by Lucinda Murphy and Carolann Martys
from Signs of the Times No. 55 - Oct 2014
The 2014 Modern Church Conference opened with a simple instruction. Chair, Martyn Percy incited us to ‘do some soul searching’, to find the ‘centre’ of our spirituality.
To a room full of liberally minded academic types, this appeared like a seemingly simple instruction with an almost certainly indefinite answer. ‘Right’, I thought, ‘very meaningful, but here we are again, circling round and round our souls with no definite conclusion.’ But I was wrong.
‘Liberal’ as the conference was, one conclusion, at least, was reached. But it was a conclusion which led to more intense searching rather than definite absolutism. What was this conclusion? Well, it was actually also a premise; a premise for our conference, but also hopefully a premise for our own spiritual lives and the spiritual life of Modern Church and of the wider Church. This premise, this centre, this conclusion, is not tolerance, or inclusivity, or modernity, or even liberalism itself, but in Martyn Percy’s introductory words, ‘nothing less than the mad, passionate, all-embracing, far-reaching love of God’.
So, we had indeed been going round in circles. These were not entrapping circles like the Buddhist circle of Dukkha described by John Peacocke but the kind of circles some of us discovered later on that week in Jan van der Lely’s excellent introduction to the labyrinth. Physically walking the labyrinth, engaging in active discussion and worshipping together in silent prayer, we explored a rich form of meditation, a transforming kind of spirituality, ever moulding, ever questioning and never still. Each premise led us to a conclusion, a pause point; each conclusion gently guided us back out of the circle to a deeper premise. But what kind of spirituality is this? The conference concluded it was a spirituality with liberality at its core, a spirituality in which it is ok to ask questions, ok to doubt and ok to be creative, to turn the familiar into the disturbingly unfamiliar.
As in the parable of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, we found spirituality can radiate from those we least expect; whether from Generation A, Generation Y, conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, or Grace Davie’s ‘centre ground’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’. This was illustrated particularly well in the stunning film As It Is In Heaven. Here, spirituality did not come from the expected; the priest or the self-righteous parishioner. It came from the disenchanted, demotivated, depressed stranger, from the woman severely abused by her husband, from the scorned retarded child and from a girl perceived by some to be nothing more than a whore. And this is not new. This kind of liberal love began, as Martyn Percy indicated, with Jesus Christ himself.
The conference set out to explore the ‘spiritualities’ of the 21st century. By its conclusion, many of us had found that the very act of searching through these spiritualities had in fact led us on our own liberating spiritual meditation. In answer to the conference title, our spirits were indeed liberated. The Spirit that liberated and is liberating and will liberate them, I think we can all safely agree, in the most ‘liberal’ way possible, remains ambiguously and tantalisingly ungraspable. It is one of the things, as Mark Oakley explained, we never knew we never knew. But, for all that we don’t know about it, what we can know is that we desperately want to know it, whatever it may be.
But rather wonderfully, it is this agonising, abundant but astonishing want which transforms us by the Spirit, inspires us to care for our neighbour and our world and moulds us as conduits of God’s lavish love.
I thought it was, as usual, an excellent conference in a perfect venue. Some speakers – in particular Martyn Percy and Mark Oakley – were excellent. Mark’s content and delivery were outstanding.
Unfortunately, I felt the women speakers let it down somewhat. Mostly by their delivery. If the delivery is not good, it is not easy to appreciate the content. Some read their papers in a flat monotone, not allowing for any modulation - yet there was an animation in their delivery when answering questions. Another, by contrast, was greatly over-animated and rather repetitive in delivering her paper. As a professional speech and drama teacher, I can tell you there are very easy techniques to deal with this sort of thing.