Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 51 - Oct 2013

The heat was intense. The weather for our Annual Conference is usually good, but this year took the biscuit.

Some eighty people, not all of them members of Modern Church, sweltered through three days of debate. This summer has certainly made it easier to believe in global warming. And, as the environment was at the core of our debates, and speaker after speaker (some of them truly outstanding) took us through the facts and their implications, we became ever more aware of the heated urgency of action. I am sure that most of those attending have subsequently taken such action, whether on the political or the local/practical level or both.

The theological heat, too, could have been intense. As I suggested in the last issue, the use of Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology as a framework for environmental considerations is not, or perhaps ought not to be, uncontroversial in Modern Church circles. It was a testimony to her outstanding chairing of the Conference, to Dominic White’s gentle and gifted chaplaincy, and to the overwhelming nature of the environmental issues which we were addressing within that framework, that we did not get bogged down in theological argument. But there are arguments to be had, and I would especially welcome future contributions from those who attended on their reactions to that theological approach.

The heat most definitely was intense in terms of the organisation of Modern Church itself. The prospect of dealing with various unresolved differences within the organisation, and replacing the whole slate of officers resigning due to other commitments, health or age,, daunted many of us. For the Council and the Trustees this meant two full, hot afternoons of meetings over and above the conference sessions.

But what came out was as remarkable as the salvation of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Babylonian holocaust. And it was significant that the ancient canticle Benedicite, composed (as we are told) in the light of that salvation, became something of a leimotif of our worship and our debates.

There is no doubt that the conference itself can be judged a success. Those members who were put off, either by Temple Theology or by “yet another” conference on environmental issues, missed a treat. So much of our striving was put into a cosmic context which renewed our commitment to the covenant of Creation.

But what of Modern Church itself? We expected hard debates on our policies, and we got some. But in the end, we took some decisions which will secure our future. And every decision was unanimous.

First, all the officers were replaced. Three of them (Chair, Vice-Chair and Treasurer) by people already well known in the movement – respectively, Jan van der Lely, Tim Stead and Rosalind Lund. The fourth, and the most challenging – that of General Secretary – by a relative newcomer, Guy Elsmore, the incumbent of St Bride’s, a progressive church in Liverpool, who introduces himself more fully below. All these hit the ground running. Jan had to demonstrate her chairing skills fast – and she certainly did that. Tim contributed, not only much wisdom in the meetings, but also – in the entertainment on Wednesday evening – a reminder of why he is our star musical performer at Greenbelt. Rosalind’s commonsense, not only on money but on the world of publishing, came through in the meetings. And Guy, though alas unable to stay for the whole conference, made a big impression on all who met him and all to whom he listened.

Second, we agreed to contract with Liverpool University Press for the publication of Modern Believing, which will also involve their taking much of the burden of our membership administration – at a price, not only much lower than that of the proposed contract with Sage, but actually lower than our current costs of self-publishing. It is true that LUP is not a massive academic publisher like Sage, nor has it any presence as yet in the theological field. But, precisely for these reasons, they have made it abundantly clear that they really value our business, and will use every means available to market the journal for us – and that they have the right connections to do so.

There is still much work to be done to fill in the details, above all on the membership side, where Dave Marshall has resigned as Membership Secretary in preparation for the move to LUP. In particular, it is still probable that subscriptions will have to increase, because, as previous reports to the membership have made clear, we have been living beyond our means. The Trustees will be engaging with these issues, in a hopefully cooler (in every sense) meeting, at about the time that this edition appears.

Meanwhile, another piece of good news is that our just-retired General Secretary, Jonathan Clatworthy, is in fact still very much with us – now as editor of Modern Believing and in charge of the website, and continuing to make theological contributions on our blog and elsewhere. Nevertheless, he has laid down the reins of our key office after eleven years, and that is not insignificant. For a tribute to those eleven years, read the article below by Nicholas Henderson - also known as The Great Waldo, magician extraordinaire, who compered the Wednesday night entertainment, but here writing as a former Chair and General Secretary.

We also gained one new Trustee, Jeyan Anketell, another person well known in the movement who has already contributed to many theological debates, and does so again later in this edition.

And we benefited from the launch of two new and challenging books in the Making Sense series, by Paul Badham and Alan Race – respectively on life beyond death and on interfaith issues - who, in an unusual experiment, will be reviewing each other’s work, beginning with Paul’s review of Alan’s book in this edition.

While we are on the personalities in our movement, here is some news hot off the press: Helen-Ann Hartley, a member of the Editorial Board of Modern Believing, who spoke to our Annual Conference a couple of years ago and has subsequently been involved in theological education in New Zealand, has just been appointed to a bishopric in that Church. So 'one of our own' is the first-ever woman ordained in the Church of England to be consecrated to the episcopate. What a cause for rejoicing and congratulation. And all this at about the same time as the consecration of a woman bishop in Northern Ireland and the historic decision of the Church in Wales.

Phrases such as 'God is good' and 'What hath God wrought?' do not come lightly to the lips or keyboards of all Modern Church members. And we have had our problems about miracles from the very beginning. But the burning fiery furnace of those days at High Leigh does seem to have proved a crucible of something new, quite against the expectations of many.

So, without prejudice to the translation (here from the Jerusalem Bible), and however analogically or even non-realistically some may wish to use the words, let us raise the chorus:

Ananaiah, Azariah, Mishael! Bless the Lord;
Give glory and eternal praise to him;
For he has snatched us from the underworld;
Saved us from the hand of death;
Saved us from the burning fiery furnace;
Rescued us from the heart of the flame.

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.