by Mary Taylor
from Signs of the Times No. 32 - Jan 2009

The council of the Modern Churchpeople's Union (MCU) met November 6 2010 in London's Docklands to develop a strategy for the defense of liberal theology.

Firmly opposed to the proposed Anglican covenant, the group plans to extend its network beyond England, improving links with the Episcopal Church, building branches in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, recruiting a range of ages and denominations, and increasing support among bishops and academic theologians.

The council members, many of them Church of England clergy, agreed that the organization will be re-branded, re-named, and re-constituted to reflect more fully its openness and diversity. Furthermore, the group decided that an administrator should be appointed and a system of working groups set up.

The Rev. John Plant, a parish priest in Warwickshire who chaired the MCU meeting, was joined by most of the council's 32 members, including the Rev. Jonathan Clatworthy, a Liverpool-based priest and MCU general secretary, and Professor Paul Badham, professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales and MCU vice president.

Founded in 1898, the organization was originally named The Churchmen's Union for the Advancement of Liberal Thought. This soon became The Churchmen's Union, then The Modern Churchmen's Union. The change to 'Churchpeople's' was an inevitable, though arguably belated, innovation in the 1980s.

The original aims and objectives - "to unite [those] who consider that dogma is capable of reinterpretation and restatement in accordance with the clearer perception of truth attained by discovery and research" -- are consistent with MCU's view 110 years on. Asked after the November 6 meeting how he would like to see MCU develop, Clatworthy said, "It is important to offer an account of Christianity which is consistent with modern scientific understandings of the world, open to new insights and constructive in its social and moral judgments."

In July, MCU members welcomed Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as a guest speaker at their conference, Saving the Soul of Anglicanism.

Among MCU's many supporters is the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop of the Church in Wales, who chaired the July conference in Hoddesdon, England, and is one of the organization's vice presidents. Speakers included the Rev. Canon Professor Marilyn McCord Adams, of Oxford University; the Rev. Canon Dr. Charlotte Methuen, of Oxford University; Bishop Michael Jackson of Clogher, Church of Ireland; Bishop Frank Griswold, 25th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; and Bishop Trevor Mwamba of Botswana.

Griswold told the July gathering that the search for truth is a communal one, and that "the Holy Spirit can do different things in different places."

Mwamba spoke of "delusions of grandeur" among some of the African primates and noted that many church members throughout the continent had not been consulted about issues of human sexuality, and were "frankly not bothered with the debate."

"Some of our primates act like ecclesiastical Mugabes," he said, making reference to Zimbabwe's tyrannical president who has led his country into a humanitarian crisis and financial collapse.

Speaking in opposition of the Anglican covenant, proposed as a way to maintain unity amid difference throughout the communion, Adams told the July gathering, "There is no single version of humanity within the church."

Badham, in his MCU booklet Liberal Anglicanism, argues that the church seems willing to "abandon two centuries of liberal scholarship and - in the case of homosexuality - to return to an ethic based on biblical taboo."


Mary Taylor is a freelance writer on religious affairs. She lives in Belfast, N Ireland.