Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 55 - Oct 2014

Some 45 years ago I attended a conference on Christian education in schools. It was there that a bishop, giving the keynote address, introduced me to the words of Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant;
Success in circuit lies.

In other words, in schools (including denominational ones) and otherwise, we need to get across the Gospel – however we understand it – more by indirect than by direct means.

During the summer there was something of a debate in the Church Times about evangelism. An article by the Archbishops’ adviser on evangelism claimed that too many churches were treating as an optional extra something which is classically regarded as a fundamental obligation. Some of us wrote in reply suggesting the need for a far more tentative approach to this issue. In turn, we were castigated in the letters column for personally attacking the author of the article (a really rather bizarre misinterpretation) and/or for ‘failing to set forth Jesus Christ’ and being in thrall to the English reticence about religious matters.

Well, we do have good news to tell – but what is it, and how do we tell it? What do we mean by ‘setting forth Jesus Christ’; setting forth whom, and as what?

Some people appear to know exactly who Jesus was and is, and exactly what his significance is to the world – including those of other faiths and spiritualities, a matter of perennial concern to members of Modern Church. Alan Race has explored that issue in his recent book on interfaith issues for Modern Church, and will be doing so again in next year’s Annual Conference, as Guy Elsmore is doing in his series of articles for this newsletter; but there are different theological views even within our organisation let alone in the wider Church. Then as to key categories in the ‘good news’ such as atonement, resurrection and eternal life, there is at least an equal range of convictions and questions. And as to the social and political implications of all this – not least, perhaps, in the area of environmental concern which was addressed in our 2013 Conference and surfaced again this year – there is yet more scope for debate and searching.

In the very week of the exchange of letters in the Church Times, I was engaged in parish discussions about a vision statement under our new incumbent. My suggestions as it happened ‘set forth Jesus Christ’ very clearly indeed, but did not go on to define what that might mean in any narrow doctrinal terms; rather, they focused on values such as inclusivity and community within the context of the Christian tradition and above all Eucharistic worship. These values do give a message, but they ‘tell it slant’. Diverse people and groups apprehend them in diverse ways. Perhaps this is the ‘English reticence about religion’, but, if so, it is an approach deeply rooted in the traditions of the Church of England.

Many of us would want to echo John Goodchild’s views below on the Eucharist which supplement his views on the nature of liberal faith set out in our last edition. We are told by St Paul (not inerrantly of course!) that in that rite we ‘show forth the Lord’s death’ – five little words jam-packed with meaning. But in the rite itself, and in the many acts of inclusivity and community which lead to it and spring from it, we ‘tell it slant’, and let the actions speak louder than words.

There is a place for words, of course, and the Ministry of the Word is crucial as the first part of the Eucharist. But even the words – the sometimes opaque Biblical passages, and the preaching which emerges from them – ‘tell it slant’. Yet they are still evangelistic in the truest sense. ‘Telling it slant’ is not the same as failing to tell it at all; but it is very different from the black-and-white approach which the word ‘evangelism’ all too often conjures up. We do not claim a perfect knowledge of who this Jesus is or what he has done; and we find that some of the claims of others arouse in us the reaction ‘We have not so learned Christ’. The good news is that we know enough to show that following him is worthwhile.  

I could perhaps, at this point, discourse upon the relationship between ‘the Jesus of history’ and ‘the Christ of faith’ – but that would need a few more pages! Instead, I invite you to consider a few quotations from the period in which my faith such as it is, was formed. Here are some words attributed to the Jerusalem priests in Jesus Christ Superstar:

He’s just another Scripture-thumping hack from Galilee.
The difference is, they call him King:
the difference frightens me.

Or by contrast, but at least equally allusive, David Jenkins’ immortal soundbite:

God is as he is in Jesus,
and therefore we have hope.

Or John Robinson’s summing-up:

The good news [demonstrated by Jesus] is not just that Love ought to be the centre and meaning of the universe, but that it actually is.

