Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 57 - Apr 2015
This summer, we look forward to our Annual Conference held jointly with the World Congress of Faiths: Seeking the Sacred: Christianity in dialogue with other religions and the world. It should be a remarkable convergence of people from widely divergent faith traditions, looking at what divides and unites us.
Historically, Modern Church has had a great interest in interfaith questions, stemming from its foundation in the late Victorian era when confrontation with other great world faiths led to questions about religious exclusiveness.
The first half of the twentieth century saw the 1910 Edinburgh Conference, with its call for 'the evangelization of the world in this generation'; but also the statement by the mystical theologian Evelyn Underhill that 'there is no essential difference between Brahmin, Sufi and Christian mystics at their best'. Our commitment to dialogue is represented most recently in the writings of Alan Race, Chair of our forthcoming Conference, and Guy Elsmore's articles in recent editions of this newsletter.
Any easy assumption about dialogue has been rather challenged, of late, by the all too brutal and tragic resurgence of militant Islam (and other fundamentalisms). But that reflects tensions which have always been there in the interfaith arena.
Meanwhile, quietly in the background, more and more common ground is found amongst 'liberals' in all faiths, particularly the Abrahamic faiths.
For some commentators, notably Karen Armstrong, that has suggested the possibility of a sort of world faith built on the orthopraxy of 'compassion', in which the distinctive features which seem to divide us so sharply are pushed into the background. I cannot help but observe that Graham Hellier appeared in our last issue to question such an approach (in the form presented by a previous contributor) – whilst Merryn Hellier appears in this issue to commend something rather like that same approach! Readers will have their own views on whether Graham was right to be so critical of Michael Wright's apparent espousal of the Armstrong thesis and to demand a more rigorous fundamental theology, or whether Merryn is right to imply that most of the theology that we discuss in these pages may be irrelevant. We need both challenges, and it is a feature of Modern Church that such debates go on. It is interesting also to note how Brenda Watson's article develops the argument.
I suspect, however, that most of the speakers at our Conference will not agree that details of belief, and even ritual, simply do not matter. Perhaps not all liberal Jews keep kosher and Shabbat as rigorously as their Orthodox brethren – for they share the conviction of Isaiah and Micah (and Merryn) that justice matters more. Yet most will continue to keep kosher and Shabbat, as part of their identity – precisely the identity out of which they feel they can contribute to that struggle for justice. Are they, and we, wrong to wrestle with the meaning of our identity, our history, our spirituality?
It may be, as Jeyan Anketell implies in his report on the day conference on Creeds, that the way these questions have been addressed in the past need refocusing today. And beyond liberal Western Christianity, as Merryn points out, questions of meaning may differ greatly from culture to culture, and some issues which seem highly relevant in one context may have little obvious resonance - perhaps even look like sheer distraction - in another. Yet surely Evelyn Underhill was not totally wrong in identifying a commonality across cultures in the ultimate spiritual quest, for human meaning. That quest is also reflected in Tim Belben's article about 'indwelling', which is ultimately mystical (yet ultimately practical) and not restricted to Christian believers or to religion as usually understood (for it may also relate to intimate human relationships).
I recently heard a Muslim speaker suggest that 'The best thing a Christian can do for Allah is to be a good Christian, and the best thing that a Muslim can do for Jesus is to be a good Muslim'. We need to reaffirm, and struggle with, our authentic identity – the beliefs and practices that make us what we are as liberal Christians – if we are to play our part in the great parliament of faiths and of all humanity. In which case, perhaps we are asking at least some of the right questions in the ongoing work of Modern Church including Ian Duffield's concerns below, which have been exercising us a good deal of late.
We aim to address our 'questioning' remit particularly in our Annual Conferences. I offer a very early plug for that planned for 2016, linking theology and Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. Put the dates (11-13 July) in your diary now! We are developing an especially exciting line-up, under Alison Milbank as Chair. Details will be available at this year's conference.
There was no shortage of questions at our residential Council meeting at the end of February, and those, too, were questions that matter. Our last annual conference reminded us, in no uncertain terms, that we liberal Christians 'have a gospel to proclaim', but how do we do it? We looked in depth at the various ways in which we communicate, from the blog to our conferences to our journals and to the possibility of producing some kind of course on liberal Christianity, on which our General Secretary is actively working.
Our President was able to be with us for part of the time, and to remind us that we are those who can communicate with ordinary people, the ones who are left cold by ecclesiastical game-playing, and who may not always either believe or belong in an approved fashion, but who, not being against the Gospel, should be recognized as at least potentially being open to it. She reminded us that 'religion' consists of belief, of ritual, and of everyday living, and it is in the latter that the faith may be most deeply embedded in our national DNA. This brings us interestingly back to the debate about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and perhaps challenges us to pay as much attention to lived reality as to theological argument.