Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 43 - Oct 2011

It was worth waiting for. Our Annual Conference on reading the Bible today lived fully up to expectations, and Adrian Thatcher is to be congratulated for the line-up of speakers, particularly those who addressed the mutual relevance of reading Scripture and reading film, art and literature.

In fact  the final session was so full and rich that Adrian never got a chance to offer his own afterword, and this is therefore included below, along with the impressions of one attender - and a sample of the offerings  at the Thursday evening cabaret! Later in the issue there are also reviews of the two new Modern Church books which were launched at the conference.

I have referred in the past to Rowan Williams' suggestion that we should read the Bible as we read Shakespeare. The latter did not appear much at the conference - waiting no doubt to pop up again at the 450th anniversary of his birth in 2014 - but we learnt a great deal about reading Charlotte Bronte, Martin Scorsese, and Caravaggio  and his modern imitators, to name but a few; and in the process we learnt how to approach Scripture with fresh eyes.  After wrestling contextually in the Conference with the story of Abraham, it was particularly refreshing  and encouraging for me, the following Sunday, to hear a sermon which wrestled (no pun intended) not dissimilarly  with the story of Jacob, and thus be reminded afresh of the deep wellsprings of our faith and our culture.

Alongside that, we perhaps learnt something about reading 'the signs of the times'. The Conference itself made little direct reference to the concurrent dramatic events in the world outside  - such as the fall of Murdoch - but it was filled with hope. Hope for Modern Church itself,  under the new presidency of John Barton, and with new blood on Council, and the prospect of Greenbelt  (on which also more below). Our membership and our finances are still at a lower level than they need to be,  but we are most certainly not in a management-of-decline mode. Hope, too, for the Church of England  and the Anglican Communion, as the movement towards women bishops gathers pace, and as the forces of resistance  to the Covenant muster. We know that our Church, as well as the wider world, is in a perennial mess;  but there is no shortage of green shoots, and I am often reminded of President Roosevelt's words  that we have nothing to fear except fear itself.

Many of those who have gone before us in Modern Church have contributed to those green shoots. In this issue we think especially of Donald Barnes, whose absence at the Conference left a gap that will not be quickly filled. The tributes from his wife Sally and others say what so many of us feel  about what we have inherited from him. Another of the forerunners, who was with us on this occasion  but almost certainly making his last visit, is David Edwards, whose input to theological thinking and publishing over the past half-century has been so phenomenal. Does the new phase of liberalism in the Church of England over that period, which Donald and David did so much to shape, have a chance  against the forces of various forms of fundamentalism? I come back yet again to the phrase I have often used  in these pages about the seven thousand who have not bent the knee to Baal. Of course, those  who are fortunate enough to worship in churches that bear the marks of that liberalism may romanticise  the situation in the rest of the Church. Others of our members, whose local circumstances are different,  must often feel as lonely as Elijah. But the green shoots are there for them as well.

So often in the Conference we were struck by surprising resonances between faith and culture. And surprise is what it is all about. Tolkien, who did get a look-in as one might expect from Alison Milbank, is a surprising  source of inspiration for Modern Churchpeople, but his arguments about our human "stories" reflecting  the deepest truths at the heart of things were amply illustrated.

Surprise, too, is the only possible response  to the fact that public revulsion at a few seriously over-the-top pieces of investigative journalism could bring down a whole media kingdom. And whatever 'really' happened on that first Easter morning, a source of bewilderment and doubt for so many of us, was and is surely the greatest surprise of all.

Are we, especially the most uneasy and uncertain amongst us, open to surprise? Are we able (to quote another unlikely mentor) to be 'surprised by joy' in the midst of all that depresses us about Church and world? And do we know how to read that surprise when it comes?

Donald Barnes, as Sally's tribute makes so very clear, certainly knew how to do that. He was  infinitely capable both of surprise and of joy. That is how he did so much to transform our Church.

And now it is our turn.


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.