came to the rescue, brought me up to date and made sure everything was done decently and in order. The issues of the last few years have been greatly improved by his patient work.

We also faced the issue of publishing arrangements. At the time of the handover from Adrian Thatcher we had spent many years looking for a suitable academic publisher and were still looking. Soon afterwards Liverpool University Press came up trumps. Although we feel confident that we made the right decision, the changeover has involved a great deal of work, especially regarding the system for subscriptions. Fortunately we had able officers, especially Christine Alker and Guy Elsmore who worked hard to smoothe out the wrinkles. I am therefore especially grateful to Anthony, Guy and Christine for pulling out the stops at an exacting time.

In addition a successful journal needs a team of collaborators plodding away behind the scenes, generally unnoticed. Among these are Michael Brierley the Reviews Editor, Clare Hooper and the staff of Liverpool University Press, the Editorial Advisers and of course the authors of the articles and reviews. I offer my thanks to them too. It has been a pleasure to work with them.

Finally we are grateful to Steven Shakespeare for offering to edit the journal henceforth. A publication like this is best edited by someone in an academic post and in constant touch with the latest ideas and thinkers. With Steven as Editor I am confident that it will go from strength to strength.