Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 64 - Jan 2017
Our last edition went to press just as we heard of the death of someone who, though not active in Modern Church, had a truly significant impact on us and on the whole Church.
I refer, of course, to David Jenkins.
Jonathan Clatworthy posted some thoughts at the time on the Modern Church blog - I would merely add that I was privileged to be taught by David during his time at Oxford in the 1960s, and that has stayed with me as a formative influence. The depth of his theological knowledge, as well as the unsparing honesty of his approach, took his students far beyond any superficial faith, whether based on unthinking ‘orthodoxy’ or on an uncritical response to John Robinson and ‘South Bank religion’.
Despite the controversies which, largely through lack of understanding, were pinned to him in his later years as a Bishop, he has left a legacy of a kind which all too few theologians or church leaders can claim in these times, of a faith at once deeply committed, deeply informed, and deeply questioning. A legacy which we in Modern Church are bound to pass on to future generations, however despairing we may at times be - especially, perhaps, after recent events in the USA - of the future, not just of our Church but of our society and our planet.
Modern Church’s trustees have been wrestling with what that might mean for our priorities as an organisation. Like the wider Church of England, our membership is getting older, and, although we have a healthy inflow of new members most years, they are barely sufficient to replace those whom we lose - but our people are our basic resource. We have only just enough income to meet our routine commitments as an organisation, though we do have considerable historic reserves. We face better-resourced organisations representing other, currently more influential and very different trends in Christian faith and practice, and we need to be able to dialogue with, or where necessary oppose, their positions. We can do that, and punch far above our weight in defence of what we believe – but only if we are better organised to do so, within the constraints of our constitution as a learned society and not strictly a campaigning organisation!
The appointment last summer of our General Secretary Guy Elsmore as Archdeacon of Buckingham presents wonderful opportunities but also new challenges. He has indicated that he has now too little time to do the job of General Secretary in a proactive way as it should be done. Trustees are examining ways of providing extra support for the post to make such a proactive approach more possible. As an interim measure, they have agreed that Lorraine Cavanagh should be designated Acting General Secretary until the next AGM, to be confirmed at Council in March, and that a new General Secretary should be formally appointed in July.
Whoever serves in such a role will certainly need more support than we have been able to give to Guy. That will mean identifying and using more effectively the talents that exist within our membership and especially within Trustees and Council. But it may also mean dipping into our reserves, over a strictly finite period, to finance new ways of doing things, in particular in the area of communications, and possibly offering an honorarium to a General Secretary with this more demanding role. If this were to lead to a step-change in Modern Church’s place within the spectrum of church-related societies, we would eventually have to consider whether we could afford to carry on at such a higher level – ideally with a lot of new members, but quite possibly asking existing members or other supporters to contribute more money. A few more legacies (financial) would certainly help us in handing on the legacy (spiritual).
At worst, all this could prove to be a last desperate throw of the dice in defence of liberal faith within our Church. At best, it could rejuvenate the liberal voice which spoke so loudly and influentially in David Jenkins and others of his generation, and help the Church to recover its inclusive destiny.
By the grace of God, we may hope and pray that the former will not happen. Some current trends in the Church may not be not quite as powerful as they look. There are many points of genuine growth with integrity at the grassroots, and many who are pursuing their mission in more generous ways than the official ideologies would suggest. Not all would self-identify as ‘liberal’, and even fewer may see any immediate reason to join Modern Church, yet in spirit they share our values, and ‘those who are not against us are for us’.
All this, too, replicates the experience of the Church itself. Regular numbers in the pews may be gently ageing and declining (though by no means everywhere). But the influence on society may far exceed what those numbers would suggest, and that can become particularly manifest at times of personal or communal crisis and transition, and at seasons such as Christmas. Our former President John Saxbee, whose influential voice returns to us in this edition as a book reviewer, has much to say in No Faith in Religion (O Books 2009) about the vicarious nature of explicit faith and regular worship and common life, on behalf of those who do not and perhaps cannot fully share in it themselves. If the Church has such a vicarious role in society, our organisation may in turn have a vicarious role in the Church. But we do have an obligation to increase our impact, and this is what currently preoccupies the Trustees. Only so will we be faithful to David Jenkins and all our forebears in the approach to Christian faith we represent.
Much of this edition is devoted to our recent day conference in the south-west: ‘Do we need a new Reformation?’ That theme, picking up on this year’s 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, is very much one which would have rejoiced David’s heart. Going back to that earlier Reformation, was Luther a great prophet whose message still resonates, or a (perhaps chronically constipated) nationalist, blind to any spiritual riches beyond his own little world, and in thrall to Realpolitik? Was he, as Giles Fraser argued in a recent Guardian article, a hero of freedom of speech, or, as held by one of our corresponding members in Australia in a recent Church Times letter, a villain of anti-Semitism? The answer, no doubt, is both – and we may as a community be equally flawed, but equally gifted. And the posting of his 95 Theses certainly changed the course of history. Our conference was not large in numbers, and attracted little publicity (despite John Saxbee’s promotion of it in the Church Times), but it was significant in this ‘day of small things’ for liberalism within the Church, and may yet prove equally epoch-making.
In addition to John’s review of the controversial book recently co-authored by Linda Woodhead (our current President) and Andrew Brown, I am also glad to include a review by Council member David Simon of Robert Reiss’ Sceptical Christianity, which has generated much correspondence in the Church Times following a rather dismissive review there by the Bishop of Worcester. All those who speak and write against what looks like anti-liberal material, and in favour of those such as Reiss who seek to maintain the liberal vision, are contributing mightily to the mission of Modern Church. There seems to be some resurgence in the publication of books which challenge the ecclesiastical and theological status quo.
Yet again, alas, another feature of this edition is the remembrance of those in our own membership who have gone before us, and whose legacy is also powerful. The last edition briefly reported the death of Paddy Lewin, a long-standing Council member and former General Secretary whom Jonathan Clatworthy here recalls. For health reasons, we had seen little of him for some time.