Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 46 - Jul 2012

This edition appears at about the same time as our Annual Conference, which is an attempt to tackle in new ways the issues of gender and leadership in the Church and in society.

A phrase that turns up from time to time in the conference literature is 'the difference "difference" makes'. At the time of writing I wait intrigued to see whether this is simply another argument that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, in the boardroom and (soon, we pray) in the House of Bishops. I suspect it will go much deeper than the superficial arguments about how men and women are programmed to act in different ways. 

But as John Milbank has pointed out in a seminal article on same-sex marriage the issue of 'difference' is something almost unmentionable in current debates. Is 'marriage' a concept  only relevant to relationships between a man and a woman because of that difference? Whilst he would not readily identify as a liberal, John is wholly supportive of committed physical and emotional relationships between same-sex couples; but he argues that marriage is ultimately about the linking of two families (not simply individuals) into one, normatively in the context of the bearing of children - something which same-sex couples can only venture on, if at all, through some form of surrogacy. Many will read that as a rather conservative argument, and indeed some of the responses  to John's article are highly critical of his essentialist assumptions about the nature of marriage. But that does not mean that the argument can be simply ignored.

David Simon, in his article below (used for promoting discussions on same-sex marriage in Cartmel Deanery), begins, not from religious dogma or even cultural norms but from evolution - which, as Maria von Trapp might say, is a very good place to start. Approaches to sexual ethics based exclusively on evolutionary biology and psychology raise many questions, as he acknowledges; but approaches which totally ignore these dimensions in favour of dogma (or cultural norms masquerading as dogma) are also likely to go wrong. And that is equally true whether the dogma in question is about Biblical images of marriage, gender and sexuality or about contemporary assumptions regarding equality (sameness?) between women and men, gay and straight. Modern Church, like David, has always taken science seriously, most of all when the Church has failed to do so (as it has, for the most part, in the gay debate so far). Science, biological or social, will not in itself solve the conundrums surrounding same-sex marriage or similar issues, but it is a dimension to be taken seriously.

Clearly, there are certain physical and biological differences between women and men; though even these are by no means as clear-cut as has historically been assumed; one of our own Council members, Susannah Cornwall, has been at the forefront of research into the theological implications of intersex and transgender. When it comes to looking at mental, emotional,  or sociological factors, or the ethical implications of any of these, the picture is even more complex. And when this is overlaid by apparently a priori theological assertions  about difference, the waters become so muddied that we enter them at our peril. There are several distinct but confused levels of debate going on here,  and they have been as influential in the women bishops issue as in that of gay marriage.  An important task for Modern Church may be to bring some rationality into this complexity, and in that context I would commend the statement on our website about the latest version  of the women bishops Measure. It remains to be seen what decisions will be taken at General Synod  this time round, and where we go from here to equip our Church for effective witness  in a century where old shibboleths about difference make little sense to the majority.

The Anglican Covenant debate, which inevitably figures very largely in these pages, was also about difference - not simply the gay issue again, though of course that was the elephant in the room of many Diocesan Synods, but about how far the Anglican Communion can tolerate diversity on any issue. Stephen Parsons' article in particular will ring bells  for many Modern Church members. As we look towards the appointment of a new Archbishop  who we pray might lead us in the best traditions of classic Anglicanism (see Jonathan Clatworthy's  submission to the Crown Appointments Commission on the Modern Church website,  and Nicholas Henderson's article below), we long for someone who can transcend generational as well as other differences and, not least, separate the wheat from the chaff in postmodern culture. As one who is fortunate to be a member of a self-confident  though not complacent parish congregation, I believe that the sheer lack of confidence  within the Church of England - fuelled by an obsession with numbers in pews and a failure to see what God is doing in the world - has a lot to answer for when it comes to the growth of sectarianism. Our Church is a community of differences - a microcosm of the wider Church  and of society as a whole. The supreme challenge for a new Archbishop is to hold those differences,  and hold them creatively.

On a more domestic note, I can report some of the highlights of the Standing Committee meeting in May. Most of the discussion was about our sister journal Modern Believing and how we can increase  its impact. One of the decisions was the offer of an essay prize for younger writers (see further below).  A rather different topic related to the economics of our Annual Conferences; they are extremely low-priced compared to most such events of a similar standard, the costs are not getting any less, and it is likely that conference-goers from next year may have to pay a little more (as well as being invited  to 'sponsor a student') - but more of that in a future edition.

And finally, quite unconnected to the conference finance issue, our Treasurer Richard Hall reminded us that at some time in the future (not this year) he would need to step down, and Standing Committee needed to do some 'succession planning'. Therefore, as members consider whether to stand for Council at this year's AGM (and please do, and let Christine Alker know before the meeting), we need to make a particular appeal to any of who have relevant skills and interests which might in the long term help Modern Church to manage its fairly simple finances.

Perhaps that rather mundane appeal is not so out of place in an editorial on 'difference'. After all, the classic text for grappling with diversity in unity - the differences that difference makes, and the differences that it does not make - is 1 Corinthians 12. It is important that members use their diverse gifts in the service of Modern Church; and somewhere out there, there is a future new Treasurer.


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.