Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 41 - Apr 2011

I concluded my editorial in the last edition of this newsletter by asking for ideas about how ordinary members of Modern Church might be enabled to become more active  and feel more involved. This editorial begins with an appeal, which I hope will answer that question for one of our readers somewhere! (And there will be others later.)

Not only does this edition, unusually enough, contain a book review, but there is another one in the pipeline. In fact we were sent no fewer than four books by various publishers, but not all  were judged suitable for review in this organ! Maybe publishers have woken up to the nature and extent of our circulation and decided that it is worthwhile sending us copies of more popular religious books  which might not be appropriate for review in Modern Believing.

That is good news, but getting people  to review books - especially amongst a scattered membership - takes a great deal of time. I am therefore appealing for a Reviews Editor. The job requires few skills other than an extremely general  theological understanding and, what is more important, an ability to network amongst the membership, based on attendance at past Annual Conferences and regular readership of this newsletter  and Modern Believing, but with the assurance of support from myself and other MC officers.  If anyone is interested, could they contact me as soon as possible, please?

I find it intriguing that, at a time when church membership is said to be declining and at least some church booksellers have been in trouble, the flow of publication of broadly religious books continues unabated. Presumably there really is a market out there, and it is not just amongst the more conservative. Does this reinforce Jonathan Clatworthy's argument,  in his article at the end of the last edition, that there is a turn away from unthinking secularity in our society? It should surely present an opportunity for Modern Church.

Indeed we are contributing to the flow, through two new series of publications. One of them, entitled Making Sense of Christianity, is more theological, looking at major Christian doctrines in a contemporary light, and the first two or three books in this series are expected by the summer.  The other is more popular, doing something a little similar but jointly with a number of other  liberal/radical Christian groups; the first-fruits are now available. As and when these appear, we will certainly need them to be reviewed honestly and objectively by members in these pages. So - another opportunity to get active.

From books to The Book; it cannot have escaped readers' notice that 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. (And incidentally 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of Honest to God, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.)  I suspect that many readers will not be natural fans of King James and would not expect Modern Church to be so either. It is true that, to modern eyes, much of the language seems opaque, and more recent scholarship has identified instances of inaccurate translation. Yet even in our secular society the King James Bible is deep in many people's DNA,  if only as a historically influential work in English literature. And often it is from that translation  that meaningful phrases come unbidden, to believer and non-believer alike.  When I read in January of the judgment passed on the hotelkeepers who refused a double bed to two men in a civil partnership, the phrase that came to me was "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light" (Luke 16:8). Whether Jesus actually said that (in Aramaic, presumably) or not, and whatever may really be meant by it, it rang true for me at that moment.

Dom Gregory Dix in The Shape of the Liturgy famously began a great purple passage on the meaning  of the Eucharist with the words "Was ever another command so obeyed?" We might well ask of the Bible (and in the English-speaking world that has mostly meant the King James) 'Was ever another text so read?'  It has been used, alas, to justify terror of many kinds. But it has also been used to forge nationhood, to energise slaves seeking their freedom and to bring down structures of apartheid, to free individuals from addictions, to inspire those in despair and fear, to generate some of the greatest art and music the world has ever known, and - despite its contrary usage in some quarters - to inspire the emancipation of women, gay people, the poor and other oppressed groups. And all of this alongside the basic day-by-day use of Word as of Sacrament (to quote Dix again): 'to make the plebs sancta Dei,  the holy common people of God'. This is our heritage, and indeed the heritage of all humanity. To misquote slightly the founder of the Salvation Army: 'Why should the fundamentalists have all the best tunes?' Why indeed? There are plenty of liberal/open Evangelicals, and for that matter liberal Catholics, and outright radicals of both traditions from Jim Wallis to Ernesto Cardenal, who in our time have taken Scripture with the utmost seriousness without falling into the fundamentalist trap. All their readings of the Bible, too, are part of our heritage.

I have rarely been as excited about an Annual Conference of Modern Church as I am  about this year's conference on the theme of reading the Bible today. Adrian Thatcher as Chair has assembled a fascinating agenda and a remarkable line-up of both experienced and younger scholars to explore all aspects of the topic. We are increasingly aware that reading a text is not a simple process; it has both individual and corporate, as well as historical, psychological and cultural dimensions. If we are to find 'the best tunes' we need all of these. The style of the conference will be much more interactive than usual, and will include a cabaret! If any members  are worried that MC conferences might be too intellectual for them, they should certainly try to come this year (though there is already a waiting list); we are a learned society and make no apologies for that, but, like the Bible itself, our conferences have something for everyone at every level, and the opportunity for networking with the like-minded is one of their most important features.

Few of our conferences (and even fewer editions of this newsletter) fail to name-check Richard Dawkins. This summer's conference, with John Barton as just one outstanding contributor, will be no exception.  The so-called New Atheists, with their own stream of often best-selling books, have surely done us a considerable service in making people take religious questions more seriously than they have for generations. Perhaps some of their readers will have been led, finally and definitively, to write off religion in general and Christianity in particular. But how many more may have been moved to ask whether there must be something in all this if it stirs up so much debate? How many may have been encouraged to ask whether there is a way of reading the Bible and the tradition of Christianity which makes sense  in this day and age and does not give all 'the best tunes' to the fundamentalists? To such people we offer another quote from King James: 'Come and see'. We are trying to make more places available at the conference; if you can't get in, there will at least be a full report (with audio) on the website in due course.

But why (some may ask) all this talk of books and conferences - old-style media - in the internet age?  Indeed MC is well aware that the written and spoken words are no longer the only channels of communication.  Our website has recently undergone a considerable revamp, and further substantial improvements are in hand. Much of the material on the website reproduces that which originates in other media (including this newsletter of course), but we are persuaded that there may be a case for more material specifically prepared to address hot topics which cannot wait for the slow business of dissemination in print; and we also need  to make more use of media such as blogs and Twitter. If we are to do this, however, then Dave Marshall and others involved in the website need some help - a sort of commissioning editor for such material. Is there anyone out there, please, who is in the loop of current thinking both theological and net-related?

Of making many books - and blogs and tweets - there is indeed no end, and MC is doing its share.  We hope that this short account of what is going on at the moment will encourage each reader to respond in whatever way appropriate. The number of letters later in this edition suggests that that response  is really taking off.


Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College  before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.