Perhaps we do not all agree even on such statements as these. Yet we seek, and sometimes we find; and that is good news; and in various ways we tell it slant, and sometimes others catch on.

And so to the contribution to Modern Church’s mission made by this year’s Annual Conference and AGM. Others below give a flavour (and there will be further relevant material in future editions) but it was surely one of the best for many years. Martyn Percy’s chairmanship drew together a remarkable range of contributions, drawing on sociology as well as theology and pastoral practice, to help us understand what a liberal Christian spirituality might be – and left us in no doubt that, as John Goodchild argued in our last edition, we do have a gospel to proclaim, a gospel of utterly generous and inclusive love; that our so-called secular society may well be more receptive to that than we imagine; but that a deepening of our inner life, as individuals, as parishes and as Modern Church itself, was the pre-requisite of such proclamation. And might, indeed, be a large part of its content. We wrestled with the problem that our gospel is, as one participant put it, ‘not tweetable’; it cannot be summed up in neat dogmatic soundbites – but for that very reason, though harder to communicate, might be more attractive to those who know that answers to the deep questions of the human condition are never simple. We wrestled too with the paradox that we were called to be inclusive even of those whose dogmatism excluded us, and yet must never be afraid of speaking the truth and condemning whatever was life-denying in some parts of the Church. Of all the inputs to the conference, perhaps the richest was Emma Percy’s paper on mothering and particularly breastfeeding as a metaphor for spirituality and for ministry; even those of us who have the deepest doubts, and the greatest unhealed bitterness whether about the Church or otherwise, could not fail to be moved and renewed.

Another presentation was about Mindfulness, and the relationship between the original Buddhist version and its ‘secularisation’ today. At this point I cannot resist telling a story. Twenty years ago, elements of ‘spirituality’ were very common in the world of business and management education. Some of that, perhaps, was a conscious or unconscious cover-up for capitalism red in tooth and claw. I am not sure that all of it was – or is. When I left the Civil Service, I was sent on a pre-retirement day. I assumed it would be all about the practicalities; in fact it was mainly about what I can only call the spirituality of retirement. At one point we were taken on a guided meditation into the Arthurian legend, the Holy Grail and the Chapel Perilous!   In the latter, we were told, we would find someone important to us (in my case it was a woman priest friend), and we were invited to ask them one question. I had just come out of a serious relationship, so I asked her: ‘Will I ever find someone to take the place of my beloved X?’ Very clearly, she said ‘Yes – but wait.’ Well, I waited. And I found what I sought. What, I wonder, does that say about the relationship between ‘secular spirituality’ and faith? Answers on a postcard please.

At the AGM, we gained two new Council members (Tom Keates, Hugh Rock), and the Council then elected several new Trustees (Lorraine Cavanagh, Anthony Freeman, Ruth Fitter and Trevor Pitt). Linda Woodhead in her absence was elected President by acclamation; equally acclaimed was a spontaneous nomination to add Martyn Percy to our honoured list of Vice-Presidents. The absence through illness of our General Secretary Guy Elsmore (now happily back in harness) somewhat limited our discussions of the future; however, areas of progress were very evident, and not least in our revamped website for which Kieran Bohan must be thanked. Moreover there was a clear call for more opportunities to gather together as liberal Christians – and the upcoming day conference in Lichfield (notice repeated below) can be seen as one response to that. There was, too, good news about our planned 2015 conference (details attached at the end of this edition) – and I can separately report that those of us involved in the 2016 conference, honouring the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, are also making great though still early strides in the planning. And finally there were present several new and often younger people who we hope will be drawn into membership and in various ways contribute to our further activities (as some already are – see Greenbelt report below).

Yet perhaps the most powerful way in which the very experience of Modern Church can ‘tell it slant’ is the fact that, over the past year, we seem to have overcome real divisions and threats and pain within our ranks, and risen up again to respond to the needs of the Church and the world in an age which, as Martyn Percy and Linda Woodhead have made clear, is not irredeemably secularist and is more than ready for an effective gospel of reconciliation. Meditating on that experience, we can only speak of the grace of God.