by Jonathan Clatworthy
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2007

The MCU was founded in 1898 and held its first annual conference in 1914. Since then it has had one every year except during the Second World War. This year's was No. 90.

In the early years they had a polemical flavour. The organization was campaigning for the position which came to be described as 'Modernist' because that was what Pope Pius X called it when he condemned it in 1907. It was in favour of biblical scholarship, it wasn't afraid if parts of the Bible turned out not to be true, it didn't feel threatened by modern science - not even evolution - and it defended the right of church people to question inherited doctrines like miracles and substitutionary atonement. The papers read at these conferences were printed in the journal, then called 'Modern Churchman', and there are copies here at the Library.

If you read them you will notice three things. Firstly they were learned. The top theologians were there. Secondly they were eloquent. Some of our members tell me they struggle to read some of the articles in our journal today, Modern Believing, because it is too academic for them. If you are one of those you would have much less difficulty with the earlier papers; they are beautifully written.

Thirdly, they are strangely up to date. A lot of the detailed information is out of date, of course, but the issues they deal with are still with us - do Christians have to believe in miracles, was Jesus divine, did God really insist that Jesus had to die as a punishment for human sin, does God really punish people for ever in hell, is Christianity really the only true religion, was the world really made in six days 4,000 years ago, does the devil exist? The answers they come up with are still the ones people today come up with.

What doesn't get reported so much in the old journals, because it was taken for granted, is that these conferences were front page news in the national newspapers. The Times would print long and learned reviews of what got said. The most controversial of them all was the 1921 conference, entitled 'Christ and the Creeds'. Different speakers took different views about the divinity of Christ, and opponents caused uproar, just as they are doing today over homosexuality. There was so much fuss that the leadership of the Church of England was persuaded to set up a commission to look into the matter. The Commission deliberated, for 17 years, and published a report in 1938. The report basically vindicated the MCU.

These days our conferences are on a variety of themes, and we get around 100-120 people attending. 2005 was on science and religion, and that was our best attended ever, with just over 150. Last year's was on sexuality. We meet at High Leigh, in Hertfordshire, a beautiful old stately home in equally beautiful surroundings, but with extra wings added at both ends of the house as the conference centre has expanded. They are building another new wing now. We confer from Tuesday afternoon to Friday lunchtime and we make sure people have time to explore the grounds if they want to.

This year's conference, 'Violence: a stubborn pandemic', was organized by Alan Race and co-chaired by him and Paul Badham. Descriptions of the speakers are with the photographs. We had a varied and full agenda, focusing on violence from a number of different directions. Between the talks we had worship and group discussions.

There are two comments which are frequently made by newcomers to our conferences. One is to express astonishment. They say things like 'I always had my doubts about the traditional Christianity I was brought up with, but I thought I was the only one; and here I have found lots of people thinking along the same lines as me'. The other is that they feel welcome. All conference organizers try to make sure that newcomers are welcome, but I think we have an advantage. If you go to a conference of Anglo-Catholics or conservative evangelicals, everybody assumes that you are one of them and if you reveal that you are not, eyebrows are raised. This can be very upsetting if you revealed it unintentionally, by using the wrong jargon or doing the wrong thing in worship. People who have come in order to be with like-minded people may feel a bit uncomfortable having you there. The MCU does not have that. We like diversity. Some people do accuse us of being just as exclusively liberal as others are exclusively evangelical or catholic, but they are really echoing an arcane postmodernist argument, not expressing what actually happens.

One of the highlights was a dialogue between Alan Billings and Tony Kempster. Tony Kempster is the General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Because the conference was on violence we had more pacifists than usual. Alan Billings is at the other end of the spectrum; he has a role as a government adviser in matters of religion and war, and the way he interpreted the traditional just war theory was unpopular not just with the pacifists but with most of the attenders. That was made clear while he was speaking. Some of the things Tony Kempster said would otherwise have been strongly challenged; but Alan Billings got everyone's attention. A couple of weeks later the Church Times, on 3rd August, carried an article by him. It begins

I found myself recently in a lions' den. I had no idea it was a lions' den when I first went in. The 100 or so members of the Modern Churchpeople's Union assembled for their annual conference looked more like lambs than lions. They were alert and watchful, but not aggressive - until, that is, I began to speak about the ethics of war, and the importance of winning the 'war on terror'.

He then describes what he said in his talk, and goes on:

Suddenly it was as if I had prodded the audience with a stick. They became restless. There was a steady growl. I sensed that they were mentally pacing up and down. Then they sprang. I came away licking my wounds, and ruefully reflecting on the fact that, after all these years, I still cannot distinguish a lamb from a lion.

Next year's conference is on Saving the Soul of Anglicanism. It will take place just before the Lambeth Conference, and you may know that the bishops are preparing for the Lambeth Conference by threatening not to come if the people they aren't speaking to will be there.

If we were lions who looked like lambs this year, I'll be interested to see what we turn out to be next year.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.