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.

Archaeologists were producing evidence that contradicted the histories in the Bible, and evolutionary theory was undermining some of the arguments for the existence of God.

Many churches, Catholic and Protestant alike, reacted by becoming suspicious of modern education and science. Evangelicals emphasised more strongly than before the infallibility of the Bible, even on scientific and historical matters, while Catholics strengthened their claims for the authority of church leaders and the objective validity of the sacraments.

Many Christians, though, refused to accept these reactionary movements. They remained confident that true science must be consistent with true religion. Christians, they believed, should welcome new research findings and if necessary change doctrines in the light of them. Fifty years earlier this position would have been accepted as normal not only among ‘Broad Church’ members of the Church of England but among Tractarians and Evangelicals too.

Our foundation:

On 27th July 1898 a meeting in London agreed to set up an organisation called ‘The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought’. Their motive is expressed in two Resolutions:

  1. That this meeting desires to express its sense of the necessity of taking steps in order 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 by discovery and research.
  2. That in order to prevent the falling away of the thoughtful and educated from the Church, this meeting pledges itself to support an organisation which shall unite together all such churchmen.

The Chair of the meeting, The Rev H G Rosedale, was confident that ‘by far the larger proportion of learned and highly accomplished clergy and Church laity belong to this school of thought’. Their publication, the Church Gazette, reported that

The affirmation of this principle was declared to be especially called for at a time when there was a formidable reactionary movement within the Church in favour of crystallised dogmatism and ecclesiasticism… The Church, it was regretfully acknowledged, lagged behind the intelligence of the age. Thinking men were disposed to be either contemptuous or indifferent.

Our name:

At first the society was generally known as The Churchmen’s Union. This expressed its original character as a pressure group within the Church of England. In 1907, however, Pope Pius X issued an encyclical which denounced the ‘modernists’ within Roman Catholicism, effectively suppressing some theological movements. From then on our organisation came to be known as ‘the Modernists’. From 1911 our journal was named The Modern Churchman and in 1928 the Churchmen’s Union was officially renamed The Modern Churchmen’s Union.

Over time this name ceased to be acceptable. It was changed In 1986 to The Modern Churchpeople’s Union and again in 2010 to Modern Church.

Our witness:

A number of leading theologians and bishops have been active members. The most influential theologians were Hastings Rashdall, W R Inge, Charles Raven and Anthony Dyson. Henry Major, the central figure behind the organisation for many of its early decades, was also a significant theologian.

We attracted a great deal of attention and controversy in the first decades of the twentieth century, as scholars applied to the New Testament the scrutiny they had previously applied to the Old Testament. The national press took great interest in our conferences and sometimes provided detailed accounts of them. The most hotly debated was the 1921 conference ‘Christ and the Creeds’. It explored questions about the divinity of Christ which would now be considered perfectly normal, but at the time there was so much opposition that the Church of England’s first Doctrine Commission was appointed to consider the limits of acceptable belief. It was chaired by William Temple. When it reported in 1938, it supported our position that a wide range of opinions were acceptable within the Church of England. It was reissued in 1962 as a fresh range of questioning began to emerge.

We have been involved in many debates within and outside the churches: about sexual ethics, women’s ministry, capital punishment, assisted dying, interfaith dialogue, the sciences and other matters. Typically we saw the need for change and argued for it long before it became acceptable: for example we were lobbying for women priests in the 1920s, and some of our theologians were arguing for gay rights in the middle of the twentieth century when the cause was still very unpopular.

The issues change, but there is always some controversy which divides those willing to accept new insights from those who feel they must stick with inherited teachings. We keep being proved right in the long run, but our tendency to be ahead of the game means we are always challenging the status quo.

Our college:

While running the organisation Henry Major set up and ran a theological college for training priests. First established in Ripon it later moved to Ripon Hall in Oxford. It was very much the favoured college of ‘modernists’. In 1975 it merged with Cuddesdon College to become Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

Ups and downs:

Our influence within the Church of England was at its strongest in the 1920s. By the end of the 1930s it was declining, largely because we had been so successful. Historical and critical study of the Bible and Christian doctrine were generally accepted by theologians.

As our influence declined conservative trends grew stronger in the churches, often associated with the theology of Karl Barth. Since the 1970s we have seen new opposition to evolution, insistence on factual accuracy of biblical miracles and evil spirits, and hostility to inter-faith dialogue and liberal sexual ethics.

The most comprehensive history of the organisation is Alan Stephenson’s The Rise and Decline of English Modernism, published in 1984. As the title indicates, the author thought it had had its day. Our membership was at its lowest point. Since then however it has gradually risen, especially under the leadership of Nicholas Henderson, General Secretary from 1990 to 2002. There has been a revived search for a liberal voice in church circles. Many of the original controversies have returned: evolution, critical biblical scholarship, interfaith dialogue, gender issues and the relationship of Christian doctrines to modern science are all being debated again. New scholarship on the Bible and the Jesus of history refocuses the debate on the Gospels and biblical interpretation more generally. Apart from the gender-exclusive language, the reasons given for founding the organisation in 1898 could apply just as well today; indeed, our hundredth anniversary was celebrated with Paul Badham’s book The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology, which showed how many of the ideas championed by the early Modernists are once more at the heart of current debates.

Over the last few years two issues in particular, women bishops and same-sex partnerships, have encouraged church members to seek a liberal voice. We were also heavily involved in presenting the case against the recently proposed Anglican Communion Covenant.

Once again our witness is increasingly perceived as an essential part of church life, determined to defend the right to question inherited doctrines and keep the door open to new insights.